Brian Lipton: A step forward on Hezbollah
Published: Friday, July 26, 2013 at 2:57 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 at 2:57 p.m.
With so much troubling news coming out of the Middle East — political uncertainty in Egypt, instability in Iraq and Afghanistan, civil war in Syria, a potentially nuclear Iran —t he rare good news can easily get lost. On July 22, the 28-member European Union placed Hezbollah's military wing on its list of terror organizations. Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim group loyal to Iran that holds considerable power in Lebanon, its base. Over the years it has attacked Western, American and Israeli targets around the globe. It is, in fact, committed to the destruction of Israel.
To be sure, the EU designation is both late and incomplete, since it does not cover the entire organization, but it could mark a significant advance in combating international terror. Hezbollah has an extensive network in Europe, with close to 1,000 members and supporters in Germany alone. Identifying the military wing as a terror organization gives the EU authority, at least theoretically, to block its fundraising and recruitment on the continent, and impede cross-border travel by its operatives.
Impelling the EU to act was, first, clear evidence of Hezbollah involvement in two blatant terror plots about a year ago on European soil. On July 18, 2012, Hezbollah blew up a bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian driver. This came 11 days after a similar operation was foiled in Cyprus. The Hezbollah operative in Cyprus was convicted in March and jailed. Second, the EU could not ignore the ongoing aid that Hezbollah is providing the murderous Assad regime in Syria.
In fact these are but the latest in the group's long history of atrocities dating back to the 1983 bombings in Beirut that killed 300 American and French troops. Hezbollah has also conducted airplane hijackings, suicide bombings, attacks on civilians in northern Israel, and the bombings, in 1992 and 1994, of the Israeli embassy and the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed a total of 114 people. In Lebanon, Hezbollah was responsible for the 2005 killings of Prime Minister Rafik Harriri and 21 others, according to a UN-backed tribunal.
Until now, however, the EU took no action. The excuse was often heard that the evidence for Hezbollah involvement in terrorism was not airtight. Some member states were reluctant to endanger their nationals who were serving in UN troop units in Lebanon. The predominant argument against placing the terrorist label on the organization, however, was that Hezbollah, whatever its unsavory connections, is also an important political party in Lebanon that sponsors significant social services for the community.
This distinction between “military” and “political” wings of Hezbollah has found its way into the new EU policy. Even as the Syrian situation and the events in Burgas and Cyprus made the Europeans see the need for condemnation, they exempted the Lebanese political party and its programs.
This timidity will complicate EU implementation of the terrorism designation. Who will decide whether a particular Hezbollah activity or leader is military or political, and by what criteria? What will prevent funds gathered by the Hezbollah party from finding their way to Hezbollah terrorists? It is indeed unfortunate that the EU did not emulate those countries, such as the United States and Canada, which treat Hezbollah as a whole as a terrorist entity, and are thus able to shut off all of its activity within their borders.
Yet even though the EU action did not go as far as we would wish, it marks a significant step forward by finally identifying Hezbollah — albeit only part of it — as the terrorist body that it is.
Brian Lipton is regional director of AJC West Coast Florida.