Both the Obama administration and American Jewish groups are pressing European governments with new vigor to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, following an investigation pointing to Hezbollah’s role in a terror attack against Israelis in Bulgaria last July.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, just settled into his new post, set the tone for a coordinated campaign, using the investigation, conducted by Bulgaria and released February 4, as his cudgel.
“We need to send an unequivocal message to this terrorist group that it can no longer engage in despicable actions with impunity,” Kerry said in a February 5 statement. It is a message, he added pointedly, aimed “particularly at our partners in Europe.”
Kerry’s statement came alongside a push from Jewish groups, which were directly apprised of the report’s findings by the Bulgarian government before its release. Just one day after Kerry’s statement, Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, took the message to French President Francois Hollande when he received a Legion of Honor decoration from the president.
Hollande would not commit, saying only that France would “study the evidence” from the attack in Burgas, Bulgaria, before making a decision, according to a press release.
American officials were nevertheless cautiously optimistic that the investigation’s findings may help them to at long last convince the Europeans to clamp down on Hezbollah operations on their soil, as Washington does here.
“It is not going to put Hezbollah out of business,” said Daniel Benjamin, who served until recently as the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, “but I do think it would have significant repercussions. After all, European blood has now been shed on European soil by this group.”
Designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group by Europe would be a blow to the group’s fundraising ability and to its international legitimacy, said Benjamin.
European nations have resisted pressure to make this move for decades. The governments involved fear that they would lose influence in the Middle East if they were to act against the group. They also worry that such a move would increase instability in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based.
As a practical matter, European officials also calculate that turning a blind eye on Hezbollah’s activities in Europe ensures the group does not target European countries.
The investigation results from Bulgaria now throw that assessment into question.
“This unwritten deal has been violated by Hezbollah,” said Clemens Wergin, a commentator and foreign editor for Germany’s conservative publication Die Welt.
In its report, a team set up by the Bulgarian interior ministry found “obvious links” between Hezbollah and perpetrators of the July attack against a bus taking Israeli tourists to the Black Sea resort town Burgas. Five Israelis and a local Bulgarian driver were killed in the attack. The six-month investigation established that two of the suspects who carried out the attack were Hezbollah members.
Release of the Bulgarian government’s report was coordinated with Israel, the United States and with Jewish organizations.
Senior Bulgarian officials visited Israel before the report was released. David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee was called to Sofia, according to a source aware of his travel, to personally receive a briefing. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, was notified by email about the upcoming findings before the official release.
Hezbollah has been on the United States list of terror organizations since 1997, and American citizens and business entities are therefore prohibited from maintaining ties with the group. It is also illegal in the United States to raise money for Hezbollah or groups related to it. Canada and the Netherlands are the only other nations to fully designate Hezbollah as a terror organization. Britain has branded the group’s military wing a terror group while making clear the designation does not include the group’s political branch.
It would take an affirmative vote of all 27 member countries for the European Union to brand Hezbollah as a terror group.
The European refusal so far has allowed Hezbollah to receive much of its financial support through E.U. countries. “Hezbollah raises money in Europe today hand over fist, like the Red Cross,” said Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
While Britain has been leading efforts to take action against Hezbollah, France is viewed by Washington as the main obstacle. U.S. officials attribute France’s recalcitrance to its wish to maintain influence in Lebanon, which was under French colonial rule in the early 20th century.
Germany, with its leading role in the E.U., is considered the key player on this issue and the nation that could swing the European view. A 2009 report compiled by Alexander Ritzmann, then a senor fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy, found that Hezbollah raises funds in Germany through a not-for-profit organization called Orphans Project Lebanon. The money collected in Germany goes to support families of Hezbollah fighters, the report stated.
“The attitude towards Hezbollah here in Germany seems to be changing [since publication of]the report on the Burgas attack,” said Sylke Tempel, editor in chief of Internationale Politik, a German foreign policy magazine. Chancellor Angela Merkel and members of her party have spoken out against Hezbollah, though little action has been taken so far.
“The EU has to take a stand and list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization,” said Philipp Missfelder, the ruling Christian Democratic party’s parliamentary spokesman on foreign policy, in a statement. “A clear position from Europe is overdue.”
Political rivals dispute this idea. Dietmar Nietan, a Social Democratic member of the Bundestag said in a September 6 interview that outlawing Hezbollah is not the right path to take.
“At the end of the day, the problem of terrorism is not solved by declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization,” he said. “We need communication channels not blanket condemnations.”
Shortly after the Burgas attack, Jewish leaders began urging the Bulgarian government not to fear citing Hezbollah as the culprit, if the evidence was clear.
In Britain, which has been the most forthcoming European nation on this issue, Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly asked the local Jewish community to “make a noise” and lead a grassroots campaign to push for a European designation.
The United Kingdom has been advocating that Europe adopt a dual approach toward Hezbollah similar to the one the U.K. itself maintains: ban the group’s military arm but avoid a comprehensive designation that would include Hezbollah’s political and welfare activities. This approach, explained Karen Betts, a representative for the United Kingdom ‘s Joint Intelligence Committee in Washington’s British embassy, stems from both Britain’s own recent historical experience and from practical political considerations. The path to resolving the civil war in Northern Ireland, she said, led British leaders to appreciate the need to maintain an open channel for future political engagement. “Hezbollah,” she said, “could one day be a real force for stability in Lebanon.”
Betts added that differentiating between the military and political wings of Hezbollah would also make it easier to convince other European nations to designate the group’s military branch as a terror group.
Levitt predicted that the Burgas investigation is likely to be only the “first shoe to fall.” The second would be a much-anticipated trial in Cyprus, where a Hezbollah activist confessed to scouting potential sites for attacks against Israeli tourists. “A conviction,” former counterterrorism adviser Benjamin said, “would go a long way in meeting Europe’s desire to have courtroom evidence… of Lebanon’s Hezbollah activity in Europe.”
Staff writer Nathan Guttman reported from Washington; contributing editor Don Snider reported from Greenwitch, Conn.
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