US ratchets up sanctions on Hezbollah, Hamas

The law requires the US president to sanction people and groups that use human shields for protection.
Wednesday 02/01/2019
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah delivers a broadcast speech through a giant screen, during a rally marking the12th anniversary of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. (AP)
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah delivers a broadcast speech through a giant screen, during a rally marking the12th anniversary of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. (AP)

WASHINGTON - A new US law aims to weaken Hamas and Hezbollah by imposing economic and diplomatic sanctions on members of the terrorist groups who hide military equipment in civilian areas to create so-called human shields that protect them from attack.

The US Congress warned there was “renewed concern about Hezbollah’s use of human shields” and that the organisation was acquiring “thousands of rockets and advanced missiles through its patron Iran while also developing a domestic capacity to manufacture weapons within southern Lebanon.”

The law is the latest escalation of US sanctions against Hamas and Hezbollah, which have tightened under US President Donald Trump as part of his strategy to weaken and isolate Iran. Tehran supports Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The law requires the US president to sanction people and groups that use human shields for protection by freezing assets they have in the United States and revoking or denying them visas to enter the United States.

Trump signed the measure December 21, one week after Congress approved it in one of its final official acts of 2018. Although the bill had widespread support among both Democrats and Republicans, it was not clear Congress would act on the bill before adjourning for the year.

During last-minute negotiations, congressional leaders removed from the bill a section that would have pressured the United Nations to condemn the use of human shields and to impose multilateral sanctions against groups that employ the tactic.

Trump signed the bill two months after he approved a measure that aims to weaken Hezbollah by imposing sanctions on its financial supporters. At the time Trump said he had “levied the highest sanctions ever imposed on Hezbollah in a single year.” Trump also has taken aim at Hamas and last year added Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the group’s political bureau, to a US terrorist list, cutting off his access to the US financial system.

Although the new law targets any person, group or government that uses civilians “to shield military objectives from attack,” the measure specifically names Hamas and Hezbollah as perpetrators of the practice, which is barred under the Geneva Conventions.

A congressional report accompanying the bill singled out Hezbollah for a long history of using human shields in southern Lebanon. “Hezbollah conceals its military infrastructures inside densely populated civilian centres, which constitutes a serious violation of the international laws of armed conflict,” the report said. “Such a pattern of action puts the civilian population at risk and violates the distinction principle of the international laws of armed conflict.”

The report claimed Hezbollah “appears to be using” environmental groups to “create lookout posts and infrastructure that could be used to target Israeli forces.”

The measure was strongly supported in Washington by pro-Israel groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Conference, the World Jewish Conference and Christians United for Israel, which called the bill “our top priority” for 2018. The group said its members sent more than 34,000 e-mails to members of the US Senate asking them to sign on as co-sponsors of the proposal.

“Those who use human shields are the worst kind of cowards. The practitioners of this monstrous practice hide behind the skirts of women and the bodies of children in order to attack neighbouring innocent civilians,” said Pastor John Hagee, founder and chairman of Christians United for Israel.

The law expires at the end of 2023.