On 26 February 2019 Britain’s Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, declared Hezbollah to be a criminal terrorist organization, and banned it from operating in the UK. In doing this, Britain joins the ranks of the Arab League, as well as 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.
Following a long succession of terrorist attacks against Western targets, Britain first banned what it described as Hezbollah's “terrorist wing” in 2001. In 2008, after the organization had targeted British soldiers in Iraq, it added what it designated Hezbollah’s “military wing” to its ban. 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 every year on Al-Quds Day, a rally has paraded through the streets of London waving the Hezbollah flag and chanting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic slogans. Distasteful as this annual display of racism was to many Londoners, and as much as successive Home Secretaries disapproved, so long as Hezbollah’s so-called “political wing” was not proscribed it was legal to display its flag publicly. This year the Al-Quds rally in May will be notable for the absence of the flag.
The position of London’s mayor is up for election in May 2020, and Shaun Bailey, a Conservative who is standing against the present Labour party incumbent, Sadiq Khan, has vowed that if he is elected he will stop the Al Quds Day march altogether.
In fact Hezbollah’s own leaders reject any distinction between “military” or “political” wings of the organization. Speaking in 2012, deputy secretary-general Naim Qassem declared: "We don't have a military wing and a political one...Every element of Hezbollah…is in the service of the resistance… We have one leadership, with one administration." In short, Hezbollah is a unified organization, and its jihadist purpose – which is to oppose the West and eliminate Israel – is basic to its existence.
Hezbollah's organizational structure 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 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.
Over its four bloodthirsty decades of existence Hezbollah has managed to achieve a certain acceptability in Shia Muslim sections of Lebanese society. Following Israel's withdrawal in May 2000 from the buffer zone that it had established along the border, there were elections in which 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”.
Lebanon’s constitution has coped with this unsatisfactory position for two decades, but if Hezbollah’s power within the Lebanese administration became too strong, Britain might have to think about its relationship with Lebanon itself.
Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 March 2019:
Published in the MPC Journal, 4 March 2019: