(March 19, 2013 / JNS) With the civil war raging in Syria and Iran’s continued pursuit of its suspected nuclear weapons program, the Hezbollah terrorist group stands as a bridge to those growing threats facing Israel.
The Lebanese-based Shi’a terror organization has become one of the most powerful paramilitary organizations in the Middle East. Amid an international effort to stem Hezbollah’s influence and operations, the European Union (EU) continues to pose an obstacle to the unity of that effort through its refusal to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Recently, Israeli President Shimon Peres, in a historic speech, addressed the EU Parliament over the issue of the Hezbollah terrorist group. During his speech, the first given by an Israeli head of state to the EU in nearly three decades, Peres took the opportunity to confront EU lawmakers about the growing threat Hezbollah poses for regional and global stability.
“Recently, 20 terror attempts by Hezbollah were counted all over the world, in India, Thailand, Georgia, South Africa, the U.S., Egypt and Greece, among others,” Peres said March 12.
Peres also reiterated Hezbollah’s growing role in EU territory.
“Last month, the government of Bulgaria, a member of this European Union, reported that it had identified that the [July 2012] terror attack in Burgas, was carried out by Hezbollah. Five Israeli tourists and one Bulgarian citizen lost their lives,” Peres said.
“Cyprus recently arrested a Hezbollah terrorist planning a terror attack,” he said.
JNS.org asked Dr. Magnus Norell, adjunct scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Senior Policy Advisor at the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD) in Brussels, what he thought of the speech and whether it would have an impact on EU policy.
“Well, it was a forceful speech… but he wasn’t really saying anything new, or anything Israelis haven’t said many times before. I don’t think that speech, in and of itself, will change any minds in the EU,” Norell told JNS.org.
Indeed, despite its involvement in terrorism within their borders, many EU states have been reluctant to designate the Hezbollah terrorist group as such, despite strong pressure from Israel and the U.S.
“We know what Israel knows: Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. Period,” Vice President Joe Biden told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in early March.
“And we—and me—we are urging every nation in the world that we deal with—and we deal with them all—to start treating Hezbollah as such and naming them as a terrorist organization,” Biden said.
EU leaders, however, do not yet seem to be moved.
“There is no automatic listing just because you have been behind a terrorist attack. It’s not only the legal requirement that you have to take into consideration, it’s also a political assessment of the context and the timing,” said Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator, in a recent statement.
In light of the EU’s stance, JNS.org asked Dr. Norell about what type of network Hezbollah operates in Europe.
“Historically, [Hezbollah has been] mostly networks of propaganda and funding. But the terror-side has been there all the time, even if it took some time for Europe to catch on,” Norell said. (Today the Europol database designates Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.) Lately, Norell continued, Hezbollah has “become more and more involved in crime-ventures, like drug-running and criminal networks.”
One of the biggest casualties of the EU’s unwillingness to confront Hezbollah is Lebanon itself.
“Left unmolested, Hezbollah not only undermines Lebanon’s security, institutions, and political system, but is also set track to compromise its foreign relations, ruin its financial system, and destroy whatever remains of its social cohesion,” wrote Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, in NOW Lebanon.
While developing its own “state within a state” framework over the past few decades, the Hezbollah terrorist organization has also simultaneously gained control over the Lebanese government. In 2005, it assassinated one of its chief political opponents, Sunni Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, according to a United Nations tribunal that investigated the case.
Since then, Hezbollah has largely subdued the Sunni opposition led by Rafiq’s son, Saad Hariri, in Lebanon through coercion and fears over the militia’s strength. In 2011, a Hezbollah-backed candidate, Najib Mikati, from the pro-Hezbollah “March 8 alliance,” became prime minister, consolidating Hezbollah’s control over the Lebanese government.
Many EU governments have shown reluctance to confront Hezbollah’s terrorism as a result of Hezbollah’s political control and its significant influence over Lebanese society through
its various schools, hospitals and charities, largely due to generous Iranian funding.
“The EU tends to overlook the terrorist- and criminal sides of Hezbollah because it’s also involved in social issues and is a political party. But it also fears triggering conflicts back home. Remember Europe had a string of Hezbollah- instigated attacks and murders in the 1990’s and early in the 21st century,” Norell told JNS.org.
Despite fears of reprisals, leading EU states such as France have been willing to risk attacks by extremists in other instances, such as confronting al-Qaeda linked groups in Mali.
JNS.org asked Dr. Norell about how France has confronted Islamists in its former colony in Mali in Africa, compared with its unwillingness to confront Hezbollah in Lebanon, another former French protectorate.
“It’s a valid point, to some extent. But the French relations with Mali (and former colonies in North Africa) are very different from that with Lebanon. Again, the ‘don’t rock the boat’-notion in regards to Lebanon, easily trumps any other concerns. The French are well aware of the role Hezbollah plays in Lebanon, but—so far at least—that’s not been enough to change the policy. If the French did, however, it would have wide repercussions in the EU as a whole. On matters concerning the Levant, the EU tends to defer to France,” Norell said.
At the same time, by Hezbollah’s becoming the dominant force in Lebanese politics, many EU governments fear being cut out of Lebanon completely.
“I should add here that another reason I’ve heard several times for the ‘non-designation’ of Hezbollah is that it will make it much more difficult to talk to Hezbollah. The subtext to that argument is that by talking to Hezbollah, it’s possible to make them change. It’s a stupid argument if you ask me, but I think it tells you a lot about the thinking here when dealing with organizations such as Hezbollah,” Norell told JNS.org.
Without EU support, it is difficult for the U.S. and Israel to form a strong international consensus to weaken the terror organization.
“I’m afraid appeasement is still alive and kicking in many corners of the EU,” Norell concluded.