After years of equivocating, a reluctant European Union agreed on July 22 to place part of Hezbollah on its terrorism blacklist, ostensibly to cut off the Shiite militant group’s sources of funding inside Europe.
But the unanimous decision by the 28-member bloc is likely to have only a limited impact on the Lebanon-based, Iranian-financed Hezbollah.
In a classic European fudge, EU governments agreed only to blacklist the «military» wing of Hezbollah, thus maintaining the politically expedient fiction that a clear distinction can be drawn between Hezbollah terrorists and those members of the group’s «political» wing.
|A Hezbollah poster.|
Blacklisting all of Hezbollah would have deprived the «Party of Allah» of potentially significant sources of fundraising by enabling the freezing of all of its bank accounts and assets in Europe. But by prevaricating on the true nature of Hezbollah, the EU has effectively limited the ability of law enforcement agencies to crack down on the group’s shadowy fundraising activities in Europe.
Instead, the onus will be on European counter-terrorism police to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Hezbollah monies — which are often raised by entities masquerading as charities — are being expressly destined for terrorist activities rather than for «political» purposes.
Because of this legal uncertainty, it remains unclear if the EU will actually target any of Hezbollah’s assets or individuals in Europe.
The decision to list only a part of Hezbollah as a terrorist group comes more than five months after the Bulgarian government said it was clear that Hezbollah was behind a 2012 bus bombing in the Bulgarian city of Burgas that killed five Israelis and their driver.
In addition, a court in Cyprus recently sentenced Hezbollah operative Hossam Taleb Yaakoub to four years in prison for plotting to kill Israelis in the EU member state.
But the EU’s decision to blacklist Hezbollah was not primarily in response to the group’s terrorist activities in Europe. Instead, the EU has repeatedly cited its «concerns» over Hezbollah’s growing involvement in the war in Syria.
European officials have long rationalized their lack of resolve against Hezbollah by claiming that the organization has both a military wing and a political wing, and that cracking down on the former would cripple the latter. This, they say, would lead to the destabilization of Lebanon and thus the broader Middle East.
Many analysts, however, say this rationalization is a smoke screen Europeans are hiding behind to conceal the real reason why they are reluctant to confront Hezbollah, namely, fear of reprisals.
European officials are afraid of Hezbollah reprisals against European interests at home and abroad. They are especially worried that if they antagonize Hezbollah, the group may activate sleeper cells and carry out attacks in European cities. (According to a leaked German intelligence report, there are more than 900 Hezbollah operatives in Germany alone.)
In addition, Europeans are afraid that Hezbollah may retaliate against European troops participating in the United Nations mission in Lebanon known as UNIFIL.
Consider Spain: After six Spanish peacekeepers were killed in a Hezbollah bomb attack in southern Lebanon, the Spanish government met in secret with Hezbollah militants to provide «escorts» to protect Spanish UNIFIL patrols. The quid pro quo was that Spanish troops would look the other way while Hezbollah was allowed to rearm for its next war against Israel.
More recently, the French Ministry of Defense acknowledged the increasingly visible assertiveness of Hezbollah vis-à-vis UNIFIL peacekeepers in Lebanon. A French official interviewed by the news site Al-Monitor said: «UNIFIL heavily relies on cooperation with Hezbollah. There is no way it could perform its mission without this form of tacit coexistence.»
Italy, which is commanding UNIFIL, is also afraid of the potential repercussions of the EU taking a hard line against Hezbollah.
Europeans are also afraid of inciting the thousands of shiftless young Muslim immigrants in towns and cities across the continent. The fear of angry Muslims is, in fact, so pervasive in European capitals that in practical terms Islam has already established a de facto veto on European foreign policymaking.
The recent cases in Bulgaria and Cyprus have provided irrefutable evidence that Hezbollah is active across Europe, where it raises funds, launders money, traffics drugs, recruits operatives and plots attacks with impunity.
But European officials have signaled that they are eager to keep the peace with Hezbollah.
Only one EU country has had the courage to blacklist Hezbollah’s entire organization: The Netherlands proscribed the group in 2004. In a recent statement, the Dutch Embassy in Israel said: «The Netherlands has been calling for Hezbollah to be included on the EU list of terrorist organizations since 2004, and has consistently urged its EU partners to support such a move.»
But the EU has decided to follow the example not of Holland but of Britain.
The British government «banned» Hezbollah’s military wing in 2008 after the group targeted British troops in Iraq. But the Labour government stopped short of curtailing Hezbollah’s ability to operate in Britain, arguing that the military wing is separate from the political wing.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague has repeatedly urged the EU to replicate the British model and outlaw only Hezbollah’s military wing.
Although this «fix» allows the EU to say that it has taken meaningful action against the group, Hezbollah leaders themselves make no such distinction.
Sheikh Naim Qassem, the second in command of Hezbollah, with the title of deputy secretary-general, has rejected Britain’s attempt to separate the group into military and political wings. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in April 2009, Qassem said: «Hezbollah has a single leadership. … The same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads Jihad actions in the struggle against Israel.»
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu concurred, saying, «There is only one Hezbollah, it is one organization with one leadership.»
Israel’s Minister of Home Front Defense, Avi Dichter, had this to say: «To speak about [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah as someone who is only political is ridiculous. … Asking if Hezbollah is a terrorist organization is like asking if Paris belongs to France. Who is sleeping? Are we Israelis sleeping or are countries in Europe sleeping? There is no debate.»
Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, put it this way: «Calling Hezbollah a charity is like calling al-Qaeda an urban planning organization because of its desire to level tall buildings. … The EU must find the moral and political courage to place Hezbollah on its list of terrorist organizations. It must find a clear message that Hezbollah can no longer target its citizens with impunity.»
While the European Union continues to dither over Hezbollah, it has not been afraid to harass Israel, apparently because the Jewish state, unlike the Muslim terror group, poses no real threat to European interests.
On July 19, the European Union announced that it would boycott any Israeli businesses with a presence anywhere beyond the 1949 Armistice lines, including eastern Jerusalem.
The new directive titled «Guidelines on the Eligibility of Israeli Entities and their Activities in the Territories Occupied by Israel since June 1967 for Grants, Prizes and Financial Instruments funded by the EU from 2014 Onwards» forbids EU organizations and institutions from funding or cooperating with any Israeli entities based in Judea and Samaria, eastern Jerusalem or the Golan Heights. The directive will take effect on January 1, 2014.
A high-ranking Israeli official quoted by veteran Israeli journalist Gil Ronen described the European Union’s move as a disproportionate «attack» on Israel and added: «When it comes to disputed territories, the Europeans prefer to attack a small country like Israel instead of taking on more powerful states, because they’re afraid of retaliation.»
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.