Shift seen possible in EU stance on Hizbullah's status

Adding Hizbullah to terror list would compromise the group's ability to raise funds.

hizbullah funeral 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
hizbullah funeral 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
A historic window of opportunity to put Hizbullah on the European Union terror list has opened following the French elections, three experts told Congress on Wednesday. Adding Hizbullah to that list, a move long sought by Israel and the United States, would significantly compromise the group's ability to raise funds in what is currently a "permissive operating environment," according to former Treasury official Michael Jacobson. Former German Parliamentarian Alex Ritzmann, another witness at Wednesday's hearing on Hizbullah and the EU called by House Foreign Affairs European Subcommittee Chairman Robert Wexler (D-Florida), assessed an "improvement in the chances" of French backing for blacklisting Hizbullah because of the recent election of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The US and Israel have already labeled the Lebanese militant organization a terrorist group. France has traditionally led the opposition to adding Hizbullah to the list, but Sarkozy has been very critical of the Lebanese militant organization both in his previous post as Interior Minister and on the campaign trail. Ritzmann criticized European indifference to Hizbullah in the face of numerous bombings and assassinations it carried out in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s. The organization works to radicalize the Muslim population within Europe and serves as a "potential weapon in the hands of the Iranian regime," he said. Ritzmann referenced a German security report's conclusion that 900 core Hizbullah agents are currently active within that country, and warned of the dangers posed by a similar presence throughout the continent. Jacobson added that beyond Germany there is an "information vacuum," which the blacklist could help to fill by increasing intelligence and law enforcement action and cooperation across Europe. Still, Jacobson cautioned that the odds of the 27-member European Council pushing through the measure remain long, as it must be done unanimously. Jacobson, who now works at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, deemed the prospects "unlikely as long as they don't regard Hizbullah as a direct threat" as they do al-Qaida and its affiliates. In addition, France maintains a historical and contemporary interest in Lebanon, particularly in the fate of its Maronite Christians, and prefers to integrate Hizbullah into the Lebanese political process. Adherents of this strategy fear a blacklist would alienate Hizbullah and prove counterproductive, as well as potentially destabilize Lebanon's fragile political balance. Panelists also speculated that some governments may hope to avoid provoking Hizbullah retribution against European troops in the UNIFIL contingent in Southern Lebanon, or within the borders of their respective nations. The key to effecting a policy change, witnesses said, is to work with European policymakers and governments more amenable to stricter treatment of Hizbullah. The Netherlands was singled out for praise for having banned Hizbullah on its own national terrorist list. The United Kingdom has taken the smaller step of banning Hizbullah's External Security Organization. France shut down broadcasts of Hizbullah's television station, Al-Manar, due to inflammatory content. "The US should apply pressure in a low-profile manner," set up a trans-Atlantic working group, and provide European governments with information and intelligence on Hizbullah, Ritzmann advised. A confrontational stance, such as one that ties the Hizbullah blacklist issue to ongoing negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, could jeopardize the united front maintained by the EU and US, he warned. Another difficulty in influencing the EU politics of the blacklist, Jacobson said, is the "opaque" nature of the process. Spain, Belgium, Greece, and Italy oppose adding Hizbullah to the list, he surmised, while Holland, Germany and the UK are in favor. Yet many countries' positions, as well as their rationales, remain unknown. Council meetings to discuss changes to the common terrorist list are held behind closed doors, and transcripts have not been released.