Germany on Thursday officially announced that it has outlawed activities by the Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah. In a dramatic departure from Berlin’s previous policy, which was based on the European Union’s stance, the new ban does not differentiate between the group’s military and political wings.
Hezbollah activities “violate criminal law and the organization opposes the concept of international understanding,” said German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.
The group, headed by Hassan Nasrallah, denies Israel’s right to exist and “supports the armed terrorist fight” against the Jewish state, his ministry said in a statement issued Thursday. “It is to be expected that Hezbollah will continue to plot terrorist acts against Israel and Israeli interests also outside the Middle East.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas wrote on his Twitter account that Hezbollah denies Israel’s right to exist and threatens “with violence and terror and massively upgrades its rocket arsenal. It is important that Germany exhausts the means of the rule of law to take action against criminal and terrorist activities of Hezbollah.”
Early on Thursday morning, German police raided four groups associated with Hezbollah in various locations across the country to ensure that “evidence of potential sub-organizations in Germany could not be destroyed when this ban was announced,” the Interior Ministry said.
Since there is no formal German branch of Hezbollah, Berlin cannot outlaw the organization as such, according to a Interior Ministry statement. Hence the government undertook to ban Hezbollah’s activities, which has the same legal consequences, the statement explained: “It is prohibited to use or display symbols and to organize and participate in assemblies; assets are confiscated and forfeited. Violations of bans on organizations and activities are equally punishable.”
The new policy prohibits the showing of Hezbollah signs and symbols in public, including “in an assembly or in print, audio or visual media, pictures or portrayals.” Even the symbol of the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts, Hezbollah’s youth movement, is banned. The group’s assets will be confiscated.
Israel welcomed Berlin’s new policy. “It is a very important decision and a valuable and significant step in the global fight against terrorism,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in a statement released shortly after the German decision was announced. “I would like to express my deepest appreciation to the German government for this step and I am sure that many governments in the Middle East as well as the thousands of victims of Hezbollah’s terror join in thanking them for this decision.”
I applaud the German govt for the decision to designate Hezbollah a terror organization. In my conversations with @HeikoMaas he promised to help & I thank him. I call on other European countries & the EU to do the same. Hezbollah is a terror organization & must be treated as such
— ישראל כ”ץ Israel Katz (@Israel_katz) April 30, 2020
Katz called on other European countries to follow the German move. “All the parts of Hezbollah, including the social, political and military wings are terror organizations and they should be treated as such,” he said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Germany for the move and also called on other countries to follow suit. “Any country advocating peace needs to expel terror groups and not give them any direct or indirect support,” he said in a statement released by his office.
The designation was also hailed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who praised the “strong action.”
“The US commends our German ally for banning this Iran-sponsored terrorist group and ensuring its supporters are denied operating space,” Pompeo said in a tweet, urging other European countries to follow suit.
German authorities estimate that 1,050 people living in the country are affiliated with Hezbollah.
“These and other sympathizers with the organization do not form a uniform structure,” the Interior Ministry said Thursday. “Rather, followers of the organization meet within individual local mosque associations. A connection to Hezbollah is often covered up through intentionally conspiratorial behavior and resistance to penetration from outside.”
Furthermore, Hezbollah uses Germany as a “safe haven and a base for recruiting new supporters, as well as for procurement, attack and fundraising activities,” the ministry said. “In recent years, a number of cases have been reported in which Hezbollah has used Germany as its specific area of activity for procurement and for planning attacks.”
Hundreds of anti-Israel protesters, among them supporters of Hezbollah, annually participate in Berlin’s al Quds-Day demonstration. At a counter-demonstration this year, Jewish community officials and the city’s top security official, Andreas Geisel, called on the federal government to outlaw Hezbollah in its entirety.
Hezbollah flags have been banned from the event for several years, though they have been seen flashed by supporters occasionally.
On Thursday, the Interior Ministry in Berlin said Hezbollah “openly calls for the violent elimination of the State of Israel and questions the right of the State of Israel to exist. The organization is therefore fundamentally against the concept of international understanding, regardless of whether it presents itself as a political, social or military structure.”
German security authorities “use all available instruments of the rule of law to crack down on terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and take strict measures against their activities in Germany,” the statement went on.
Thursday’s announcement did not come as a surprise, as lawmakers and government officials have long been working on a ban of the group.
In December, the Bundestag passed with a large majority a non-binding resolution calling on the government to ban Hezbollah activities, urging Berlin to abandon the current differentiation between the political and military wings of the group.
Until this week, the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel recognized only the “military wing” of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, but continued to view its “political branch” as legitimate, although analysts have long argued that such a distinction was artificial. Like most other European states, Germany has been wary of banning the Lebanon-based group in its entirety, fearing this could harm Berlin’s diplomatic ties with Beirut.
On Thursday, the Interior Ministry dismissed the very argument it has cited for years: “Just as it is not possible to distinguish between political and religious members of the organization, it is also not possible to divide the organization into its political, social and military wings,” the 32-page long document outlining the new policy stated.
The US, the UK, the Netherlands and several Arab states already recognize the organization in its entirety as a terrorist organization.