Why the E.U. Blacklisted Hizballah’s Military Wing but Not Hizballah Itself

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Sharif Harim / REUTERS

Center: Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, escorted by his bodyguards, greets his supporters at an anti-U.S. protest in Beirut's southern suburbs, on Sep. 17, 2012

Drawing a distinction that Hizballah itself does not, the foreign ministers of the 28 member states of the E.U. on Monday voted to list the Lebanese Islamist group’s military wing as a terrorist organization, while leaving unaffected what the E.U. called the political wing of the Lebanese militia. The decision challenged the group’s organizational understanding of itself, as described by Hizballah’s second-in-command during a speech last October: “We don’t have a military wing and a political one,” Naim Qassem declared in Beirut. “We don’t have Hizballah on one hand and the resistance party on the other. Every element of Hizballah, from commanders to members as well as our various capabilities, are in the service of the resistance and we have nothing but the resistance as a priority,” Qassem said.

Be that as it may, the E.U. found it useful to detect a distinction. Ever since Hizballah operatives were linked to the July 2012 bombing of a tourist bus filled with Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, an E.U. member state, the E.U. has been under pressure to join the U.S. in designating the organization a terrorist group. The pressure only increased when Cyprus, another E.U. country, put on trial a Swedish-Lebanese man who described working for Hizballah; his duties included scouting Israeli tourists for possible attacks in the Mediterranean nation, he said in court.

But under E.U. rules, all 28 member states would have to agree to designate Hizballah a terrorist organization, and it was clear that not all would. So a compromise was found — one that suits the political reality of the situation if not the physical one. “I think it’s a political move,” says Benedetta Berti, an expert on Hizballah at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank. Hizballah, which was formed by Iran in the early 1980s to fight Israeli forces that had invaded Lebanon, is patently a military organization. It has planned and carried out highly disciplined terrorist attacks and has mustered uniformed forces en masse, including reportedly sending in battalions of fighters across the border to Syria to aid the embattled regime of President Bashar Assad.

But it is also a political party, one prominent in the coalition that governs Lebanon. Proscribing the whole of Hizballah as a terrorist group would make it very difficult for the E.U. to deal with, say, the Lebanese parliament, according to Berti. “Then any type of political, bilateral cooperation would be risky, because it could be challenged on the grounds that the government includes terrorists,” she says. “The people who decided to take this route are not naive.”

Another reported concern was the safety of European troops serving in the U.N. peacekeeping force assigned to the buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon. Nations with soldiers wearing blue helmets were concerned that their troops might be vulnerable to reprisals if Hizballah had been designated a terrorist group. Others were concerned about becoming vulnerable to possible reprisal attacks inside their own nations, says Jonathan Spyer, a fellow at IDC Herzliya’s Global Research in International Affairs Center, north of Tel Aviv. “It’s kind of wonderfully paradoxical,” Spyer says. “They fear calling Hizballah a terrorist organization for fear it’ll carry out a terrorist attack.”

As it stands, the group will remain free to do what it has been doing in Europe — mostly, raising money. Hizballah fundraising on the continent, and especially in Germany, is so crucial to the group that Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic cleric who sits atop the organization, has warned that being designated a terrorist group “would dry up the sources of finance, end moral, political and material support, stifle voices.”

Instead, the E.U. decision states that “legitimate financial transfers” will be allowed to continue, according to Agence France-Presse, with the burden of proving they are intended for terror activities apparently falling upon law enforcement. At that point, funds can be frozen, and individuals denied visas to enter Europe.

“For sure this is a very bad day for Hizballah,” says Spyer. “But it leaves a very large loophole.”

It might also be a loophole that will eventually be snugged tight by events. “Basically, with [the Palestinian extremist group] Hamas there was the same distinction drawn between the military wing and the political wing,” Berti notes. “At the peak of the second intifadeh the E.U. decided the distinction wasn’t valid anymore and combined the two. So there’s that precedent.”