by Ali Rizk
In 2008, Britain designated “Hezbollah’s military wing” a terrorist organization, which diverged from the official EU stance. It wasn’t until mid-July 2013 that the EU adopted a similar position following claims that the Lebanese movement was responsible for an attack in the Bulgarian city of Burgas that led to the death of six people, including five Israelis.
Now Britain has once again parted ways with the official EU stance toward Hezbollah. On February 25, British government officials announced the blacklisting of Hezbollah’s “political wing,” thereby designating the Lebanese movement in its entirety as a “terrorist organization.”
The move could be seen as one of the results of last month’s Warsaw summit, an effort led by the United States and Israel to mobilize against Iran and its regional allies, including Hezbollah. Unlike his French and German counterparts, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt participated in the Warsaw summit, albeit for just a few hours.
British Taboos Regarding Hezbollah
Despite this recent British announcement, London’s ties with Hezbollah in practice have been cut off for quite some time. In remarks to Lobelog, a Hezbollah member of the Lebanese parliament noted that, in mid-2010, the UK government withdrew its ambassador from Beirut, Frances Guy, after she praised the late Lebanese Shiite Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. Guy had described Fadlallah—who was once known as Hezbollah’s spiritual leader—as a “decent man” following his death in July 2010.
The Hezbollah parliamentarian added that Guy was “punished” with an appointment to a position in Iraq that exposed her to the security risks in that country. Guy was later expelled from the British diplomatic realm completely and today works as the head of the Middle East region at Christian Aid in London.
The Hezbollah legislator also revealed that another former British ambassador to Lebanon had requested to meet him only to have the British foreign office rebuff his request .
The latest British designation comes against the backdrop of Israeli attempts to demonize Hezbollah on the world stage. According to the Hezbollah parliamentarian, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been intensifying his efforts to get Hezbollah blacklisted internationally, particularly by the Europeans.
For instance, last December, Netanyahu organized a tour of an area adjacent to the southern Lebanese border where Israel announced it had discovered a network of cross-border underground tunnels that Hezbollah had dug to infiltrate into Israeli territory. The French, EU, Italian, British and Polish ambassadors were among those who took part in the trip. A similar trip was organized for UN ambassadors. Israel’s ambassador to the UN Danny Danon accompanied the delegation on this trip and demanded that the Security Council designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Europe Takes a Different Position
Although Israel may have scored a point with the recent British announcement, its larger ambition of convincing Europe remains a long shot. Despite the EU blacklisting Hezbollah’s military wing back in 2013, it continues to maintain open channels of communication with the political wing. During a visit to Lebanon that coincided with the UK announcement, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini made it clear that this position will not change despite the latest British move.
France has also made it clear that it will not be following in the footsteps of the British. French President Emmanuel Macron stressed that his country distinguishes between the Lebanese movements “military” and “political” wings. Macron also stated that “neither France nor any other power has the right to decide what Lebanese political parties are good and which are not” and that this was a matter “up to the Lebanese people.”
Also, the EU will not likely follow Britain’s lead because of the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Lebanon, otherwise known as UNIFIL. France, Italy, and Spain have contributed troops to UNIFIL, which are deployed in the pro-Hezbollah turf of south Lebanon. These European countries sent their troops only after a tacit understanding with Hezbollah following the July 2006 war.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah officials are quick to point out that it’s business as usual when it comes to ties with several European countries. These officials refer to regular meetings between Hezbollah representatives and ambassadors from European countries like France, Italy, Spain, Norway, and Switzerland. Such meetings are all the more important now given that Hezbollah appears to be in a stronger position both domestically and regionally.
In Lebanon, 12 of the movement’s 13 candidates emerged victorious in the parliamentary elections last May. For the first time, Hezbollah is also in charge of three ministries in the newly formed Lebanese cabinet, including the ministry of health, one of the more significant cabinet portfolios.
The movement has also expanded its regional clout, having played an important role in fighting terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.
It took the EU five years to emulate the UK and blacklist Hezbollah’s military wing. But blacklisting the movement’s political wing—and thereby cutting off ties completely—is a different matter altogether.
Ali Rizk has been working in the field of journalism since 2003 including five years in Iran. He is a contributor to Al-Monitor and Al-Mayadeen and has written for other outlets including the Lebanese dailies Assafir and Al-Alakhbar. He is the former Beirut correspondent for Iranian PressTV.