A year ago this week, the usually tranquil coastal town of Burgas, Bulgaria, was shaken when a bomb exploded on a tourist bus, killing five Israeli vacationers and their Bulgarian bus driver.
Within hours of the bombing, Israel claimed Hezbollah was responsible for the attack, and began to petition the European Union with renewed vigor to blacklist the group as a terrorist organisation.
Bulgaria’s government, backed by the UK, soon reiterated Israel’s claims, with the interior minister at the time saying the two suspects responsible for the bombing “were members of the military wing of Hezbollah.”
Yet inconsistencies plagued the investigation, according to critics, and this year has seen a chain of contradictory statements emerging from Bulgaria over whether or not Hezbollah was actually behind the bombing, with the new government at one point distancing itself from the comments made by its predecessor, before returning back to accusing Hezbollah.
Bulgaria has yet to complete its investigation into the attack, according to the interior minister.
Regardless, it was this, along with a conviction by a Cypriot court against a Lebanese who is said to have confessed to being a courier for Hezbollah, that were listed as the reasons behind the EU decision on Monday to place the group’s military wing on its terrorist list.
Cyprus, for its part, was reportedly one of the countries opposed to listing Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organisation.
The decision “shows that no organisation can carry out terrorist acts on European soil, such as the appalling attack in Bulgaria one year ago, without facing the consequences,” William Hague, Britain’s Foreign Minister, said following the announcement.
Some experts, however, say the move by the EU is politically motivated and directly linked to Hezbollah’s role in Syria’s civil war.
The fallout from Syria
“This is 100 percent related to Hezbollah’s role in Syria, the fall of Qusayr, and the defeat of the Syrian rebels,” Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a political analyst and expert on Hezbollah, told Al Jazeera, referring to the Syrian regime’s victory in June in the battle for the strategic town of Qusayr, in which Hezbollah confirmed it played an active role alongside the Syrian army.
|Jamal Ghosn, editor of Al Akhbar English, talks about the decision by the EU to blacklist Hezbollah|
“The West understands the Syrian regime is not going to fall, and so this has pushed the EU to come out with this decision,” she said. “This is a PR war where they’re trying to brand Hezbollah as terrorists, and equate them to groups like al-Qaeda.”
Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut told Al Jazeera that such a move was more figurative than anything that would have actual impact on the ground, both in Lebanon and in Europe.
“This is more of a symbolic move in its impact, as the EU hasn’t placed the political wing on the terrorist list,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Impacts at this stage will be quite limited partly because the contacts between Hezbollah and the EU are limited, and Hezbollah has limited presence and activity in the EU countries.”
For Sayigh, Hezbollah’s role in Syria “hardened” EU positions; some countries which would not have otherwise backed such a decision felt forced to do so.
Hezbollah has publicly confirmed playing a military role in Syria alongside the Syrian army, which it claims is limited to border areas where Lebanese are residing, as well as providing security for the Shia religious shrine, Sayda Zaynab, in Damascus.
Syria’s opposition disputes these claims, accusing the group of playing a more significant role in the ongoing conflict.
In Lebanon, the Saudi and US backed March 14 movement, has long held Hezbollah responsible for any security breach in the country, blaming its role in Syria as a direct cause of instability in Lebanon.
In May, the Future movement, a faction within the March 14 coalition, accused Hezbollah of having “transformed itself from a resistance to a militia working under Iranian orders“.
Terrorists or a resistance movement?
Hezbollah is no stranger to accusations of terrorism, more so since its involvement in Syria.
Formed in the early 1980s in the middle of Lebanon’s civil war, the movement was created as a resistance to the Israeli occupation in Lebanon. Hezbollah (Party of God), a Shia political and military organisation backed by Iran, is deemed to be one of the stronger political factions inside the country, and has a presence within Lebanon’s current caretaker government.
It has an extensive social welfare programme across the south of Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and Beirut’s southern suburbs, and it is internationally known for its military operations.
Several countries, such as the United States, Israel, Canada and the Netherlands, already consider Hezbollah in its entirety to be a terrorist organisation. The UK has listed only its military wing as a terrorist organisation.
Last month the Gulf Cooperation Council, giving Hezbollah’s role in Syria as its reason, listed the group in its entirety as a terrorist organisation. The oil-rich states have vowed to take decisive measures against those it considers to be affiliated with Hezbollah.
Al Manar, a television channel affiliated with the group, said the EU’s decision was done in accordance to Israel’s agenda.
“The leaders of the enemy state (Israel) have tried for years to push Europe to take this decision,” it said, adding that it was a blatant aggression against Lebanon and its resistance.
Hezbollah is seen as an important resistance movement by many Shias and others belonging to different sects in Lebanon, and European efforts to scare supporters away from the group will be futile, according to Saad-Ghorayeb.
“Hezbollah is a community, it’s a people based on a grassroots movement,” she said. “You can’t destroy this.”
“While there is the concern that any Shia who now supports Hezbollah either based in Europe or traveling to Europe will have to think twice, I don’t think this will push people away from Hezbollah,” she said. “Rather it will anger the Shia community.”
Walid Sukkarieh, a Hezbollah MP, told news stations earlier on Monday, “This step won’t affect Hezbollah or the resistance. The resistance is present on the Lebanese territories and not in Europe.”
Both Sayigh and Saad-Ghorayeb agreed that logistically speaking differentiating Hezbollah’s military wing from other aspects of the organisation may be a cause for concern.
“The military wing is very clandestine,” said Saad-Ghorayeb, “no intelligence agency knows the names of the fighters to freeze their assets and deny them visas, so does this mean they’ll start penalising the families of martyrs or their relatives?”
“I think it is going to be difficult to maintain distinctions between different arms of the movement, but I don’t think the UAE model is the one they will follow,” Sayigh said, referring to the Gulf state which has expelled a large number of Shias residing in the Emirates, many of whom claim to have no connection to the group.
Will this new move by the EU push Hezbollah to reevaluate its role in Syria? Unlikely, according to Sayigh.
“Hezbollah is now committed to a strategic decision, and there is nothing it can do now that can persuade others to deal with it, or reduce hostility against it, so it’s going to have to ignore these sorts of decisions and actions.”