The European Union decision to blacklist not all of Hezbollah but only the Shiite organization’s “military wing” last month was a mid-way solution intended to convey displeasure toward the Lebanese group and mollify Israel and the United States while not going so far as to jeopardize EU interests in Lebanon.
Distinguishing between different “wings” of Hezbollah was a display of diplomatic finesse first conjured up by the United Kingdom in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, DC. While the US and Israel were the only countries at the time (but later joined by The Netherlands) to proscribe Hezbollah in its entirety, London chose originally to list Hezbollah’s purported “External Security Organization”. There is no ESO, per se, but it was a useful moniker to cover the party’s alleged less savory activities beyond the more legitimate theater of direct Hezbollah-Israel confrontations in Lebanon. In 2008, the UK expanded the proscription to include Hezbollah’s “military wing”, a formula that has now been adopted by the EU.
The EU clearly sought to find a diplomatic compromise that would allow all 28 EU member states to agree to take action on Hezbollah. Prior to the vote, the EU had delivered a swipe at Israel by banning any dealings with commercial entities based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The EU decision on Hezbollah helped redress the balance. The EU decision was supposed to be in response to allegations that Hezbollah was involved in acts of terrorism in Europe, in particular the suicide bomb attack against a bus of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last year in which five Israelis and the bus driver were killed. Bulgaria announced in February it had “well-grounded” evidence to support the accusation that Hezbollah was involved. However, Hezbollah survived several subsequent EU debates on blacklisting the organization. In fact, it seems that the tipping point that compelled even the doubters to sign off on proscribing Hezbollah’s “military wing” was the party’s unprecedented and declared military intervention in Syria.
It is one thing for Hezbollah to be a resistance force against Israel’s illegal occupation of Lebanese territory, it is quite another, in the eyes of the EU, to see Hezbollah as a “regional army fighting regional wars”, as Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center, put it.
Inevitably, the EU’s cautious approach satisfied neither side. Israel, while generally welcoming the decision, argued that it should have covered the entire organization. Hezbollah, meanwhile, accused the EU of yielding to US and Israeli dictates. So what are the consequences of the EU decision? For Hezbollah, the impact will be negligible. First of all, it is not known if Hezbollah has any assets in Europe that are at risk of being frozen. Hezbollah’s principal areas of commercial activity are the less scrutinized countries of Africa and Latin America, rather than the more tightly regulated environment of Europe. Furthermore, Hezbollah has far greater concerns at present – such as the war in Syria and worsening Sunni-Shia relations at home. And it is unclear how the EU can enforce such a decision. How does one differentiate between assets belonging to the “military wing” as opposed to the “political” or “social-welfare” wings?
How are EU customs officials supposed to decide if a suspected Hezbollah member arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport, for example, is a fighter in the “military wing” or a doctor or an engineer with Jihad al-Bina, Hezbollah’s “construction wing”? It is not as if their role is stamped into their passports. The EU could draw up a list of known names associated with Hezbollah’s military activities. But there are very few such names floating in the public domain, and for the most part no one knows what they look like (The mug shot of Mustapha Badreddine, one of four Hezbollah members indicted for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, dates from the early 1980s). Furthermore, senior Hezbollah military and security figures adopt pseudonyms and travel on fake passports and IDs.
Those European contributors to UNIFIL will be bracing themselves now for a possible backlash in south Lebanon. Security reportedly has already been tightened throughout the UNIFIL zone. Hezbollah will not take action against UNIFIL directly. But UNIFIL may witness an increase in the number of altercations with aggrieved local Hezbollah supporters as they patrol through southern villages.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London