BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union agreed on Monday to put the armed wing of Hezbollah on its terrorism blacklist, a move driven by concerns over the Lebanese militant group’s involvement in a deadly bus bombing in Bulgaria and the Syrian war.
The powerful Lebanese Shi‘ite movement, an ally of Iran, has attracted concern in Europe and around the world in recent months for its role in sending thousands of fighters to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, helping turn the tide of Syria’s two-year-old civil war.
Britain and the Netherlands have long pressed their EU peers to impose sanctions on the Shi‘ite Muslim group, citing evidence it was behind an attack in the coastal Bulgarian city of Burgas a year ago that killed five Israelis and their driver.
Until now, many EU capitals had resisted lobbying from Washington and Israel to blacklist the group, warning such a move could fuel instability in Lebanon and in the Middle East.
Hezbollah, which functions as a political party that is part of the Lebanese government and as a militia with thousands of guerrillas under arms, rejected the EU’s “aggressive and unjust decision which is not based on any proof or evidence”.
EU states had taken a dangerous step at the behest of the United States and Israel, Hezbollah’s staunchest foes, it said in a statement which described the declaration as “written by American hands, in Zionist ink”.
Lebanese caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour said the decision was “hasty” and could lead to further sanctions against the movement that would complicate Lebanese politics.
“This will hinder Lebanese political life in the future, especially considering our sensitivities in Lebanon,” he told Reuters. “We need to tighten bonds among Lebanese parties, rather than create additional problems.”
The blacklisting opens the way for EU governments to freeze any assets Hezbollah’s military wing may have in Europe.
“There’s no question of accepting terrorist organizations in Europe,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters.
Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said in a statement that the EU had taken an important step by “dealing with the military wing of Hezbollah, freezing its assets, hindering its fundraising and thereby limiting its capacity to act”.
In the United States, Secretary of State John Kerry said Syria was an important factor behind the EU vote.
“A growing number of governments are recognizing Hezbollah as the dangerous and destabilizing terrorist organization that it is,” he said.
By limiting the listing to the armed wing, the EU was trying to avoid damaging its relations with Lebanon’s government, but the split may complicate its ability to enforce the decision in practical terms.
Hezbollah does not formally divide itself into armed and political wings, and Amal Saad Ghorayeb, who wrote a book on the group, said identifying who the ban would apply to will be difficult.
“It is a political, more than a judicial decision. It can’t have any real, meaningful judicial implications,” she said, adding it appeared to be a “a PR move” to hurt Hezbollah’s international standing, more connected with events in Syria than with the case in Bulgaria.
Israel’s deputy foreign minister Zeev Elkin welcomed the step, but said the entire group should have been targeted.
“We (Israel) worked hard, along with a number of countries in Europe, in order to bring the necessary materials and prove there was a basis for a legal decision,” he told Israel Radio.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague sought to allay concerns about the practical impact of the decision, saying it would allow for better cooperation among European law enforcement officials in countering Hezbollah activities.
Hezbollah parliamentary member al-Walid Soukariah said the decision puts Europe “in confrontation with this segment of people in our region”.
“This step won’t affect Hezbollah or the resistance. The resistance is present on Lebanese territory and not in Europe. It is not a terrorist group to carry out terrorist attacks in Europe, which is forbidden by religion.”
The Iran-backed movement, set up with the aim of fighting Israel after its invasion of Lebanon three decades ago, has dominated politics in Beirut in recent years.
In debating the blacklisting, many EU governments expressed concerns over maintaining Europe’s relations with Lebanon. To soothe such worries, the ministers agreed to make a statement pledging to continue dialogue with all political groups.
“We also agreed that the delivery of legitimate financial transfers to Lebanon and delivery of assistance from the European Union and its member states will not be affected,” the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.
Already on the EU blacklist are groups such as Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip, and Turkey’s Kurdish militant group PKK.
Their assets in Europe are frozen and they have no access to cash there, meaning they cannot raise money for their activities. Sanctions on Hezbollah go into effect this week.
Hezbollah denies any involvement in last July’s attack in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian interior minister said last week Sofia had no doubt the group was behind it.
In support of its bid to impose sanctions, Britain has also cited a four-year jail sentence handed down by a Cypriot court in March to a Hezbollah member accused of plotting to attack Israeli interests on the island.
The decision also comes at a time of strained relations between the EU and Israel after Brussels pushed ahead with plans to bar EU financial aid to Israeli organizations operating in the occupied Palestinian territories.
EU foreign ministers held a video conference with Kerry who announced on Friday that Israel and the Palestinians had tentatively agreed to resume peace talks after three years.
Additional reporting by Beirut bureau and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Michael Roddy