WASHINGTON - Germany’s recent decision to ban the political activities of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has sparked a debate among experts, with some believing the move was necessary while others arguing it would have little impact on Hezbollah’s terrorist activities.
German authorities last week declared the Iranian-backed group a “Shiite terrorist organization,” outlawing its activity on German soil. Police also carried out raids on mosques and community centers with suspected links to the extremist group in different parts of Germany.
“Germany’s designation is a recognition of Hezbollah’s unitary nature – that it has no separate military or political wings as the EU declared in its 2013 designation,” said Josh Lipowsky, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Counter Extremism Project (CEP).
The European Union considers Hezbollah’s military wing a terrorist organization, while allowing its political wing to operate in the bloc’s countries. The Netherlands and Germany are the only EU members that recognize Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization. The U.K. dropped the distinction last year, but it is no longer part of the EU.
In 1997, Hezbollah was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.
Experts said the decision came after a series of actions taken by German authorities in the past few years against the Shiite group.
“The first real action that the German government took was in 2008 when it banned Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV station [from] broadcasting in Germany,” said Hans-Jakob Schindler, a terrorism expert based in Berlin.
“In 2014, they banned an alleged charity that was actually a front for the Martyrs Organization of Hezbollah in Germany [but it] was an orphan kids project in Lebanon. … It was organization which had a charitable status in Germany but was connected to financing the families of killed Hezbollah fighters rather than supporting actual orphans in Lebanon,” he told VOA.
In 2015, Germany’s Supreme Court ruled that Hezbollah was an organization that disrupted global peace.
Last December, Germany’s parliament called on the government to declare Hezbollah in its entirety a terrorist organization, but the government rejected the proposal at the time.
The new ban
The recent German move effectively outlaws public support for Hezbollah on German soil. Supporters of the group are no longer allowed to express support for it.
According to German law, an organization that has no formal branch in Germany can’t be outlawed as such. But the new government measure against Hezbollah’s activities has the same legal consequences.
“What can be done for organizations that are not German, like Hezbollah or other organizations, is that they can get banned from having any kind of activities directly or indirectly in Germany. That’s the maximum of what can be done against a foreign organization,” analyst Schindler said.
But recognizing the entire structure of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization is also significant to cutting off support for its activities around the world, other experts argue.
“Hezbollah receives monetary contributions from Lebanese expatriates, from criminal activities such as the drug trade and counterfeiting,” said Lipowsky of CEP.
He told VOA that “this sort of legislation will help to crack down on these types of activities, particularly when it comes to fundraising within community organizations such as the Islamic centers in Germany where we saw a Hezbollah presence, targeting Lebanese expatriates.”
U.S. officials have lauded Germany for the move against Hezbollah.
“We commend Germany for banning Hizballah in its entirety as a terrorist organization and for taking strong action against suspected Hizballah supporters,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement last week.
“Obstructing this terrorist organization’s ability to plot terrorist attacks and to raise money will further reduce Iran’s malign behavior and influence,” Pompeo added.
Some experts argue that the German decision to ban Hezbollah came partially because of pressure from the U.S. government against Iran, Hezbollah’s main benefactor.
“I think for the U.S., it’s a declared goal to isolate Iran with their ‘maximum pressure’ campaign,” said René Wildangel, a Berlin-based policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). “They left nuclear agreement. They are increasing their pressure on Iran and they are trying to build a coalition.”
Wildangel told VOA that the other side of the story is that there is “genuine concern about activity, not necessarily of Hezbollah, but of organizations or people that might be connected to the military wing. There is genuine concern about the incidents of anti-Semitism that we’ve seen in past terrorist activities.”
Israeli media reported that the country’s intelligence agencies provided their German counterparts crucial information on Hezbollah’s activities in Germany.
“This decision, which is a dramatic departure from Berlin’s previous policy, was made based on intel from [the Israeli intelligence agency] Mossad to Germany’s intelligence service BND that some Hezbollah affiliates were stashing big volumes of ammonium nitrate, a material used to make explosives, in various warehouses in the south of Germany,” said Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East expert at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.
Israel considers Hezbollah a major threat to its security. Since the start of Syria’s war in 2011, Israel has frequently carried out attacks against Hezbollah targets in Syria.
But analyst Javedanfar believes the labeling of Hezbollah by Germany would have little effect on the group and “wouldn’t change its agenda, its purpose or its functionality.”
“The only way this might impact Hezbollah’s activities would be in connection with its functionality within Lebanon’s government and its recent loan request from the IMF,” he said.
The Lebanese government, largely controlled by Hezbollah, recently requested assistance from the International Monetary Fund to help fix the country’s crippling economic crisis.
“If this designation distresses the IMF rescue deal, then the group would face some dire shortcomings and Tehran’s support for the group would be at much higher stakes. Tehran has to foot a higher bill for its enormous support,” Javedanfar told VOA.
The Iranian government has condemned Germany for its recent decision against Hezbollah, accusing Berlin of giving in to the U.S. and Israel.
Hadi Borhani, a Tehran-based analyst, said this labeling carries no importance or impact on Iran and its Lebanese ally.
“The designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group at this time is just a hollow and baseless move with zero significance or weight,” he said.