The European Union declared Monday that the military wing of Lebanese political party Hezbollah was a terrorist organization, a year after it was implicated in the fatal bombing of a bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgaria.
A council of EU foreign ministers reached the decision at their monthly meeting Monday. Putting the organization on the terrorist blacklist was decided by a unanimous vote from the EU’s 28 foreign ministers, a French diplomat said.
Hezbollah issued a statement late Monday describing the EU decision as “hostile and unjust and not based on justification or evidence.”
It alleged that the EU gave in to “Zionist American pressure in a dangerous way and took dictation from the White House,” adding, “It seems that this decision was written by an American hand with Zionist ink.”
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni welcomed the EU decree. “Finally, after years of discussions and deliberations, [they] have failed, and rightly so, in their attempt to claim that they are a legitimate political party,” she said.
Now the world knows that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, added Livni, a former foreign minister. The “just and correct decision” shows that even if Hezbollah also functions as a political party, it can’t launder its terrorist activities behind that, she said.
Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin praised the decision and told Israel Radio that the vote was the result of many years of work by the Foreign Ministry.
The EU has long avoided a vote to declare Hezbollah’s military wing a terrorist organization, despite US pressure, for fear that such a move would destabilize Lebanon and its neighbors.
“It is good that the EU has decided to call Hezbollah what it is: a terrorist organization,” Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said after the decision. ”I’m satisfied that we took this important step today, by dealing with the military wing of Hezbollah, freezing its assets, hindering its fundraising and thereby limiting its capacity to act,” he added.
Walid Sukariyeh, a pro-Hezbollah legislator who belongs to the group’s bloc, said the European decision came as a result of American pressure.
“Europe tried to have an independent stance away from America’s diction but I believe by this stance it has abandoned its independence and the independence of its policy,” he said.
“Hezbollah did not carry out any terrorist attacks, neither in Europe nor outside Europe. Hezbollah is a resistance movement that fought to liberate occupied land from the Israeli enemy,” Sukariyeh said.
The EU vote triggered concerns in Lebanon that the decision would affect the bloc’s funding for the country, but French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said economic aid would be unaffected.
Lebanon’s outgoing prime minister, Najib Mikati, expressed disappointment in the bloc’s action, saying: “We wish that the EU countries had conducted a more careful reading of the facts.”
Even before Monday’s decision, aid groups complained that European governments have been reluctant to donate funds to help Lebanon cope with a massive flow of refugees from Syria’s civil war because of Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon’s government.
Timor Goksel, a Beirut-based political analyst, called the EU action “a public relations move,” but said it could affect Hezbollah in Lebanon by providing “much ammunition to its foes.”
Observers said there had been a steady change of heart within the EU, particularly in Germany, which has in the past resisted calls to list the Islamist group.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said before the vote that evidence from last year’s attack in the Black Sea resort of Burgas in Bulgaria, which killed five Israeli tourists and one Bulgarian, should provide enough impetus for the move. Westerwelle said that “we have to answer this, and the answer is” blacklisting Hezbollah’s military wing.
The attack on EU territory plus a Cyprus criminal court decision in March finding a Hezbollah member guilty of helping to plan attacks on Israelis on the Mediterranean island has galvanized EU diplomacy in moving toward action.
“We should name names because time comes to tell the truth,” said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Antanas Linkevicius, who chaired Monday’s meeting. “What was done by the military wing in the region and elsewhere I would say, there should be some reaction.”
The Board of Deputies of British Jews welcomed the decision, which it said would “disrupt operations of Hizballah’s military wing in the European Union,” and called on the EU to blacklist the group’s political wing as well.
“We now call on EU Member States to take the next logical step and proscribe the whole organisation of Hizballah, as the division between the military and political wings is clearly artificial,” said Alex Brummer, head of the Board’s International Division.
In February, an official Bulgarian report said investigators had “well-grounded reasons” to suggest that two men suspected in the attack belonged to the militant wing of Hezbollah, and on Wednesday, Bulgaria’s prime minister said that new evidence has bolstered its case implicating Hezbollah in the deadly bombing, which targeted a group of Israeli tourists arriving at the Burgas airport.
Hezbollah has denied involvement in the Burgas attack.
On Thursday, Lebanon said that it would formally request that the EU not name Hezbollah a terrorist organization. A statement released by President Michel Suleiman’s office said Hezbollah is a “main component of Lebanese society.”
The Iranian-backed group plays a pivotal role in Lebanese politics, dominating the government since 2011, and has since sent its members to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in their assault of rebel-held areas.
While some EU officials have said that a decision to blacklist Hezbollah’s military wing would be solely based on concerns over terrorism on European soil, several EU nations also have pointed to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria as a reason for the move.
The blacklisting means imposing visa bans on individuals and asset freezes on organizations associated with the group. But the implementation will be complicated since officials will have to unravel the links between the different wings within Hezbollah’s organizational network and see who could be targeted for belonging to the military wing.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that blacklisting Hezbollah’s military wing would not “destabilize Lebanon or have serious adverse consequences.”
“It is important for us to show that we are united and strong in facing terrorism,” Hague said.