UK bans Hezbollah, designates it as terrorist group

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said the UK designation would not affect relations between London and Beirut.
Sunday 03/03/2019
Long-overdue. Britain’s Home Secretary Sajid Javid (C) outside of Downing Street in London,  February 19.(Reuters)
Long-overdue. Britain’s Home Secretary Sajid Javid (C) outside of Downing Street in London, February 19.(Reuters)

LONDON - Being a member or inviting support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah became illegal March 1 in the United Kingdom, carrying a possible prison sentence of up to 10 years.

The move came after UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid formally designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation.

“Hezbollah is continuing in its attempts to destabilise the fragile situation in the Middle East and we are no longer able to distinguish between [its] already banned military wing and the political party,” Javid said. “Because of this, I have taken the decision to proscribe the group in its entirety.”

The main opposition Labour Party, whose leader Jeremy Corbyn described members of Hezbollah as “friends” in 2009, did not seek to oppose the government’s move in parliament and it passed February 26 without a vote.

In fact, the parliamentary debate on the issue was opened by Labour MP for Enfield Joan Ryan.

“It [Hezbollah] has wreaked death and destruction throughout the Middle East, aiding and abetting the Assad regime’s butchery in Syria and helping to drive Iran’s expansionism throughout the region,” she said in a half-empty House of Commons. “It makes no distinction between its political and military wings and neither should the British government.”

The motion passed the House of Commons with little fanfare given the decision by Labour, gripped by an anti-Semitism crisis, not to formally oppose it. However, a Labour Party spokesman implied there was a political dimension to the Home Office’s ruling.

“The Home Secretary must… now demonstrate that this decision was taken in an objective and impartial way and driven by clear and new evidence, not by his leadership ambitions,” the spokesman said.

There was more debate in the House of Lords February 28 — the day before the ban took effect — with Labour and Conservative peers going back and forth over the ban, before the motion was approved.

“Proscribing Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation will significantly constrain its ability to operate in Britain and severely erode its ability to raise funds here and use British banks… to transfer funds around the globe,” said Baroness Liz Redfern, a Conservative party member. “Finally, it is right to judge Hezbollah by the totality of its actions.”

Despite the low-key nature in which the decision to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation became law, analysts said it represented a major blow to the group. The United Kingdom joins the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands as Western countries that designate the Shia group in its entirety as a terrorist organisation.

“Hezbollah as a whole and not just the military wing being designated in the UK is a very important and courageous step,” said Olivier Guitta, managing director of GlobalStrat, an international security and geopolitical risk consultancy. “The UK is sending a strong message to Iran, the main backer of the Shiite terror group, more than any other countries in the world.”

The Counter Extremism Project (CEP) commended the decision, describing the idea that there is a difference between Hezbollah’s military and political wing as a “fiction” and calling on other European countries to take a similar stance. “Until the rest of Europe comes to this realisation and takes action similar to the UK’s, Hezbollah will be free to spread its ideological and financial tentacles across the European Union and use those proceeds to strangle freedom and democracy in Lebanon,” a statement from CEP said.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said the UK designation would not affect relations between London and Beirut.

“We see this as a matter that involves Britain and not Lebanon,” he said in an interview with Egypt’s DMC channel before the vote. “What is important to us is that the relationship between us is not harmed and I hope they see Lebanon as Lebanon and its people. We need to build the best relationship with all and this is the foundation for Lebanon’s future and its interests.”

Hezbollah, however, which controls at least two Lebanese ministries, reacted angrily, describing the United Kingdom’s decision as an “insult to the feelings, emotions and will of the Lebanese people” and accusing the British government of “servile obedience” to Washington.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement that is allied with Hezbollah, also sought to strike a conciliatory tone, telling Agence France-Presse that the decision would not have any effect on Lebanese-British relations “because we are already used to this situation with other countries.”

Bassil portrayed a more defiant tone in comments to Lebanese media, including asserting the rights of Lebanon’s “resistance” to the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International. “As long as the land is occupied, the resistance will remain embraced by the institutions of the state and all the Lebanese people,” he said.

Regardless of how British-Lebanese relations are affected, the United Kingdom’s decision represents a major blow to Hezbollah.

“The significance of the UK’s move is that Hezbollah will not be able to fundraise, distribute its propaganda and demonstrations featuring the Hezbollah flag, as we have seen many times in London, will be banned,” Guitta said.

The Quds Day march is a major event in London, with Hezbollah’s distinctive yellow flags waved as thousands of supporters of the Palestinians take to the streets. That sight may be a thing of the past with many looking to this year’s event, set for March 31, as a test to see how strictly authorities apply the new law.

As for whether there could be other repercussions to the UK decision, Guitta said that could not entirely be ruled out.

“The risk for the UK is possibly Hezbollah retaliate with terror attacks in the UK or against UK interests in the world,” he said.