The Central European Case for an EU Hezbollah Ban
By Sebastian Rejak
The European Union must finally decide how to treat Islamic Hezbollah. And stop pretending that the "Party of God" is divided into "politicians" and “soldiers". The former can act legally, the latter cannot - because they are terrorists who “specialize" in bombings, including suicide ones. It is time to recognize that Hezbollah is one organization. A terrorist organization - writes Sebastian Rejak*.
The birth of a demon
In 1982, Lebanon was plunged into the chaos of civil war. For many years, there have been clashes between the South Lebanon Army dominated by Christian Maronites and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Shiites from southern Lebanon often fought in Maronite troops. Right-wing pan-Arab groups, the Lebanese Communist Party and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party also operated in various areas of the country. As PLO grew in power in southern Lebanon, the Shiite population prevailing there felt more and more alienated. The conflict between PLO and Israel further aggravated Shiites’ frustration. Actually, it was a war of everyone against everyone.
Then Iran entered the scene. It inspired the unification of various Shiite militias, which were trained by around 1,500 Revolutionary Guards, the most loyal unit of the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini. That's how the "Party of God", or Hezbollah, was created. Its mission was military from the beginning; it was mainly about fueling and provoking a conflict with Israel on behalf of Iran. The intention of the Iranian mullahs regime was to make Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Assistance in spreading the Islamic revolution in the region (primarily in countries inhabited at least partly by Shiites) was to be one of its goals.
A leader among terrorist movements
Hezbollah is one of the most powerful modern organizations conducting asymmetrical military operations. It has “specialized" in carrying out bombings (including suicide ones) and kidnappings. In 1983 alone, over 360 people were killed in bomb attacks on the American embassy and the French and American bases in Beirut. Two years later, Hezbollah carried out a series of attacks in Paris, in which 13 people were killed and over 300 injured. In 1992, 29 people were killed and 242 injured in an attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. Another attack (1994) also took place in the Argentine capital, and its target was the AMIA Jewish community center. 80 people were killed and over 300 injured.
It would seem Hezbollah may be a dangerous organization, but it targets rather exotic places. Well, maybe with some exceptions. Not true. Over the past 26 years, Hezbollah has attacked or attempted to attack many objects in Europe, including in its central part.
In 2012, five Israeli tourists were killed in a suicide bombing at the Bulgarian airport in Burgas. In 2015 alone, two Hezbollah members - who together accumulated over 11 tons of ammonium nitrate, the primary ingredient in many explosives - were arrested in Cyprus and London.
Looking at the same thing, seeing something different
In response to the attack in Burgas, the European Union entered Hezbollah on the list of terrorist organizations. Or rather its part - the so-called military wing. Therefore, the effectiveness of this decision is only partial. In the vast majority of EU Member States Hezbollah can freely operate as a political organization. The division into military and political wings, however, is completely artificial and unjustified. One can speak of Hezbollah's political activity after 1990, when the civil war in Lebanon came to an end. Only then did it begin to participate in parliamentary elections. It was even involved in several government coalitions. However, it never gave up armed operations.
Hezbollah as a whole is considered a terrorist organization not only by Israel or the United States (which is not surprising), but also by Argentina, the Netherlands, Honduras, Canada, Colombia, Paraguay and Great Britain as well as the League of Arab States and the Gulf Cooperation Council (sic!). Moreover, organizational unity and one leadership are not questioned even by Hezbollah leaders themselves. Naim Qassem, deputy secretary-general of the party, admitted explicitly: “We don’t have a military wing and a political one; we don’t have Hezbollah on one hand and the resistance party on the other... Every element of Hezbollah, from commanders to members as well as our various capabilities, are in the service of the resistance.”
The German government also recognized entire Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. This resulted in a decision announced on April 30 this year to ban all forms of the organization’s activity on German territory. Why has its activity in Germany been banned rather than the organization itself being delegalized? Because the latter legal instrument is reserved for entities that have formal structures registered in Germany. But banning all forms of activity can be applied to members or activists of an organization registered abroad. The real legal effect is actually the same.
Moreover, on the basis of the German government's decision, all assets accumulated by members of the terrorist organization on German territory (Hezbollah has over a thousand of them there) are subject to confiscation regardless of the fact that they operated under the cover of political or cultural institutions. The financial aspect of Berlin's decision is not less important than the political declaration itself. A week ago I talked about it with Nitzan Nuriel (Brig. Gen. Res.), former head of Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau, now associate at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. In his opinion, the actions undermining Hezbollah's funding sources cannot be overestimated: "Hezbollah has not yet cut its expenses. It continues to pay its members full salaries. That is why Germany's decision to confiscate assets is so important. The economic aspect of actions against Hezbollah is crucial."
Why take half measures?
And here we come back to the question of the European Union’s stance. Why is the factually unjustifiable distinction between the "military" and "political” wings sustained? If even organizations of Arab states see no basis for such a division, what makes Brussels stick to this halfway decision of 2013? A few erroneous assumptions: that the inclusion of Hezbollah's "military wing" on the list of terrorist organizations put an end to its suspicious financial operations; that the number of Hezbollah operatives in Europe is negligible; that imposing a ban also on the "political wing’s" activities would significantly hinder relations with the Lebanese government, including in trade. All these are arguments constructed "behind the desk".
The “Cassandra” and “Cedar” operations led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency exposed that Hezbollah’s unit for economic affairs coordinated criminal activities related to drug trafficking and illegal diamond trafficking in France, Germany, Belgium, Italy and other countries. It also came out that the Lebanese Canadian Bank was involved in laundering money that fed Hezbollah’s accounts. A round $200 million a month. In 2014, a person who controlled arms smuggling on behalf of Hezbollah was detained in the Czech Republic. The accumulation of funds used by Hezbollah also takes place due to the freedom of fundraising. In this way, millions of dollars donated by charities (including the Shiite ones operating in Europe) contribute to the organization's budget.
Hezbollah operatives are present not only in Germany (once again: more than 1,000 people), but also in Great Britain, France, Belgium, Italy and some Central European countries. And the claim regarding the alleged threat to relationships with Lebanon if the entire Hezbollah structure is considered a terrorist organization is easiest to refute by analyzing the example of the Netherlands, the first European country to do so as early as 2004. The Netherlands has good relationships with Lebanon and its embassy in Beirut works normally (of course, the term "normally" has a slightly different meaning in the COVID-19 era).
Central Europe's potential
It is hard to imagine that the European Union would not review - at some point - its position on the artificial distinction between two wings within Hezbollah. Failure to do so would be against the safety interest of its 500 million citizens. Central European countries can play a role here. The possibility of the Visegrad Group countries and the Baltic States stimulating or supporting the decision-making process which would ultimately lead to the inclusion of the entire Hezbollah on the EU list of terrorist organizations is not political fiction at all. In a sense, Central Europe is in a better position to convince Brussels and the Member States to take this direction. First of all, the answer to the question "What do we risk?" is: "Little or nothing." In the Central European countries that joined the EU in 2004 and later, there is virtually no demographically significant Arab community. The possible cost to domestic policy would therefore be zero.
Another argument is the issue of very good bilateral relationships with the United States. Most Central European countries have invested a lot in these relationships, also in terms of quite high financial and logistical involvement. Military cooperation with the U.S., including weapon purchases, is one of the pillars of their defense and security policies and is not subject to radical adjustments regardless of the color of the political party in power. This applies in particular to Poland. Participation in military and peacekeeping missions (with military involvement) alongside the U.S. is a fact that does not raise much controversy in the region. Therefore, doesn’t it seem logical, justified, and politically beneficial to make - just like the United States - a key decision on Hezbollah? Furthermore, the threat of attacks that may be prepared by the "Party of God" units in Europe does not apply exclusively to Paris, London or Berlin. The case of Burgas and the arrest of Hezbollah activists in the Czech Republic show that Central Europe cannot afford to be lulled into a false sense of security. EU without internal borders makes such an attitude irrational.
Finally, there is an issue that may seem fundamental to some. What would a possible next war between Israel and Hezbollah result in? Another wave of refugees, mainly from southern Lebanon. This would be a most problematic scenario for Europe, including our region. Therefore, thinking a few steps ahead, we need to make decisions that will weaken Hezbollah to the maximum, in particular its ability to grow financially and expand its arsenal. No less important is seeking ways to limit Hezbollah’s capability of receiving support from Iran. The European Union must grow into this. The sooner the better.
American Jewish Committee has been campaigning for several months to designate Hezbollah, in its entirety, a terrorist organization. More than fifty parliamentarians from Europe (including MEPs) and the United States have signed onto the Transatlantic Declaration which calls on Brussels to do so. Among them are parliamentarians form Central Europe, former prime ministers and foreign ministers. It is time to stand on the right side of history and join those who see Hezbollah the way it is, and the way the movement’s leaders see it, and to admit it is one organization. A terrorist organization.
* Sebastian Rejak, Ph.D., is acting Director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Central Europe Office. AJC works to enhance the wellbeing of the Jewish people and Israel and advance human rights and democratic values around the world. The AJC Central Europe Office opened in 2017 and serves seven countries: Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia.