EU ban on Hezbollah branch a start, but impact is likely limited

The effectiveness of the European Union’s decision to blacklist only Hezbollah’s military wing might be debatable, but one thing about the move seems certain: It did not come easy.

The decision Monday by Europe’s 28 foreign ministers to put Hezbollah’s military wing on the EU list of terrorist organizations followed months of jostling by member states in the wake of last summer’s killing of five Israelis and a Bulgarian in a bus bombing near the Black Sea resort of Burgas.

Israel and Bulgaria have accused Hezbollah of being responsible for the attack, which the Lebanon-based group denies.

At stake in the debates were Europe’s relations with Lebanon, where Hezbollah holds several seats in parliament; possible reprisals by Hezbollah against EU troops; and the credibility of the EU’s anti-terrorist stance.

To negotiate the web of conflicting interests, the EU came up with a compromise that would allow it to show toughness in responding to terrorism on its soil without sacrificing its influence in Lebanon. It would designate only the organization’s military wing as terrorist, ignoring no less an authority than Hezbollah’s second-in-command, Naim Qassem, who has said the organization has a single leadership.

“This is partly a political signal and partly a real signal that we are not prepared to see any terrorist activity as means to achieving what some would consider political ends, while we want to be clear, too, in our support for political parties of Lebanon and the people of Lebanon,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said at a news conference Monday. “We’ve made the distinction clear.”

Jewish groups were pleased generally by the development, with World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder calling it a “major breakthrough” and the Board of Deputies of British Jews averring it would “seriously damage Hezbollah’s capabilities” around the world.

But many also noted that the distinction between the group’s military and political wings is false, creating a loophole that Hezbollah could exploit to render the whole designation exercise ineffectual.

“Highlighting Hezbollah’s involvement in terrorism is a positive political statement but a flawed counterterrorism strategy,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Since terror-related operational activities are already illegal throughout the EU, the high-value counterterrorism target remains Hezbollah’s financing activities in Europe — and that target was missed.”

According to intelligence analysts, Hezbollah employs a network of thousands of activists who launder its money in European banks and front businesses, raises money for its operations and recruits militants to its ranks through a host of Islamic charities.

Europe is “Hezbollah’s piggy bank and money laundromat,” said Wim Kortenoeven, a pro-Israel former parliamentarian from the Netherlands and the author of a book on Hamas, citing a 2011 report by German intelligence that estimated Hezbollah had about 1,000 members in Germany alone.

Had the EU designation applied to Hezbollah in its entirety, it might have taken a serious bite out of the group’s European operations. A 2001 EU regulation requires the “freezing of funds, other financial assets and economic resources” of designated terrorist groups.

By exempting Hezbollah’s political operations from that requirement, the EU has allowed that activity to continue, according to Claude Moniquet, a 20-year veteran of France’s foreign intelligence agency and the founder of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, a Brussels-based think tank.

“Hezbollah’s main activity in Europe is money laundering and some gathering intelligence, which isn’t performed by combatants but is used also for military purposes,” Moniquet told JTA. “It means these regulations are declaratory and will likely have very little effect on the ground. Hezbollah will just say not to worry, these men are from the political arm.”

Before Monday, the EU list of designated terrorist entities contained 26 groups, including Hamas and Colombia’s FARC. The proscribed organizations are listed as one entity without separation into wings.

But even with the exception, the EU resolution may still have consequences for Hezbollah, according to Or Daniel, an Israeli analyst for the European Friends of Israel lobby group, a Brussels-based nonprofit.

“There is ample intelligence material that shows that people from the military units of Hezbollah are involved in ‘soft’ activities,” Daniel said. “Israel or the United States may now share the intelligence with EU partners to get them to choke off certain Hezbollah areas of activity.”

But Moniquet says European intelligence services have ample intelligence of their own on Hezbollah.

“The EU’s problem with Hezbollah was never lacking intelligence,” Moniquet said. “It’s lacking determination.”

Yet to Joel Rubinfeld, the co-chair of the European Jewish Parliament, the designation is the beginning of a process rather than its conclusion.

“It’s a first step in the right direction,” Rubinfeld said. “The significance lies not in practical consequences but in the fact that it has opened the door to the next goal — complete proscription. Opening the door was the hardest part.”

Report: E.U. close to branding Hezbollah military wing a terrorist group

A senior EU official said the union is moving closer to declaring the military wing of the Lebanese political party Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

The Associated Press on Friday reported that the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the EU could make a decision on the matter as soon as Monday, when senior representatives of all 28 member states will convene in Brussels for a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council.

The official spoke at the end of a meeting in Brussels Thursday of ambassadors from EU member states.

“It appears there is an agreement in principle to blacklist Hezbollah’s military wing, but even if this is true, it may take weeks or even months for the completion of the procedures to make it happen,” a lawyer from Brussels who is working with the EU on the issue told JTA.

“This has to be done very methodically because otherwise, the proscription may not stand up in court if a company or individual challenges it in the European Court of Justice,”  said the lawyer, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

The latest developments suggest a change of heart within leading EU member states that have been held back by fears that blacklisting Hezbollah would destabilize Lebanon, where Hezbollah is a major political force in government, and damage the relationship between the EU and Lebanon.

Europe’s movement on the Hezbollah has been propelled by allegations that the group was behind a bus bombing last year in Burgas, Bulgaria, which claimed the lives of five Israeli tourists and one Bulgarian.

On Thursday, the news site reported that new information from Britain on alleged terrorist activity by Hezbollah is likely to gain Austria’s support to blacklist the Lebanese group.

The Netherlands is the only EU member state which classifies Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist entity, as do Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Britain regards only the organization’s military wing as such, and has called on other EU states to follow the British example.

EU official: Hezbollah may not make terror list, even with Bulgaria bombing

Hezbollah may not be included on the European Union's list of terrorist groups even if it did bomb Jewish tourists in Bulgaria, the EU's top counter-terrorism official reportedly said.

On Monday, the news site EUobserver quoted the official, Gilles de Kerchove, as saying that Bulgaria's investigation into the incident is likely to be concluded next month.

According to Israel, the Lebanon-based Hezbollah was behind the bombing on July 19 in Burgas, which targeted a bus of Israeli tourists and left five Israelis and one Bulgarian dead.

U.S. and Israeli officials have said the EU should blacklist Hezbollah if the Bulgarians find it guilty of perpetrating the attack. Its inclusion would make it illegal for Hezbollah sympathizers in Europe to send money to the group, which the United States and Israel list as terrorist.

“There is no automatic listing just because you have been behind a terrorist attack,” de Kerchove is quoted as saying. “It's not only the legal requirement that you have to take into consideration, it's also a political assessment of the context and the timing.”

He noted there is “no consensus” among EU states on whether listing Hezbollah, which is part of the Lebanese government, would be useful or not.

The London-based Arabic newspaper Al Hayat last week cited a “European source” as saying that he predicted the investigation will point to Hezbollah. The Bulgarian Interior Ministry denies the report, however.

EU refuses to call Hezbollah a terrorist organization

European Union President Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis said Tuesday said that the EU would not grant Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s request to declare Iran-funded Hezbollah as a terrorist organization because “Hezobollah is a political party in Lebanon which also runs charity organizations.”

Lieberman’s request came after reports that Hezbollah organized the July 18 bombing of a bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgaria.

“It’s time to add Hezbollah to the list of terrorist organizations in Europe, as a message from the international community to those who on the one hand meet with diplomats and on the other hand murder innocent civilians on the same continent,” Lieberman said at a conference of foreign ministers in Brussels.