BRUSSELS - European Union governments agreed Monday to put the armed wing of Hezbollah on the EU terrorism blacklist in a reversal of past policy fuelled by concerns over the Lebanese militant movement's activities in Europe.
Britain and the Netherlands have pressed EU peers since May to put the Shi'ite Muslim group's military wing on the bloc's terrorism list, citing evidence it was behind a bus bombing in Bulgaria last year which killed five Israelis and their driver.
Until now, the EU had resisted pressure from Washington and Israel to blacklist Hezbollah, arguing such a move could fuel instability in Lebanon, where the group is part of the government, and add to tensions in the Middle East.
But evidence from Bulgaria about the attack and concerns over Hezbollah's growing involvement in the war in Syria persuaded opponents to back the move, which triggers the freezing of any assets the group's armed wing may hold in the 28-nation EU.
"It is good that the EU has decided to call Hezbollah what it is: a terrorist organization," Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said on the sidelines of a meeting of EU foreign ministers who decided on the blacklisting.
"We took this important step today, by dealing with the military wing of Hezbollah, freezing its assets, hindering its fundraising and thereby limiting its capacity to act."
Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote The Jerusalem Post by email, that "The decision will be partially welcomed by Washington and Jerusalem but it still ignores the evidence, including statements from Hezbollah's own leadership, that Hezbollah is not a two-winged organization neatly divided between political and military arms."
A member of ZAKA
examines the damage to a bus
after a terror attack in
Burgas, Bulgaria in July 2012.
Dubowitz, a leading expert on sanctions targeting Hezbollah and Iran, added "The US government, working with Congress, now needs to use its designation and secondary sanctions authority to target all of Hezbollah's political, commercial and charitable entities in Europe and elsewhere which masquerade as legitimate players. By designating and identifying these entities, the US can lay the predicate for an expanded set of measures to encourage Europe to target Hezbollah in its entirety."
"Washington and Jerusalem should also use the Hezbollah designation to encourage Europe to take the next logical step and designate Iran's Revolutionary Guards, including their terrorist arm the Quds Force, who are Hezbollah's masters. Regardless of who is the Iranian president, they remain the long arm of the Iranian terrorist, nuclear and human rights threat, " said Dubowitz.
According to London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat, four countries had previously had reservations about the proposal to blacklist Hezbollah - the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Ireland and Malta.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour, told Al-Hayat that if the four countries that oppose persist in their position, the decision will not pass because it requires a consensus of the 28 states."
"The reasons for the resistance of those countries is due to fear of the consequences of the decision in the Lebanese domestic arena, but also regarding Lebanon's relations with Europe," Mansour stated.
The foreign minister added that the states that vote to blacklist Hezbollah are "seeking to respond to Israeli pressure," and in an attempt to strike a balance after the recent EU directives banning cooperation with Israeli entities beyond the Green Line.
Britain has sought to persuade its EU peers since May to put the Shi'ite Muslim group's military wing on the bloc's terrorism list, citing evidence that it was behind a deadly bus bombing in Bulgaria last year.
Until now, the EU has resisted pressure from Washington and Israel to blacklist Hezbollah, arguing that it could fuel instability in Lebanon, where the group is part of the government, and add to tensions in the Middle East.
Blacklisting the military wing means the freezing of any assets it may hold in the 28-nation bloc, though officials say there is scant information on the extent of Hezbollah's presence in Europe or on its assets.
Britain, backed by France and the Netherlands among others, has argued that Hezbollah's growing involvement in the Syrian war means Lebanon is already in a fragile situation and that the EU must weigh the possibility of future attacks in Europe.
To soothe worries that sanctions against Hezbollah could complicate the EU's relations with the Lebanese government, EU governments are also likely to issue a statement pledging to continue dialogue with all political groupings in the country.
"A few member states wanted to be reassured that such a decision will not in any way jeopardize political dialogue," the senior EU official said.
Some EU diplomats, responding to concerns that sanctions could further radicalise the group, have argued that targeting the military wing could, in the long term, persuade some of its members to move away from violence into the political sphere.
Hezbollah denies any involvement in last July's attack in the Bulgarian coastal resort of Bourgas that killed five Israelis and their driver.
But the Bulgarian interior minister said last week that Sofia had no doubt the group was behind it.
In support of its bid to impose sanctions, Britain has also cited a four-year jail sentence handed down by a Cypriot court in March to a Hezbollah member accused of plotting to attack Israeli interests on the island.
Hezbollah was set up in Damascus by Iran in 1982 with the aim of fighting Israel after its invasion of Lebanon.
Its involvement in the Syrian conflict is widely seen as a major factor helping President Bashar Assad to withstand a two-year popular uprising led by the Sunni Muslim majority against his rule.