Hezbollah rattled as EU unanimously agrees to put group on terrorism blacklist

Brussels has broken ties with military wing of the Lebanese organisation – but what will it mean on the ground?

The 28 members of the European Union on Monday unanimously agreed to label Hezbollah’s “militant wing” a terrorist organisation, making it illegal to send money to the organisation and enabling its assets in Europe to be frozen.

Britain lobbied hard for the move, citing the group’s alleged involvement in last year’s suicide attack on a bus carrying Israeli citizens in Burgas, Bulgaria, that left six people dead and more than 30 injured, while Hezbollah’s military support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria also played a significant role.

Israel, the UK, the United States and the Netherlands had already put the group on their terrorist blacklists.

Concerns that isolating the Shia movement would fuel instability in Lebanon and across the region were rejected by Foreign Secretary William Hague, who said that the ruling would not have “serious adverse consequences”. “It is important for us to show that we are united and strong in facing terrorism,” he added.

Hezbollah has 12 MPs in the Lebanese parliament – two of whom are members of the caretaker cabinet – and the administration in Beirut said it regretted the decision. Caretaker Foreign minister Adnan Mansour called it “hasty”, while earlier in the day President Michel Suleiman had stressed that Hezbollah was an “essential component of Lebanese society”.

Despite doubts about how the designation would work in practice, the EU said it planned to preserve its avenue of dialogue with the group’s political arm. “By labelling the military wing [the EU] sought to take a symbolic stand while pushing back the need to do anything substantial,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, a Lebanon analyst at the European Council for Foreign Relations.

“It provides them with a way out – they can keep on engaging certain elements of Hezbollah, they can keep engaging with the Lebanese government, yet they don’t have to withdraw support for the Lebanese armed forces.” He added that Hezbollah had few assets in Europe, and as a result would not be adversely affected by financial sanctions.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he hoped the move would lead to “tangible steps against the organisation”, but added that Israel did not distinguish between Hezbollah’s military and political wings.

Relations between the EU and Israel have been under strain after Brussels last week announced a ban on member states dealing with Israeli settlements. It has been suggested by several analysts that both this and Monday’s announcement are part of a wider strategy to punish the Jewish state for its illegal settlements while at the same time encouraging it to reach a lasting peace deal with the Palestinians.

To many in the West, Hezbollah is primarily a military organisation. The group was officially founded in 1985 during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, when it resorted to suicide bombings and kidnappings in its quest to drive foreign forces from the country.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s it was blamed for a number of terrorist attacks against civilians outside Lebanon’s borders, primarily against Israeli and Jewish targets. After the war ended Hezbollah was the only faction not to disarm, claiming it needed weapons to repel any attempts by Israel to invade again. It put its vast arsenal to use in 2006 when Israel attacked in response to a cross-border raid that killed a number of its soldiers. The conflict saw Israeli jets pummel Lebanese infrastructure and civilian areas, while Hezbollah in turn fired thousands of rockets back into Israel. More than 1,000 Lebanese and more than 100 Israelis were killed, but the fact that Israel was unable to occupy Lebanon led to Hezbollah claiming a victory. That perceived triumph bolstered support for the group across the Arab world, as many viewed it as the only viable resistance to Israel’s hegemony in the region.

Despite its primary function as a “resistance” group, Hezbollah’s supporters see it as much more than that. As well as its role in Lebanese politics it is also a mainstay of civil society, especially in the south and across the Bekaa valley where its organisations fund schools, hospitals and orphanages alongside reconstruction programmes.

Hezbollah members enjoy free healthcare, housing benefits and scholarships for their children. Those that die in battle know that their relatives will be taken care of by the group’s “martyr’s organisation”. In addition to social support it funds at least 12 clinics and 12 schools. Jihad al-Bina, Hezbollah’s reconstruction arm, is a partner of the United Nations Development Programme and has been involved in the reconstruction efforts that followed the civil war. Despite paying for repairs to damaged properties and planting 10,000 trees across the south of the country, it, too, is labelled as a terrorist group by the US because of its links to Hezbollah.

Yesterday’s announcement is unlikely to have a significant effect on Hezbollah’s funding, which flows from a number of NGOs across the Islamic world. Iran is also a significant contributor, while additional funding is provided by collection boxes placed on every street corner in areas under Hezbollah control.

Yet the EU move has rattled the group, which has been hesitant to reach out to reporters in the run up to Monday’s announcement. Social projects were declared off limits because of fears that they would be manipulated to portray the organisation as promoting terrorism, its media office explained.