German lawmaker behind Hezbollah ban says move in ‘our own national interest’
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InterviewAn effort to 'protect Israel and of the Jewish community'

German lawmaker behind Hezbollah ban says move in ‘our own national interest’

‘You can’t prohibit people or ideas. But we can make it more difficult,’ says Benjamin Strasser, author of Bundestag resolution urging outlawing of Lebanese terror group

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

German MP Benjamin Strasser in front of the historic Reichstag building in Berlin (Tanja Ruetz)
German MP Benjamin Strasser in front of the historic Reichstag building in Berlin (Tanja Ruetz)

BERLIN — Benjamin Strasser, 32, usually focuses on domestic politics. But on Thursday, the freshman lawmaker was instrumental in advancing a process that may pique interest across the borders of his country, as the Bundestag voted in favor of a resolution he authored urging the government in Berlin to outlaw the activities of the Hezbollah terror group.

Driven by a near-religious passion to defend the Jewish state, Strasser negotiated with the two major parties that make up Germany’s ruling coalition until they were willing to support his text.

“I am very proud that we now have a common resolution between the coalition parties and the FDP,” he said, referring to his pro-business Free Democratic Party, which currently holds only 80 of a total of 709 seats in the Bundestag.

“At the core of our effort stands the protection of Israel and of the Jewish community in Germany,” he told The Times of Israel during a recent exclusive interview in his Bundestag office in the German capital.

Hezbollah fighters hold flags, as they attend the memorial of slain leader Sheik Abbas al-Mousawi, killed by an Israeli airstrike in 1992, in Tefahta village, south Lebanon, February 13, 2016. (Mohammed Zaatari/AP)

As of today, the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel recognizes the “military wing” of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, but continues to view its “political branch” as legitimate. Like most other European states, Germany has been wary of banning the Iranian-backed, Lebanon-based group in its entirety, fearing this could harm Berlin’s diplomatic ties with Beirut.

The non-binding resolution passed Thursday with a large majority called on the government to “decree an activity ban against Hezbollah in order not to tolerate any activity in Germany by representatives of the organization, which opposes the principle of international understanding.” It further urges Berlin to abandon the current differentiation between a political and a military wing of Hezbollah.

Strasser, who entered parliament a little more than two years ago, said he was aware of the challenges of banning Hezbollah but ultimately decided that it was in his country’s best interest.

“One has to examine where well-intended ideas actually are effective and where they could actually do more harm,” he said. “Therefore we met with representatives from the foreign ministry, the intelligence service BND and others to explore the pros and cons. We arrived at the conclusion that such a prohibition would make sense in Germany.”

Al-Quds Day Parade in Berlin, 2014. (CC BY-SA Denis Barthel, Wikimedia Commons)

The Times of Israel met Strasser on the sidelines of last week’s Germany-Israel Strategic Forum in Berlin, one-and-a-half day confernece promoting open exchange between Israeli and German officials and experts involved in the fields of national security and foreign policy.

As a member of the Bundestag’s Committee on Internal Affairs, Strasser is tasked with addressing “internal security for the community with civil rights for the individual,” according to the Bundestag website.

In his short time as a legislator, he has focused on the need to reform his country’s domestic security policies, including the sensitive question of what to do with Islamic State members who fought in Syria and then returned to Germany.

In this context, he has been spearheading efforts to prohibit Hezbollah — not only in Germany, but across Europe.

“It’s important to list Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization on a European Union-wide level,” he said. “The German government is called upon to conduct conversations in this regard, especially given the fact that the UK has recently changed the original European position to recognize only the so-called political wing of the organization as a terrorist group.”

In February, London cited Hezbollah’s ongoing “attempts to destabilize the fragile situation in the Middle East” in its decision to no longer “distinguish between their already banned military wing and the political party.”

German MP Benjamin Strasser addressing the Bundestag during a discussion about Hezbollah, June 6, 2019 (courtesy Bundestag.de)

For years, France has been seen as the main obstacle for a EU-wide Hezbollah ban, but Strasser said he is seeing “signals” out of Paris that it may be willing to change its position.

“Our ultimate goal is to have the government commence talks [about outlawing Hezbollah] on an EU level, possibly in addition to a domestic banning of Hezbollah activities,” he said. “I hope that we can reach a situation where Hezbollah operations in Germany and Europe can be prohibited.”

The distinction between a political and a military wing of Hezbollah was always “artificial,” created to help France agree to a prohibition of one part of the group while continuing to work with the other part, Strasser said. “But that has, of course, nothing to do with reality. Hezbollah itself declared that it is one entity that doesn’t have separate wings.”

Thursday’s resolution, he stressed, is “first and foremost a measure of German domestic politics in order to prevent Hezbollah’s criminal activities and the anti-Semitism it spreads here on German soil.”

Protesters hold photos of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah at Al Quds day demonstration in Berlin, July 25, 2014. (Photo credit: Micki Weinberg)

Citing domestic intelligence services, Strasser said that 1,000 Hezbollah supporters live in Germany today. “Logistically it’s not easy to assess the situation, because of course Hezbollah is not a registered organization. Rather, Hezbollah uses various shell groups and straw men who commit criminal acts such as prostitution, money laundering and drug trade and pay provisions to the mother organization.”

At the same time, it is not difficult to prove that about 20 percent of the money generated by Hezbollah cells in Germany ends up with the main group in Lebanon, he said. “That’s why Germany is an important transfer site for Hezbollah.”

Even an “association ban” on Hezbollah, as his resolution demands, would not solve all the problems, Strasser acknowledged. But it’s a first and necessary step in the effort to curtail the group’s activity, he insisted.

“A ban doesn’t automatically make people disappear. You cannot prohibit people or ideas. That’s an illusion. But we can make it more difficult for people. One can more easily break up their infrastructure. One can better prosecute people and groups that are affiliated with Hezbollah.”

In a democracy that respects the rule of law, prohibiting an organization must always be a last resort, added Strasser, whose party is known for advocating for classical liberal values such as individual freedoms.

A man fixes a Hezbollah flag at the ‘Garden of Iran’ Park in the Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras on September 1, 2019, as fires blaze on the Lebanese side along the border following an exchange of fire with Israel. (Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP)

“But that doesn’t mean we have to be tolerant in the face of intolerance and anti-Semitism. We, as Germans, have a special responsibility toward the State of Israel — not only because of our history, but also because of our interest in supporting Israel as the Middle East’s only democracy, which is very close to our ideas of a Western democracy.”

Protecting Israel from attacks emanating from Lebanon or Iran is not only imperative because of Germany’s dark past, he added, “but it’s indeed also in our own national interest to fight organizations that are clearly anti-Semitic.”

‘I quickly realized that this conflict is not black and white’

Strasser was born in Weingarten, a town near the borders with Austria and Switzerland. A practicing Catholic, he was always well-disposed toward the Jewish state but said he turned into a “passionate defender” of Israel during a 10-day visit to Israel in 2012.

“Because I got to know people who are very open — Tel Aviv, for example, is a vibrant, pulsating, liberal and tolerant city,” he recalled. “So much diversity in one country, with Mea Shearim [an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem] and the Gay Pride Parade, that impressed me a great deal.”

Visiting Hebron, Strasser “quickly realized that the situation in this conflict is not black and white… The conflict is not only about nationalities or ethnicities; it’s about religion, water, history, and military strategy, of course.”

An Israeli flag flies above pro-Israel demonstrators protesting against an al-Quds Day rally in Berlin, July 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

To be sure, Strasser is certainly not neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He’s very critical of the Palestinian Authority, but also has concerns about some of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies vis-a-vis Israel’s Arab minority.

“In Germany, no one dares to criticize a Palestinian president who was elected for a four-year term that is lasting for 13 years,” he said, referring to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“The entire focus is, partially correctly so, on Netanyahu’s policies. In a democracy one can and should criticize the government. I am quite critical of Netanyahu when he curtails or limits civil liberties that have always been an important part of Israeli society. But I cannot seriously compare this to what’s been happening at the Palestinian Authority.”

After being elected to the Bundestag in 2017, Strasser moved to Berlin, where today he lives on a street with a synagogue. “It fills me with great joy and with pride to see Jews go to synagogue on Shabbat,” he said.

“We have to make sure that Jewish life, with all the problems that we have with rising anti-Semitism — from the left and the right and wherever it may come from — is combated. That’s also why I am fighting for a prohibition of Hezbollah.”

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