The European Union’s 28 governments blacklisted the military wing of Hezbollah, striking a political blow against the Iranian-backed Shiite group that is helping President Bashar al-Assad cling to power in Syria.
Britain and the Netherlands led the push for the EU to brand the Lebanese group’s military arm a terrorist organization, making it harder for it to raise funds and recruit in Europe. The EU stopped short of the U.S. and Israeli policy of proscribing all of Hezbollah, seeking to maintain leverage in Lebanon by not cutting off contact with the group’s officials in the Beirut government.
The move by EU foreign ministers in Brussels “is added pressure on Hezbollah,” said Magnus Ranstorp, research director at the Swedish National Defence College in Stockholm. “It restricts the movements of the individuals, it damps their legitimacy.”
Hezbollah portrays itself as an anti-Israel resistance group, waging an inconclusive war against Israel in 2006 and now aiding Assad in fighting rebels in Syria in a civil war that the United Nations estimates has claimed 93,000 lives. Sunni-ruled Gulf Cooperation Council countries including Saudi Arabia blacklisted Hezbollah last month.
EU foreign ministers justified the ban as a defense of European territory after Hezbollah was implicated in the killing of five Israelis in the bombing of a tourist bus in Bulgaria in 2012. In March, a Hezbollah operative was convicted of plotting a similar attack in Cyprus.
“It’s important to show we are united and strong in facing terrorism,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said at the Brussels meeting. “We don’t think this will adversely affect the stability of Lebanon.”
Israel welcomed the decision, which came just days after tensions flared over the European Commission’s barring of the use of EU funds for research projects and grants to Israeli organizations operating in territories Israel occupied in 1967.
In a text message, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the EU did the right thing by punishing a group with a record of “attacks against innocent civilians across the world.”
In the U.S., Secretary of State John Kerry said the designation sends “a strong message to Hezbollah that it cannot operate with impunity and that there are consequences for its actions.”
“A growing number of governments are recognizing Hezbollah as the dangerous and destabilizing terrorist organization that it is,” Kerry said in a statement. “We call on other governments to follow the EU’s lead and to take steps to begin reining in Hezbollah’s terrorist and criminal activities.”
Legal measures will be in force in a matter of days, EU officials said. A small group of EU countries had been hostile to the anti-terror move, endorsing it today only after obtaining guarantees that the EU will continue to provide political and financial support for the Lebanese government.
Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kohout said he gave the go-ahead for the decision, which required unanimity, in exchange for a pledge that the EU will “keep the dialogue with other political parties, with financial support.” The EU will review the listing every six months.
Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who is chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saluted the EU move. While the whole organization deserves to be banned, the EU still sent “a clear message to Hezbollah, and to their primary backer Iran, that Europe is not a safe haven for terrorists,” he said in an e-mailed statement in Washington.
EU governments will continue to do business with the civilian side of Hezbollah. Some EU countries have questioned whether it is possible to distinguish between the political and military wings. Today’s move came after the Lebanese government last week called the group an “essential component of Lebanese society.”
Hezbollah anticipated the Brussels announcement with a brushoff. The group is “too big to be isolated,” Sheik Nabil Qawooq, deputy chief of its executive council, said in the southern Lebanese village of Selaa, the official National News Agency reported. Hezbollah “will stand firm,” he said.
Hezbollah’s financial network throughout the Middle East will limit the practical impact of the EU sanctions, said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center in Beirut.
“This group’s financial, military, security and political access is well-known and it runs from Tehran, through Baghdad, Damascus, Lebanon and it never relied on Europe for anything important,” Salem said.