Beirut, Lebanon – Hezbollah has said Britain is acting as “a subordinate that serves the American master” after London decided to ban the group in its entirety last week.
Hezbollah’s military wing was outlawed by the United Kingdom in 2008. However, now the British government has announced it is proscribing its political arm, too.
Any member or supporter of the Iran-backed group will now be treated as a criminal in the UK and could be imprisoned for up to 10 years.
Hezbollah responded by saying that the UK’s decision to list it as a terrorist organisation was taken so as to fall in line with US policy, which also proscribes Hezbollah in its entirety.
On Saturday, Iran said that the decision was “wrong and irresponsible”, and “will not contribute to the stability and security of Lebanon”.
In a statement released a day before, Hezbollah also said: “UK’s decision is an insult to the feelings, sympathies and will of the Lebanese people that consider Hezbollah a major political and popular force represented in the Lebanese parliament and cabinet.”
A military force
A militia founded in the 1980s, Hezbollah has become a military force in the region. It displayed its political acumen in the elections held in Lebanon last May by securing a majority in parliament along with its allies.
Three ministers in Lebanon’s government are affiliated to the group, including the health minister. Despite pressure from the US, which did not want the cash-rich ministry to fall to Hezbollah, the group succeeded in putting its man in the position.
Jamal Jabak, the new health minister, used to be the personal physician of Hezbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah and is seen to be close to him.
His appointment irked Washington, which had warned there would be “consequences”. Analysts close to Hezbollah see the UK’s decision partly as fallout from Jabak’s appointment.
Amal Saad, professor of political science at the Lebanese University and author of a book on Hezbollah, said there were other reasons behind Britain’s move, including domestic politics.
Jeremy Corbyn and his allies in the Labour leadership are prominent supporters of the Palestinian cause and Hezbollah flags have been raised at their rallies.
Critics have also accused the home secretary, Sajid Javid, who announced the ban, and Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, of pursuing their own leadership ambitions in Britain’s current turbulent political landscape.
“There are a convergence of motives for the ban; undermining Corbyn in the wider context of the anti-Semitism campaign; leadership ambitions of Hunt and Javid; repositioning or realigning UK with US, Saudi, Israel in a post-Brexit phase, hence a full breaking off with EU on foreign policy,” Saad said.
Javid said his motivation was simply to protect British people.
‘A threat to Israel’
Meanwhile, making the most of the momentum, Israel has once again asked the European Union to proscribe the political arm of the group.
France has taken a different position. President Emmanuel Macron said: “It is not up to France or other outside powers to know which political force represented in Lebanon would be good or not, it is up to the Lebanese people to do so.”
Bente Scheller, director of the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s Middle East office in Beirut, said the UK had little leverage left over the EU.
“The decision to ban the military wing in the past was driven by the UK. But with a looming Brexit I think the UK is in a weaker position in the EU to lobby for this,” Scheller said.
She said that even though the EU recognised that political and military wings were mere “distinctions on paper”, and that Hezbollah presented a threat to Israel, she doubted that the EU would list all of it as a “terrorist” organisation and lose room for manoeuvering.
“Given that Hezbollah is in the government and also locally a very active political actor in Lebanon, it would be very difficult to cooperate if all of Hezbollah was on the list,” Scheller said.
Lebanon is hosting more than a million Syrian refugees and is heavily dependent on EU aid. The EU is in part motivated in its support by the desire to stop more refugees moving westwards towards Europe.
Hezbollah seems confident that the ban will not harm them.
“This will actually affect the UK more than Hezbollah and curb its influence in Lebanon, given that it now has crippled its diplomats’ political manoeuvrability,” Saad said.