Dispatch

Europe's Hezbollah Problem

In the wake of the Bulgarian bombing investigation, will the European Union finally designate Hezbollah a terrorist group?

SOFIA, Bulgaria — Since the Lebanese political movement Hezbollah's inception in 1982, the group's relations with the European Union have been characterized by a fragmented policy filled with complex diplomatic maneuvers. The latest move in this elaborate tango was Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov's announcement on Tuesday that two Hezbollah operatives murdered a Bulgarian national and five Israeli tourists on EU territory in July 2012.

To the shock of many observers and journalists in the presidential building in central Sofia, Tsvetanov declared, "We have established that the two were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah," adding for good measure that there is "data showing the financing and connection between Hezbollah and the two suspects."

Prior to this announcement, there was high-intensity chatter on both sides of the Atlantic that the Bulgarian government would capitulate to French and German pressure and not designate Hezbollah as the agent behind the July bombing in the Black Sea resort of Burgas. Philipp Missfelder, a top German deputy in the Bundestag and foreign-policy spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, coyly told the New York Times on Monday that "some German officials dropped a few words" to persuade the Bulgarians.

The popular British conservative news and opinion website the Commentator published a report hours prior to Tsvetanov's statement noting that Sofia would probably decline "to name the terrorist group Hezbollah in its report on the 2012 bus bombing" and instead invoke suggested German-French phrasing along the lines of "all roads lead to Lebanon."

There was ample reason to believe Sofia would punt. While the U.S., Canadian, and Israeli governments for months have been urging the EU to clamp down on Hezbollah's activities -- including raising funds, recruiting, and procuring dual-use technologies -- within its 27-member union, the Europeans have consistently pushed back, and the issue has failed to gain traction.

The reaction of Catherine Ashton, the EU's top diplomat, typified Europe's divided approach toward the powerful Lebanese Shiite group. Responding to the Bulgarian investigation's results, Ashton said on Tuesday that there is now a "need for reflection" on the outcome of the investigation into Burgas. Notably lacking was the lack of any direct reference to Hezbollah.

Her American counterpart, newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry, was considerably more blunt. "We strongly urge other governments around the world -- and particularly our partners in Europe -- to take immediate action to crack down" on Hezbollah, said Kerry. "We need to send an unequivocal message to this terrorist group that it can no longer engage in despicable actions with impunity."

Although it doesn't consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization, Europe is aware of the group's lethal violence. The European Parliament issued a strongly worded, anti-Hezbollah non-binding resolution in 2005. After Hezbollah allegedly assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Brussels stated that "clear evidence exists of terrorist activities on the part of Hezbollah. The [EU] Council should take all necessary steps to curtail them."

Will Hezbollah's role in launching an attack on European soil produce a change in EU behavior? The EU remains sharply divided. The Netherlands, for example, is the only EU country that lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and openly seeks a full ban, which would involve the seizing of assets, freezing of funds, and dissolving of Hezbollah membership organizations. Britain has adopted a somewhat grayer position, labeling Hezbollah's "military wing" a terrorist organization in 2009. But British Foreign Secretary William Hague has ratcheted up pressure on the EU to replicate his country's style of designation, which attempts to distinguish between Hezbollah's terror apparatus and its social and political infrastructure. Critics view this distinction as absurd because Hezbollah itself rejects the split-designation policy.

Predictably, the Israelis do not mince words about what they see as Hezbollah's raison d'être. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Europe on Tuesday that "there is only one Hezbollah, it is one organization with one leadership." And Hezbollah's leadership doesn't disagree. The Lebanese group's deputy leader Naim Qassem told the Los Angeles Times in 2009 that "[t]he same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads jihad actions in the struggle against Israel."

The assertion that Hezbollah is two separate groups stems from Europe's attempts to keep the peace with the organization -- literally. French Ambassador to Israel Christophe Bigot told me in November that a blanket designation could put the hundreds of French troops in southern Lebanon (there for 34 years as part of a U.N. peacekeeping operation to monitor the border between Israel and Lebanon) in Hezbollah's crosshairs. The French are acutely aware of Hezbollah's October 1983 Beirut terror attacks which killed 58 French paratroopers and 241 U.S. Marines. At the same time, France sees itself as uniquely capable of managing tension and the balance of power in Lebanon. A former colonial power in the Levant, France has traditionally carried great diplomatic weight in Lebanon's enormously complex set of political relations.

But perhaps it's Germany that best illustrates Europe's split-personality toward Hezbollah. Germany seems to tolerate Hezbollah's operations in its country. There are reportedly some 950 Hezbollah members and supporters on German soil. The group's organizational structure in Germany allows the group to raise funds and transfer them to Lebanon. Yet Germany, in a little-noticed 2008 Interior Ministry administrative order, banned Hezbollah's television station Al-Manar from broadcasting in private hotels and buying advertisements to promote its programming.

The EU is all over the map, but there appears to be mushrooming pressure to penalize Hezbollah. In August 2012, before the Bulgaria report, Missfelder said that it was "long overdue to place Hezbollah on the EU's list of terror organizations." Hezbollah's role in aiding the Syrian regime in its bloody crackdown on pro-reform Syrians has changed attitudes among center-left politicians. Germany's Green Party spokesman on security issues, Omid Nouripour, told the New York Times in early February that "[i]n the situation now, with Syria, I think it's now time to isolate Hezbollah."

Bloodshed in Syria is not the top concern of European politicians, however, most of whom are wary of overextending the EU's influence in a time of fiscal crisis and political instability. In fact, for some EU countries, even an attack on EU soil may not qualify as a predicate to act. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who seems to be against listing Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, tweeted that "[w]e need to reflect seriously on consequences of Bulgaria probe naming Hezbollah as behind terrorist attack."

A ban on Hezbollah could cripple it. Hezbollah‘s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged this reality several years ago, noting that an EU terror listing "would dry up the sources of finance, end moral, political and material support, stifle voices, whether they are the voices of the resistance or the voices which support the resistance, pressure states which protect the resistance in one way and another, and pressure the Lebanese state, Iran and Iraq, but especially the Lebanese state, in order to classify it as a state which supports terrorism."

The Bulgarian investigation, however, is unlikely to result in such sweeping sanction. The consensus solution would likely be an EU terror listing of Hezbollah's military wing. This designation could curtail Hezbollah's ability to operate in the EU, or further embolden it to carry out attacks on European soil.

Whatever the outcome, Burgas is almost certainly not the last tango for Hezbollah in Europe.

STR/AFP/GettyImages

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