WASHINGTON/BRUSSELS (EJP)---The White House invigorated the international row over Lebanese Hezbollah’s links to terrorism last week as US Treasury and State Department officials accused the group of working in league with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to train and advise Syrian government forces.
The US has become increasingly concerned about the European Union’s reluctance to challenge Hezbollah, after member states rejected Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s calls for it to be put on the EU list of terror group at a meeting with EU member states in Brussels last month, a few days after the bombing of a bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgarie that left 5 Israelis dead.
America itself has designated Hezbollah as a Global Terrorist organisation since 1995, in response to continued attacks by the group on American citizens and institutions in Lebanon throughout the 1980s.
Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group based in Lebanon created in the early 80s with the help of Iran, was responsible for the bombing of the US embassy in Beirut that killed 63 people in 1983 and the attack the same year on the US military barracks in the same city that killed 241 soldiers, sailors and Marines and wounded more than 100 others in the bloodiest pre-9/11 act of terrorism ever launched against the US.
In 1994, Hezbollah, with Iranian help, was behind the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in which 85 people were killed and more than 300 injured. No one has been yet arrested in this case even though Interpol has issued red alerts for six Iranians, including Iran Defence Minister, and Hezbollah individuals.
The EU responded to Lieberman’s call to outlaw Hezbollah with a statement that “there is no consensus among the EU member states for putting Hezbollah in the EU terrorist-related list of organizations,” said Erato Kozakou-Marcoulis, Foreign Minister of Cyprus whose country currently chairs the EU.
“The Lebanese Hezbollah is an organization that comprises a political party and a social services network, as well as an armed wing,” she said. “Hezbollah is active in Lebanese politics, including the parliament and the government, and plays a specific role with regard to the status quo in Lebanon.”
"Taking into account this and other aspects there is no consensus for putting Hezbollah on the list of terrorist organisations," she said.
“The EU would consider this if there were tangible evidence of Hezbollah engaging in acts of terror,” she added.
Despite the fact that there was “no consensus” for such a course of action among European states, US State Department counterterrorism coordinator David Benjamin declared last week America believes “Hezbollah could attack in Europe or elsewhere at any time with little or no warning”.
The US has supported Israeli claims Hezbollah is supporting the authoritarian Syrian regime in its continued use of force against civilians. It also rejects Europe’s insistence on distinguishing between the political and military wings of Hezbollah and its claims there is no ‘tangible evidence’ of the organisation engaging in terrorist activity.
The US is thought to suspect that the EU prefers to maintain relations with Hezbollah so as to safeguard against the threat of an attack on European soil. However, Washington appears to back Israel’s claims of Hezbollah culpability for last month’s attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria.
At a special briefing to the press on Hezbollah’s activities in support of the Syrian regime last Friday, Benjamin alluded to previous thwarted European terror plots by the group, including a previous alleged plot on Bulgarian soil in January, adding that whilst as a result of the ongoing investigation of the Burgas attack “we are not in a position to make a statement about responsibility, the attack does resemble Hezbollah’s plotting earlier this year”.
Further validating Israeli claims, he added: “Hezbollah has an awful lot of experience in this kind of activity that surpasses what the Iranians have, and therefore the Iranians find them to be a very, very useful proxy force”.
Refuting Europe’s analysis of Hezbollah’s benign resistance to Israeli foreign policy, he continued: “Hezbollah maintains a presence in Europe, and its recent activities demonstrate that it is not concerned about collateral damage or political fallout that could result from conducting operations there.”
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor responded to the EU’s refusal to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, by saying that “for years we have been providing Europe with information on Hezbollah’s direct involvement in terror attacks”.
“But certain states in the EU have clarified to us that because of political reasons, they prefer to not add Hezbollah to the list, despite them not disputing the evidence,” he added.
Any EU-backed move to outlaw the group would require a unanimous vote by all 27 member states. When looking at the various attitudes of individual member nations, it becomes clear there is no universal policy regarding the group.
Whilst the Netherlands declared Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation in 2004, declaring it does not differentiate between its political and terrorist wings, Britain does distinguish between the different elements, and has crucially only outlawed its militant wing.
France is widely seen as the main stumbling block to any moves to outlaw the organisation, on account of its historic close ties to Lebanon. French diplomats in Beirut regularly meet with Hezbollah officials and former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner held talks with one of the group’s MPs in 2009, as did former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
In a meeting with current EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton following his failed appeal to the EU, Lieberman told her that “everyone knows who and what the Hezbollah organisation is”. “All are aware of the criminal activities it perpetrates”.
On his return from Brussels, Lieberman insisted Israel had made the first move in what it expected to be a drawn-out process of united the international community in a desire to act against the terrorist group.
Benjamin continued on this theme: “We have many partners in the international community who share the revulsion about what is going on in Syria. We believe that is they are presented with this information (about Hezbollah’s collusion with the regime) – and we will, of course, be following up diplomatically – they may want to take additional measures.”
The US has also been keen to expose the bilateral relationship between the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, with Treasury official for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen telling the same briefing session: “For years the (Syrian President Bashar) Assad regime provided safe haven to Hezbollah training camps and routed weapons and money, in many cases, from Iran to Hezbollah operatives in Lebanon. Hezbollah is now repaying its debt to Assad by providing training, advice and extensive logistical support to the Government of Syria.”
Hezbollah has made increasingly unveiled declarations of support for the Syrian administration in recent months as international pressure on the regime has been ramped up to cede to a democratic transition in the country.
Speaking to a crowd of supporters in the Hezbollah nerve centre of Dahieh in southern Beirut last month, on the sixth anniversary of its self-proclaimed “victory” over Israel in the Second Lebanon War, the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah claimed the Syrian regime had armed Hamas to support the Palestinian cause.
Speaking from a bunker, the controversial leader insisted “the Syrian leadership was risking its interests and existence in order for the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine to be strong”.
Further commended the three slain Syrian officials in an attack on a government building in Damascus in July, he described the men as key proponents of the “resistance” movement against Israel, adding “my war is with the Israelis, my struggle is with the Israelis”.
But the Hezbollah leader also said that a EU blacklist of its organization “would destroy Hezbollah.” “The sources of our funding will dry up and the sources of moral political and material support will be destroyed,” he said.