Last week Germany banned the political wing of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. The ban could prompt other European countries to follow suit. However, to date, debates in Europe on whether Hezbollah is a terrorist organization remain inconclusive.
The ban was announced by the German Interior Ministry on April 30, and came after police raided four mosques charged with working with the group. Last August, a Hezbollah operated Shia mosque in the German city of Munster posted a Facebook video announcing its pride in terrorism and allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
This move was preceded by the German Bundestag’s (Parliament) decision to ban Hezbollah in December 2019. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) bloc led deliberations in Parliament to ban Hezbollah. Merkel’s CDU was supported by the center-left Social Democratic Party, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the far right Alternative for Germany party (AFD) which is an anti-immigration party. The AFD has advocated the banning of Hezbollah’s political wing since last June.
The four German parties criticized Hezbollah’s fundraising activities in Germany, as well as the movement’s recruitment of new members, and the spread of jihadist ideology. German officials expressed concern over the movement calling for the violent elimination of the State of Israel.
Despite these concerns, the Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office from the Social Democratic Party, Niels Annen, opposed the ban on the pro-Iran group in 2019, backed by the German Green and left-leaning parties. An array of other parties opposed the move, including the Christian Social Union. But some consider the ban as coming too late, and after several attempts by the United States and Israel to pressure Germany to ban Hezbollah. Before the ban, Germany insisted on finding political solutions.
Berlin identified some 1,050 Hezbollah operatives on German soil. The number of operatives increased considerably in 2017-2018 in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. This coincided with rising anti-Semitism in Germany. Since then, the Central Council of Jews in Germany raised public awareness on the need to ban Hezbollah.
The question now is whether Germany’s decision will lead the European Union (EU) to ban Hezbollah’s political activities, given an increase in the number of Hezbollah recruits in Europe. There is no common approach towards the subject across Europe. But the EU added Hezbollah’s “military wing” to its terrorism list in 2013 after a deadly attack on an Israeli tourist bus in Bulgaria in 2012.
Richard A Grenell, US ambassador to Germany thinks the EU should follow Germany and ban the movement, citing Hezbollah’s contribution to the 400,000 plus death toll in the Syrian civil war. Eliot L. Engel, Chairman of the US House Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs has supported the German decision.
Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah dismissed the German ban, saying that other European countries would likely follow Germany’s lead due to pressure from Israel. In a televised speech on Monday May 4, he condemned the German ban, denying the movement had planned operations in Europe or any other country. Nasrallah also slammed the ban as German submission to US pressures. But the German ban was welcomed by Saudi Arabia, while Syria and Iran condemned it.
It remains to be seen what impact the ban will have on Germany’s relations with Lebanon where pro-Hezbollah groups hold three out of 30 cabinet positions and a number of parliamentary seats. Iran insists that Hezbollah is a legitimate part of Lebanese society and played a critical role in fighting Daesh. As a result, many German politicians have opposed a total ban on Hezbollah and called on Germany to accept its political wing.
Grenell says the ban will not harm channels of communication with Lebanon. The German ban will help in increasing financial pressure on the movement. The United States sanctioned Hezbollah in May 2018, including two of its representatives in Iran and five companies operating in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Japan, Australia, Canada, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization and like the United States have sanctioned the movement, while retaining strong ties with Lebanon.
In the aftermath of the German ban, it will be difficult for Hezbollah now to convince other European states that it is not involved in activities and operations causing social disharmony and compromising their security. So far, Hezbollah and its Iranian backers are defiant, promising that Germany will face the consequences of its decision. As a result, a complete European ban on Hezbollah will allow other European countries to join Germany in its efforts to end Hezbollah’s operations on European soil.