Tuesday, 26 February 2013
Hezbollah and the EU
On 18 July 2012 forty-two Israeli tourists, having landed at Burgas airport in Bulgaria on a flight from Tel-Aviv, boarded a bus to their hotel. A suicide bomber among the passengers detonated an explosive device that also killed the bus driver and five Israelis, and injured a further thirty-two. On 5 February 2013, after an exhaustive investigation, the Bulgarian interior minister said that it was a reasonable assumption that two suspects, who lived in Lebanon, were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah. Forensic evidence and intelligence sources also pointed to Hezbollah's involvement in the blast.
On 18 February 2013 Bulgarian foreign minister, Nikolai Mladenov, was in Brussels briefing his EU counterparts on the seven-month investigation and its conclusions. In a news conference Mladenov said: “We believe the attack that happened in Burgas last year was organised by people connected to the military wing of Hezbollah…We in Europe need to take collective measures to make sure that such attacks will never happen again on EU soil... We must send a strong message to the rest of the world, that activities like this are unacceptable, no matter where they are planned or executed.”
The EU seems reluctant to respond. Far from sending a strong message to the world, the EU’s foreign policy chief − British peeress Baroness Ashton − has resorted to dithering and equivocation. Meanwhile Hezbollah – indicted by a UN tribunal for the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the repository of vast stocks of weaponry supplied by Iran, the active supporter of Bashar Assad’s régime in Syria, designated a “terrorist organisation” by Canada, the UK, the US and even Turkey − as far as the EU is concerned remains persona grata.
The fact is that Hezbollah has a 30-year history of terrorist activity in Lebanon, the Middle East and around the globe, directed against the United States and the West, against pro-Western Arab states, Hezbollah's enemies in Lebanon − and, of course, Israel and the Jewish people generally, usually at the behest of Iran, which uses Hezbollah as its main proxy.
For example. there was the attempted attack on the Israeli embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan in 2008, carried out by two Hezbollah operatives who underwent training in Iran. The plan was exposed when Azeri security forces stopped a car carrying the two Hezbollah operatives and found guns, explosives and pictures of the Israeli embassy. The two were tried, found guilty, and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Then there was the unsuccessful attempt in 2011 to assassinate the Israeli consul in Istanbul which injured eight Turkish citizens. According to Sky News Iran’s Quds Force Unit 400 was behind the attack.
And now a man is on trial in Cyprus suspected of helping plan a terrorist attack against Israeli tourists on the island. On Wednesday 20 February he admitted in court to being an active member of Hezbollah since 2007, trained to use weapons and having acted as a courier for the organisation in Turkey, France and the Netherlands. In court Hossam Taleb Yaacoub gave details of meetings with his Hezbollah handler, and said that he had staked out locations in Cyprus known to be popular with Israeli tourists. He had also noted the number plates of tour buses carrying Israelis.
Whether this new turn of the screw will be sufficient to induce the EU finally to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organisation is open to speculation. The suspicion is that what is holding the EU back is the fact that Hezbollah has managed to insinuate itself into the heart of the Lebanese body politic.
Lebanon's history is, perhaps, more convoluted than many another state's – and this is not the place to rehearse it in detail. Sufficient to note that, liberated by Free French and British troops in 1941, Lebanon was declared an independent sovereign nation, and France handed over power to the first Lebanese government as from 1 January 1944.
The "National Pact" established the basis of modern Lebanon. Political power in Lebanon is allocated on what is known as a "confessional" system, with seats in the parliament allocated 50-50 as between Muslims and Christians. The top three positions in the state are allocated so that the President is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister, a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament, a Shi'a Muslim.
This partly explains the presence of Hezbollah in the Lebanese government. Hezbollah, an extremist Islamist group, originated within the majority Shiite block of Lebanon society. It emerged with a separate identity in the early part of the 1980s as an Iranian-sponsored movement resisting the presence of Western and Israeli forces. Perhaps its most notorious terrorist actions were those of 23 October 1983 when the United States Marine barracks in Beirut was blown up in a suicide bombing. Just six months previously, on 18 April, the US embassy in Beirut had been subject to a suicide car bombing which killed 63 people.
Born in blood, fire and explosion, Hezbollah can scarcely be said to have become respectable, but the group achieved a certain acceptability in Lebanese society following Israel's withdrawal in May 2000. In the election that followed Hezbollah formed an electoral alliance with the Amal party and took all 23 seats in South Lebanon, out of a total 128 parliamentary seats.
Since then Hezbollah has participated in Lebanon's parliamentary process. Following the elections in April 2009 Hariri constructed a 30-minister cabinet made up of five ministers nominated by President Suleiman, 15 from Hariri's coalition, and 10 from the opposition including two members of Hezbollah. It is this semi-respectable position achieved by Hezbollah − doubtless augmented by the emphasis placed by the organisation on social and welfare activities among the population − which is deterring the EU from acknowledging that at its heart Hezbollah is a ruthless, merciless, terrorist organisation dedicated to achieving its Islamist aims without regard to moral considerations of any sort.
Perhaps eventually the penny will drop.
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line magazine, 26 February 2013: