Target: Europe

Hezbollah's Return To Terror

02.21.13 3:45 PM ET

Another reported Hezbollah attempt to attack Israeli civilians in Europe may yet again turn up the pressure on the European Union to designate the militant, Lebanese Shia organization as a terror group. Yesterday, a Lebanese-Swedish man reportedly told a Cyprus courtroom that he was a Hezbollah member and had been asked by an unnamed Lebanese man to take note of planes and buses ferrying Israeli tourists to and around the small European island. Those revelations came in the same month that Bulgarian officials blamed Hezbollah for the bus bomb that killed five Israeli tourists in Burgas last year. 

Pressure on the E.U. from the U.S. and Israel is likely to intensify in the face of the recent reports. For years, the E.U. has resisted calls to designate Hezbollah as terrorists, and the new revelations may not change the calculus that leads to that reticence: because Hezbollah has a role in Lebanon's government, some European countries—particularly Lebanon's former colonial rulers in France—are hesitant to list the group. “Calling it terrorist would limit France’s ties with Beirut and put French targets and personnel in Lebanon at risk of retaliation," a former French spy, Claude Moniquet, told the JTA. "The Bulgarian report doesn’t alter this realpolitik. There were always plenty of smoking guns." It's been said that the terror list in the U.S. can fall prey to politics, and the E.U.'s list seems to be no different.

The renewed pressure might, however, be bolstered by the latest revelations about Cyprus; the court testimony, from the proverbial horse's mouth, bolsters a patter of renewed Hezbollah attacks against civilian targets. “Foreign ministries around Europe are watching this quite closely because many Europeans, particularly the Germans, have laid such a stress on courtroom evidence being the basis for a designation,” Daniel Benjamin, the formter top U.S. State Department official for counter-terror, told the New York Times. For years, the group stayed away from such actions so as to gain more room to maneuver diplomatically. "The results of Bulgaria's investigation, if they bear out, add credence to a pattern that has slowly taken shape over the last seven years, ever since Hezbollah was first indicted for a political assassination in Lebanon and later accused of strikes on Israeli targets abroad," wrote Lebanon-based analyst Thanassis Cambanis after Bulgaria revealed its findings. "The Party of God, once eager to forswear tactics considered terrorist, appears to be tilting back into their embrace." Despite taking notes on Israeli tourists' activities, indicating a match to the Bulgaria attack's modus operandi, the Swedish-Lebanese man on trial in Cyprus denied he was involved in terror: I’m only trained to defend Lebanon," he claimed.

Designating Hezbollah might not have a huge impact on the group's operations, Cambanis noted in the Atlantic, but doing business would become more difficult. The Cyprus trial has exposed a host of shadowy Hezbollah activities in Europe, including cloak-and-dagger meetings and package shipment. E.U. member-states would be obliged to pursue those activities as well as Hezbollah fundraisers in their jurisdictions and, perhaps more importantly, the group could lose the diplomatic access its gained since the mid-1990s when its violence focused more exclusively on Israeli military targets. 

Already, Hezbollah faces image problems at home in war-weary Lebanon for its role backing Bashar al Assad's regime in Syria. That conflict puts the group on the opposite side of governments like those in the Gulf Arab states, which had backed Hezbollah in its 2006 war with Lebanon, but now back Syrian rebels trying to overthrow Assad. In an ironic twist, the very ascent to its position of power that makes Europeans hesitant to designate it a terror group has brought its public popularity down. Cambanis wrote in the New Republic last year, "Lebanon’s Party of God once literally threw bombs at those who stood in the way of its ideology, attacking powerful enemies like America and Israel as well as smaller rivals at home. Today, Hezbollah represents the very sort of power it used to oppose." He added that the group "remains comfortable with its deep, compromised embrace of Bashar Al-Assad’s criminal regime in Syria." In the age of the popular uprisings known collectively as the Arab Spring, ties to Iran's dictators and Assad's Syria cause Hezbollah's popularity to plummet. EU terror list or not, Hezbollah—including its apparent recent involvement in terror attacks against Israelis—appears to be flailing to hang on to its waning relevance.