(photo credit: REUTERS)
Flags of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah flapped in the breeze recently across London as part of an annual anti-Israel rally. Protesters relied on a legal loophole that must be closed in order to take the wind out of Hezbollah banners.
The rally was in support of Quds Day, an annual protest against Israel instituted in 1979 by the late Iranian supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini, who provided financial support and religious approval for Hezbollah’s creation.
Iran continues to be Hezbollah’s primary financial benefactor today.
Quds Day is marked by chants of “death to Israel” and demonstrations against Israel’s legitimacy. In June, the protests went forward in the UK and Germany under the banner of free speech; protesters displaying Hezbollah banners argued that they supported Hezbollah’s political wing and not its EU-sanctioned deadly military arm.
Last year, the Berlin state senate banned Hezbollah’s flag at the behest of Berlin state Interior Minister Frank Henkel, who argued that it “propagates the destruction of an entire people and endorses war and violence.”
This past June, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said that British authorities were legally forced to allow the display of Hezbollah flags because the UK and EU had specifically proscribed only Hezbollah’s military wing. The problem is this: Hezbollah’s military and political wings have always been one and the same, and support for one becomes support for the other.
Hezbollah, of course, does more than wage war. In addition to the terrorist fighters roaming the Lebanese-Israeli border and propping up Bashar Assad in Syria, Hezbollah runs schools and other social programs across Lebanon.
Thousands of Lebanese children pass through the doors of these institutions, which are designed to inculcate deep devotion to Hezbollah’s virulent ideology, as well as loyalty to the Iranian supreme leader.
Though these parts of Hezbollah may appear benign, all facets of the organization share common goals: devotion to the Iranian leadership, violent opposition to Israel, and the promotion of Hezbollah’s militant activities in furtherance of its other two goals. Hezbollah’s military, social and political wings have repeatedly worked in lock step for the benefit of the organization as a whole.
Hezbollah has an impressive resume of international terrorism. In 1985, the group hijacked TWA flight 847 on its way from Athens to Rome, murdering passenger Robert Stethem, a member of the US Navy. Hezbollah is responsible for lethal attacks on US and French forces in Lebanon, as well as the 1994 suicide bombing of the AMIA Argentine Jewish community center, which killed 85 people. And a deadly and unprovoked Hezbollah cross-border raid into Israel in July 2006 instigated a bloody 34-day war that left tens of thousands of Lebanese homeless.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah has used violence in pursuit of its political goals.
Hezbollah has been implicated in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who opposed the influence of Syria – one of Hezbollah’s primary backers – in Lebanon. In 2008, Hezbollah launched what Lebanese government officials dubbed an “armed and bloody coup,” resulting in weeks of street fighting between Hezbollah and Lebanese forces until an agreement was reached that brought Hezbollah’s political party into Lebanon’s coalition government.
This past April, Lebanese journalist Maria Maalouf was subjected to death threats and an arrest warrant after she publicly criticized Hezbollah.
Hezbollah readily admits that both its members in the Lebanese parliament and its fighters defending Assad in Syria take their direction from Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.
Hezbollah deputy leader Naim Qassem said that “Hezbollah’s secretary- general is the head of the Shura Council and also the head of the Jihad Council, and this means that we have one leadership, with one administration.”
Qassem reaffirmed in 2012: “We don’t have a military wing and a political one; we don’t have Hezbollah on one hand and the resistance party on the other.”
And yet, the UK and EU have created a semantic separation, a distinction without a difference, between Hezbollah’s political and military wings.
The UK proscribed Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization in 2001. The European Union did the same in 2013. The result: Hezbollah banners waving in London. But this does not have to be.
In 2004, the Netherlands designated Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist group, recognizing that “Hezbollah’s political and terrorist wings are controlled by one coordinating council.”
The Netherlands notes that it maintains full political relations with Lebanon and all of its parties except Hezbollah. This should be the model for the UK and the EU as well.
In 2017, it is time for the UK to recognize reality and designate Hezbollah as a whole as a terrorist entity and push the EU to do the same. Otherwise, Hezbollah’s banner will shamefully continue to fly over its cities.The author is a research analyst with the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), a not-for-profit, non-partisan, international policy organization formed to combat the growing threat from extremist ideologies.