In 1979 Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini declared that the last Friday of Ramadan would henceforth be consecrated as Al Quds Day, an annual opportunity for all enemies of Israel to have a field day. To mark the occasion those so inclined around the world organize marches and rallies to denounce Israel and declare their support for the Palestinian cause.
The UK has witnessed Al Quds Day rallies for many years. A dominant feature, as demonstrators chanting slogans and waving banners parade through central London, has been the preponderance of the yellow and green flag of Hezbollah, the organization dedicated to destroying Israel. That flag will be notable by its absence from the rally being planned for 3 pm on June 2, 2019.
Britain has had a long relationship with Hezbollah. and has disengaged from it only slowly. The divorce was made final on 26 February 2019, when Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced in the House of Commons that he was banning the organization as a whole under the Terrorism Act 2000.
“We are no longer able to distinguish between their already banned military wing and the political party,” said Javid. “Because of this, I have taken the decision to proscribe the group in its entirety.” Anyone expressing support for any part of Hezbollah could in future face a prison sentence of 10 years.
Although Labour’s front bench spokesman maintained that there was no new evidence justifying a change in the UK’s position, the Labour party did not oppose the measure.
The UK first banned what was then described as Hezbollah's “terrorist wing” in 2001. This followed a long succession of terrorist attacks against Western targets, and culminated in the abduction by Hezbollah in 2000 of three Israeli soldiers from the Israeli side of the Israel-Lebanese border, and their subsequent murder.
In 2008 the UK added what it designated Hezbollah’s “military wing” to its ban, after the organization targeted British soldiers in Iraq. But it reserved judgment on the organization as a whole, citing as its reason Hezbollah’s direct involvement in the internal politics of Lebanon.
As a consequence, since Hezbollah’s so-called “political wing” was not proscribed, the rally parading through the streets of London every year to mark Al-Quds Day was legally entitled to display the Hezbollah flag. Distasteful as this annual display of racism was to many Londoners, and as much as successive Home Secretaries disapproved, it was not an offence to do so.
Any distinction between so-called “military” or “political” wings of Hezbollah – a distinction which the EU copied from the UK – is illusory. Presenting the new measure in the Commons, Javid said: "There have long been calls to ban the whole group, with the distinction between the two factions derided as smoke and mirrors. Hezbollah themselves have laughed off the suggestion there is a difference. I've carefully considered the evidence and I'm satisfied they are one and the same with the entire organization linked to terrorism."
And indeed Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, Naim Qassen, declared in 2012: "We don't have a military wing and a political one...Every element of Hezbollah…is in the service of the resistance." He added unequivocally: “We have one leadership, with one administration." In short, Hezbollah is a unified organization, and its jihadist purpose is basic to its existence.
A glance at Hezbollah's organization confirms this. It has a unified command structure consisting of five sub-councils, or assemblies. Above them sits the Shura Council, which controls the leadership of Hezbollah and all its operations, and comprises nine members, seven of whom are Lebanese and the other two Iranian.
Iran’s involvement at the very top of today’s Hezbollah is no surprise. In the 1970s Lebanon, torn apart by civil conflict, was under the occupation of the Shia-aligned Syrian government. Around 1980 – the exact date is disputed – Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei, still basking in the glory of his 1979 Islamic Revolution, decided to strengthen his grip on Shi’ite Islam by consolidating a number of Lebanon’s militant Shia Muslim groups. He formed and funded a body calling itself Hezbollah, or “the Party of God”. Its forces were trained and organized by a contingent of 1,500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Hezbollah declared that its purpose, in line with Khomeini’s, was to oppose Western influences in general and Israel’s existence in particular. Very shortly Hezbollah was acting as Iran’s proxy in perpetrating a campaign of terror against their two perceived enemies. A wave of kidnappings, bombings and assassinations were carried out across the world. These include the detonation in 1983 of an explosive-filled van in front of the US embassy in Beirut, killing 58 Americans and Lebanese, and the bombing of the US Marine and French Drakkar barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 American and 58 French peacekeepers.
In 1992 Hezbollah operatives boasted of their involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina killing 29 people, and two years later claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Jewish community centre in Argentina and the subsequent death of 85 people. The atrocities continued: 21 people, including 12 Jews, killed in an airplane attack in Panama in 1994; the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing inside Saudi Arabia killing 19 US servicemen; the 2005 assassination of one-time Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri; the 2012 Burgas bus bombing in Bulgaria killing 6. Over the eight years of the Syrian civil war Iran recruited thousands of Hezbollah fighters to help keep President Bashar al-Assad in power and restore his lost territories to him.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Hezbollah in its entirety has been designated a terrorist body by the Arab League, as well as by a batch of other nations including Canada, the Netherlands, the USA, all the Gulf states that form the Gulf Cooperation Council and, of course, Israel. Now the group is joined by the UK, but notably absent from the list is the United Nations. In praising Britain’s decision, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, said: “We will continue to lead the struggle for the Security Council to recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and mobilize the international community against it, as it serves as an arm of Iran to spread Tehran’s aggression.”
During its 38 bloodthirsty years of existence Hezbollah has nevertheless managed to achieve a certain acceptability in Shia Muslim sections of Lebanese society. In the election that followed Israel's withdrawal in May 2000 from the buffer zone that it had established along the border, Hezbollah, in alliance with Amal, took all 23 South Lebanon seats out of a total 128 parliamentary seats. Since then Hezbollah has participated in Lebanon's parliamentary process, and has been able to claim a proportion of cabinet posts in each government. As a result it has achieved substantial power within Lebanon’s body politic, to a point where it has been dubbed “a state within a state”.
In Lebanon’s 2018 general election Hezbollah again strengthened its parliamentary position. When the subsequent political deadlock was finally resolved on January 31, 2019 and a government was formed, the organization was allocated three ministries including, for the first time, the Ministry of Health which controls one of the country’s largest budgets. In addition the Finance Ministry is in the hands of a Hezbollah ally.
This situation causes a delicate diplomatic dilemma for all the states that have proscribed Hezbollah. In supporting the ban in the House of Commons, UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said; “We are staunch supporters of a stable and prosperous Lebanon. We cannot, however, be complacent when it comes to terrorism. It is clear the distinction between Hezbollah’s military and political wings does not exist, and by proscribing Hezbollah in all its forms the government is sending a clear signal that its destabilizing activities in the region are totally unacceptable and detrimental to the UK’s national security.”
But Hunt added: “This does not change our ongoing commitment to Lebanon, with whom we have a broad and strong relationship.”
Because Lebanon’s constitution is itself a precarious balancing act between its various religious factions, it has coped with this unsatisfactory position for two decades. But if Hezbollah’s power within the Lebanese administration ever became dominant, Britain might have to think again about its relationship with Lebanon itself.