BERLIN -- The July suicide bombing of a bus full of Israeli tourists at the seaside Bulgarian resort of Burgas, which killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver, catapulted the Lebanese-based terror organization Hezbollah into the spotlight for politicians in Europe and the United States.
American and Israeli intelligence officials attributed the lethal European attack to a joint Hezbollah-Iran operation. The Bulgarian murders, along with Hezbollah's support of Syria's bloody crackdown on reform activists, and Hezbollah's series of killing sprees against US and European soldiers since its founding in 1982, prompted a bipartisan group of 76 US Senators to urge the European Union to include Hezbollah in the EU's terror list.
Jacob Campbell, a research fellow at the Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy, perhaps best captured the confused--wittingly or unwittingly-- posture of European politicians toward the Shiite terror group: "Within just days of the Burgas bombing - almost undoubtedly perpetrated by Hezbollah - the Presidency of the EU Council explicitly ruled out the possibility of listing Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, insisting that there is no 'tangible evidence' to link Hezbollah to terrorism. This ludicrous statement was made despite an earlier resolution adopted by the European Parliament, which cites 'clear evidence' of terrorist acts committed by Hezbollah. On this issue, as in so many others, Brussels appears to have its head buried firmly in the sand."
In 1995, the United States designated Hezbollah a foreign terrorist organization. But despite the murders of EU citizens by Hezbollah over the last three decades, the major European powers--Germany, Italy, France, and the United Kingdom--have shown no appetite for a complete ban on the group.
With the exception of the Netherlands, which declared Hezbollah to be a terror organization several years ago, the 26 remaining EU members have rejected attempts to blacklist Hezbollah within the EU. The United Kingdom has banned the military wing of Hezbollah but not its political wing. In September, Douglas Murray, associate director of the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank, argued in an article titled "What 'Hezbollah Political Wing'?," that Britain and the EU are making a distinction without a difference.
"The EU is one of the few organizations in the world that still recognizes a difference between the 'political' and 'armed' wings of Hezbollah. This difference is not recognized in the US or Canada, it is not recognized in Lebanon and it is certainly not recognized by Hezbollah itself," Murray wrote.
He continued: "The EU's wall of separation is not only its own invention, it is a fiction with which European countries have some first-hand experience, and something they have suffered from in the past."
Recent US actions against Hezbollah
Growing frustration among US lawmakers prompted a bipartisan group of senators to dispatch a letter in September to EU top diplomat Catherine Ashton, stating: "Attacks by Hezbollah's predecessors on the US Embassy and Marine barracks in 1983 killed 258 Americans and 46 others. The US State Department's Country Report on Terrorism named Hezbollah as the likely perpetrator of the 2011 attacks on UN Interim Force in Lebanon peacekeepers that injured six Italian soldiers, three French soldiers, and six French civilians."
Nearly a month before the senators' letter, the chairwoman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), issued a letter to José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, appealing to the EU to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Ros-Lehtinen wrote, "Hezbollah has executed attacks in the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America, killing hundreds of people and wounding countless others." The Florida congresswoman cited Hezbollah's financial and weapons support for Hamas, and Hezbollah's role as the long arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Earlier this year, in testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security, Dr. Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy exhaustively demonstrated the threat posed by Hezbollah to US interests both at home and across the globe.
The US Treasury Department ratcheted up its pressure in September by meting out "financial sanctions against the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, for providing support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad."
Treasury also sanctioned two other Hezbollah officials, Mustafa Badr Al-Din and Talal Hamiyah, for their "terrorist activities in the Middle East and around the world." [See LWJ report, US adds 2 senior Hezbollah military leaders to terror list.]
The prospects for European action against Hezbollah
It is too early to assess whether the EU is prepared to evict Hezbollah's members and operatives, including fundraising "charities" and so-called "social service" organizations, from its territories.
There are growing signs that some political momentum might be emerging to outlaw Hezbollah, however. In early September, Dutch foreign minister Uri Rosenthal and his British counterpart William Hague called for the EU to sanction Hezbollah.
The previous month, Philipp Missfelder, the Bundestag foreign policy spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party, said that "[i]t is long overdue to place Hezbollah on the EU's list of terror organizations."
Germany's foreign ministry is "considering" a measure to push the EU to include Hezbollah in its terror list. Traditionally, the Federal Republic has gone to great lengths to block efforts to designate Hezbollah as a terror entity. The number of Hezbollah members has increased in Germany from 900 in 2010 to a current figure of 950 in 2012. Hezbollah remains a legal political organization in the Federal Republic.
France, it can be argued, remains the most recalcitrant EU country and, like Germany, has consistently stonewalled attempts to prohibit Hezbollah activities in Europe. In July, the Jerusalem Post's veteran diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon wrote: "According to one official, the main country blocking these efforts is France, which has historic ties with Lebanon and feels its influence there would be diminished by such a move."
There have also been media pushbacks against a terror designation for Hezbollah. One British-based commentator argued on the opinion page of the New York Times in September that a ban could destabilize Lebanon's domestic politics. In sharp contrast to the NYT opinion piece, however, the EU has viewed Hezbollah as a volatile force in Lebanese politics since 2005. According to a 2005 EU parliament resolution, the legislative body "considers that clear evidence exists of terrorist activities on the part of Hezbollah and that the Council should take all necessary steps to curtail them." Hezbollah played a key role in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri--a Western oriented politician--and the murders of innocent civilians.
The growing global role of Hezbollah as a terror organization advancing the goals of Iran's regime will continue to wreak havoc on the interests of Western democracies, internal Lebanese politics, and the security of the state of Israel.
The big question mark over the EU's counterterrorism strategy is: Will the EU take seriously the business of protecting its citizens and ensuring a terror-free European Union?
Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a European affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post.