The United Kingdom is set to ban Hezbollah, along other groups such as Ansarul Islam and Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam Muslimeen (JNIM), the UK's Home Office said in a statement earlier this week.
Like European countries, the UK previously distinguished the Lebanese Shia group’s military and political branches. However, the measure, if approved by parliament, will mean that being a member of — or inviting support for — the three organizations will be a criminal offense carrying a 10-year prison sentence, the Home Office said.
"Hezbollah is continuing in its attempts to destabilize the fragile situation in the Middle East — and we are no longer able to distinguish between their already banned military wing and the political party," Home Secretary Sajid Javid said as part of the statement. "Because of this, I have taken the decision to proscribe the group in its entirety," he added.
EUROPE UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT
This step has brought the debate about the distinction between Hezbollah’s military and political wings back to the surface, as the US is raising the rhetoric against Iran, and the differences with Europe on how to counter Iran are still unresolved. After the UK decision, all eyes are now in Europe and the question is still whether European countries will follow suit.
Hezbollah operatives have been engaged in terrorist and criminal activities across Europe for many years. In 2012, Hezbollah carried out an attack on a tour bus in Burgas, resulting in the death of five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver.
However, most of Hezbollah’s activities in Europe are focused on money laundering, drugs trafficking, and other criminal activity. A number of individuals and companies have been designated and some have been arrested by authorities for carrying out illicit business activity in Europe on behalf of Hezbollah, mainly in Lithuania, France and Germany.
In January 2016 law enforcement and judicial authorities from France, the US, Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, supported by Europol, took action against a prominent Lebanese crime group suspected of being involved in financing terrorism through Hezbollah’s military wing. The group was responsible for the laundering of profits from cocaine sales throughout Europe.
Although many of these activities are non-military in nature, many European countries still prefer to turn the blind eye on Hezbollah’s fundraising activities in Europe, preferring to attribute them to Hezbollah’s military wing.
However, the classification of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in Europe will squeeze the party financially and limit its sympathizers’ activities, not only in the UK, but in Europe as a whole.
SYMBOLIC OR PRACTICAL MEASURE?
According to a paper published recently by BICOM, the UK decision has practical significance. For example, under current British law, it is a criminal offence to belong to, fundraise, and encourage support for any part of the military wing of Hezbollah. However, under the guise of its ‘political wing’ Hezbollah can raise funds for its activities in the UK, as well as potentially undermining local counter-terrorism efforts. “A full proscription would significantly constrain the group’s ability to raise funds and prevent it from using UK banks to transfer money around the world,” the reports confirms.
Accordingly, British law enforcement agencies would have greater powers to freeze Hezbollah’s assets in the UK, including those masquerading as charities. In addition, any expression of support for the group would be deemed a criminal offence.
According to BICOM, this would close the loophole that allows Hezbollah supporters to march on the streets of London with Hezbollah flags on Al-Quds Day. Because the political and military wings of Hezbollah use the same flag, the current interpretation of UK legislation creates a situation whereby British Police and the Crown Prosecution Service are unwilling to classify the use of Hezbollah flags as an offence under Section 13 of the Terrorism Act 2000.
However, British officials could still meet with their Lebanese counterparts, and the proscription will not affect the UK’s ability to send funds to the Lebanese Armed Forces. The US, which considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization in its entirety, has provided $1.7 billion to the LAF since 2006.
A Hezbollah fighter stands at attention in an orange field near the town of Naqura on the Lebanese-Israeli border in 2017. (Getty)
CONTEXT AND REPERCUSSIONS
Obviously, this decision is not sudden, and is certainly not out of context. The British public opinion has been discussing this issue following an uproar, due to Hezbollah’s public rallies on the Quds Day. Beyond the UK, the context of this measure is an international shift of policy towards Iran and an increased effort to contain its role in the region.
The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Deal, the rounds of US sanctions on Iran and its regional proxies, the Gulf States’ military and diplomatic initiatives to counter Iran’s proxies in the Gulf and the rest of the region, and last but not least, the UK plan to ban Hezbollah, all are signs of a growing international restlessness regarding Iran’s behavior.
For Iran, the decision itself might not be very significant, as the regime still enjoys acceptable relations with Europe, but considered in the larger context, Iran should be worried, and Hezbollah should take this very seriously. The international community seems to be moving further from Iran and more attentive to its regional destabilizing operations.
There might not be any American military plan to go after Iran, but this administration is nonetheless determined to continue with the sanctions policy, until Iran runs out of money. As for Hezbollah, the problem is two-folded. Besides the many signs of their own financial crisis resulting from sanctions, Hezbollah will eventually have to face Israel in Lebanon.
Israel has been striking Hezbollah’s military facilities in Syria, where Hezbollah and the IRGC have been transforming rockets to precise weapons. To protect these facilities and continue the process of transforming these weapons, Iran decided to move them to Lebanon, where Israeli strikes are more complicated. But as this is a very significant project for Hezbollah and Iran, it is also a big concern for Israel, which is constantly threatening Hezbollah and Lebanon about its risks and repercussions.
In 2006 – last time Israel and Hezbollah went to war - the international community supported Lebanon, and many Arab states and people supported the resistance and criticized Israel for hitting civilians. Iran was not heavily involved in the region, and the money for the reconstruction flew from all sides, especially the Gulf States.
This time around, Hezbollah will not be able to enjoy the same support. Iran is heavily involved in the region, and Hezbollah is becoming Iran’s right arm in its regional and international operations. The UK decision falls within this context, and it sheds the light on the international community’s shifts in both attitudes and practical steps when it comes to Hezbollah and Iran’s activities. Patience is growing thin and Hezbollah will probably be more isolated in the coming months and years.
As Hezbollah enjoys more control over the Lebanese government and its security and military decision, the Lebanese should also see the UK measure in the larger context. Following the British Government’s statement, statements from Lebanese leaders - such as the prime minister and the foreign minister - fell short of addressing the real problem. Ignoring the repercussions of this step and its context will only drag Lebanon into more conflict and crisis.
This ban cannot be seen as one single measure, separately from the context that clearly signals an international shift against Iran and its regional proxies. If Hezbollah and Iran insist on defying this reality and do not mind getting more isolated and sanctioned, Lebanese people and leaders need to take action to show the international community that there is – in fact – a distinction between Hezbollah and Lebanon, before it is too late to draw this distinction.