The EU's 28 foreign ministers unanimously agreed today (22 July) to put the armed wing of Hezbollah on its list of terrorist organisations, but made it clear that it would maintain contact with all political parties in Lebanon, including the Hezbollah party, which is part of the country’s government.
Ministers took the decision at a foreign affairs council after some EU countries with troops in Lebanon or with sizeable communities there felt reassured by the proposed wording of the text, which also includes a review of sanctions against Hezbollah’s military wing in six months’ time.
Britain has spearheaded efforts to impose sanctions on Hezbollah, saying it has evidence that the group was involved in the terrorist attack in the coastal Bulgarian city of Burgas a year ago, which killed five Israelis and their driver (see background). Hezbollah denies any involvement in the attack.
Many EU countries had resisted pressure from the United States and Israel to put Hezbollah on the bloc's terrorist list, over concerns that it could destabilise Lebanon. But the involvement of the Shiite group in Syria, alongside forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, has apparently shifted the lines in recent weeks.
Information regarding a foiled terrorist attack in Cyprus similar to the one perpetrated in Bulgaria also added to the pressure to blacklist Hezbollah.
"It is good that the EU has decided to call Hezbollah what it is, a terrorist organisation," Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said on the sidelines of the ministerial meeting.
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin told journalists that ministers had decided that the absence of a decision would be worse than blacklisting Hezbollah.
“Part of the countries were initially sceptical, but not because of lack of evidence or doubts concerning the evidence available, but because of concerns over the repercussion of this decision on the stability of Lebanon,” he said. He stressed that the blacklisting of Hezbollah would not be an obstacle to dialogue with “all parties in Lebanon”, as well to legitimate financial transfers to the government and humanitarian assistance.
Vigenin admitted however that the Burgas bombing had affected today's decision. The investigation into the bombing was still ongoing, he said, but it was impossible to predict when prosecutors would be ready to press charges against specific individuals.
He said the United States was collaborating, and had swiftly answered to a Bulgarian request for legal assistance concerning the fake US documents held by one perpetrator who died in the blast. Information linked the documents’ falsifiers to Hezbollah, he said.
Pressed to provide details of the sanctions that could be adopted against Hezbollah, Vigenin said these would be formulated at a later date. He admitted that ministers had raised questions over how to distinguish between Hezbollah's political and military wings.
Hezbollah functions both as a political party that is part of the Lebanese government and as a militia with thousands of armed guerrillas.
Lebanon's caretaker foreign minister, Adnan Mansour, was quoted as saying that the decision was "hasty" and could lead to further sanctions against the movement that would complicate Lebanese politics.
"This will hinder Lebanese political life in the future, especially considering our sensitivities in Lebanon," he told Reuters. "We need to tighten bonds among Lebanese parties, rather than create additional problems."
The Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday welcomed the European Union's decision to label Hezbollah's military wing as a terror organisation, but criticised the distinction made between the armed and political wings of the group.
"Israel sees Hezbollah as a unified organization with no distinction between its wings," Netanyahu said. "I hope the decision will bring about significant steps against the organization," he said, as quoted by the daily Haaretz.
Charles Tannock MEP, Conservative foreign affairs spokesman in the European Parliament, commended UK Foreign Secretary William Hague for having made “a compelling case that has led the EU to take action”. "Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians both in the EU and beyond. […] It is imperative that we stand against those groups who side with Iran and threaten Israel and support the Assad regime in Syria in its commission of war crimes. In an uncertain Middle East, we cannot show any signs of weakness in our policy towards Tehran and Damascus backed acts of aggression. This EU terrorist designation will make it more difficult for Hezbollah to raise funds in Europe for its activities.”
The World Jewish Congress welcomed the decision as a “major breakthrough”. WJC President Ronald S. Lauder called it “a long overdue step that is very significant because it could help to dry up sources of funding for this organization in Europe.” Lauder said that while the distinction between a military and a political wing was an artificial one, because Hezbollah had a single command structure, “it will nonetheless have a positive impact if strongly enforced by all EU member nations.”