Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday thanked British Prime Minister Theresa May for her government’s decision to outlaw the political wing of Lebanon’s Hezbollah under anti-terrorism laws.
A statement from Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister told May in a phone call that he expected other countries to follow suit in banning all branches of the Iran-backed Shiite group.
Netanyahu during the call also thanked May for the UK’s “firm position against anti-Semitism,” according to the statement.
May’s government banned Hezbollah as a terrorist organization last week, accusing it of further destabilizing the Middle East.
Britain blacklisted Hezbollah’s military wing in 2008, but had made no move against its political wing until last week.
The government’s decision followed outrage over the display of the Hezbollah flag, which features a Kalashnikov assault rifle, at pro-Palestinian demonstrations in London.
The decision means that being a member of, or inviting support for, Hezbollah in Britain will be a criminal offense, carrying a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
Hezbollah — Arabic for Party of God — is a Shiite Muslim movement that emerged during the early 1980s to fight Israel, with financial backing from Iran. The group maintains a formidable military that rivals the Lebanese army. It is also a powerful political force that participates in elections, has members in parliament and the government, and dominates Lebanese politics.
Hezbollah has a decades-long history of conflict with Israel, including the bloody Second Lebanon War in 2006, and its leader Hassan Nasrallah regularly threatens to target Israel with thousands of advanced missiles that can reach all major Israeli cities.
The group is considered a terror organization by Israel, the US and the Arab League. The European Union put the armed wing of Hezbollah on its terrorism blacklist in 2013, due to the group’s alleged role in blowing up an Israeli tour bus in Bulgaria. But, unlike the US, European countries differentiated between the group’s military and political wings.
Hezbollah does not specifically divide itself into armed and political wings, and Nasrallah has said the group does not operate as two entities.
Last week, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told lawmakers that any distinction between Hezbollah’s military and political wings “does not exist.”
“This (decision) does not change our ongoing commitment to Lebanon, with whom we have a broad and strong relationship,” he said.
The ban came after the powerful Shiite group was included as part of Lebanon’s new government. While the cabinet is headed by Saad Hariri, a Western-backed Sunni politician who has held the job since 2016, Hezbollah made significant gains at the expense of the largest Sunni party and now controls three government ministries.
Britain’s decision drew swift condemnation from both Hezbollah and the Iranian government over the weekend. On Friday, a statement issued by Hezbollah called the British ban an “insult” to the Lebanese people and evidence of subservience to the United States.
Hezbollah insisted that not only was it a “resistance” movement against Israel, but also a political and popular force with representatives in the Lebanese parliament and government.
“No country in the world that embraces terrorism, funds and supports it has the right to accuse Hezbollah or any other resistance movement of being terrorist,” the statement said.
On Saturday, Iran condemned the Hezbollah ban as “wrong and irresponsible,” and called the Shiite militia a “legitimate and legal force which plays an effective and undeniable role in helping its country’s political stability and safeguarding its security.”
The British ban comes as the United States is increasing its pressure on Hezbollah, placing several sets of sanctions on the group and on Iran.
Last month, the US ambassador to Lebanon described what she labeled as Hezbollah’s “growing” role in the new Lebanese cabinet as a threat to the country’s stability. US officials have also expressed concern that Hezbollah will exploit the ministries it runs to funnel money to fund the group’s operations.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.