Britain must rethink how it treats Hezbollah

There is no need for “new” evidence. There is simply evidence that none of the former Tory Home Secretaries saw a pressing urge to act upon.

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On Monday the Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced his intention to proscribe the political wing of the Tehran-backed Lebanese paramilitary organisation Hezbollah as a terrorist group. While Mr Javid has been planning this move for some time, first announcing his intentions at last year’s Conservative party conference, that did not stop a Labour spokesperson from using the opportunity to imply the Home Secretary was bringing forward the motion due to “leadership ambitions”, while bizarrely asking if there was any “new evidence” to prove that Hezbollah’s political wing deserved proscription.

Labour may well have been justified in asking the Home Secretary why this decision was being made now, and what exactly has changed since the last time the Home Office refused to move on the situation. But there is no need for “new” evidence. There is simply evidence that none of the former Tory Home Secretaries saw a pressing urge to act upon, including current Prime Minister Theresa May, even during the height of Hezbollah’s brutal war crimes against Syrian civilians.

The Home Office has been dragging their feet over the issue since the Blair government, and very little has changed, even while Jewish groups repeatedly protested the group’s flag being openly flown on al-Quds day.

But who can blame the Home Secretary for taking a decision to proscribe a terrorist organisation the leader of the opposition once famously called his “friends”. It was just over a year ago that Jeremy Corbyn’s office was pushing Labour MPs to reject calls to ban Hezbollah’s political wing.

The Home Secretary must have been rubbing his hands in glee at the open goal policy waiting for him, an easy victory for a shamelessly ambitious politician who has placed populist proposals above ethical ones, as evidenced by his decision to strip Islamic State member Shamima Begum of her citizenship rather than bring her home for prosecution.

Mr Javid seemed entirely unbothered by the potential of creating a dangerous legal precedent for second class citizenship status for Brits holding dual nationalities. If proscribing Hezbollah was the wrong call both diplomatically and ethically, as many Middle East policy experts believe his Begum decision to be, then why shouldn’t Labour question his reasoning behind proscribing Hezbollah?

Ultimately, Labour did not rise to Mr Javid’s bait. Considering the immense pressure Mr Corbyn has been under following multiple antisemitism scandals, and his own historical fraternisation with armed militant groups, this was not a scandal Labour could even afford to add to its plate right now. Whether that represents cynical politicking or a changing of position on Hezbollah’s legitimacy is a question that would be best posed to the leader of the opposition.  

The deeply cynical nature of the partisan showboating yesterday however should not distract anybody from the truth – Hezbollah are a violent, sectarian gang of murderous criminals. It was 14 years ago this month that Hezbollah assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in a car bomb that killed him along with 21 others in downtown Beirut. Today the group has carried out a sectarian slaughter campaign in Syria to buttress the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

At this stage in Hezbollah’s history it would take an international tribunal many decades to get through even a fraction of the war crimes the group is responsible for.

There has never been any distinction between Hezbollah’s military and political wings. In fact, the only place that distinction has ever existed is in the minds of naive Western diplomats who have tried and failed since 2004 to convince the group to disarm in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions.

The failure of that policy could not be clearer: Hezbollah controls 13 seats in the Lebanese parliament, but in reality de facto controls the country through its sheer military power. Hezbollah has assassinated and brutalised all that have stood in their way, from critical journalists to senior Lebanese security officials investigating the scope of their crimes.

The group is controlled by its secretive leader Hassan Nasrallah, who in turn receives his orders from Tehran. It operates a state within a state, with its own military and intelligence services that are free to act with impunity. My own neighbourhood in West Beirut has been occupied by armed Hezbollah thugs since they violently seized control of the swathes of territory in 2008. Residents live in silent fear of a group that they have no hope of defeating or disarming.

The idea that there is a distinction between Hezbollah’s political and military wings is so laughable that even Hezbollah’s own senior officials publicly mock the idea.

In 2012 Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general Sheikh Naim Qassem said:

“We don’t have a military wing and a political one; we don’t have Hezbollah on one hand and the resistance party on the other…Every element of Hezbollah, from commanders to members as well as our various capabilities, is in the service of the resistance, and we have nothing but the resistance as a priority.”

Like all foreign policy proposals, the argument that this decision may complicate the British government’s diplomatic relationship with Lebanon should be considered carefully. Britain has pursued a policy of the nominal recognition of the legitimacy of Hezbollah’s political wing for many years now, under both Labour and Conservative governments. That policy has led to Hezbollah growing into one of the most deadly regional military powers, and that has had catastrophic consequences for the civilians that live under its iron fist.

It is long past time for a rethink on how Britain treats Hezbollah, and a policy that recognises the group in the same terms that it sees itself should not be controversial for anybody other than the group’s many apologists.

It may well have taken cynical politicking from both Labour and the Tories for this correct change in policy to have finally been made, but after many years of foot-dragging, it is finally a step in the right direction.

However, with the terrorist organisation back in the ascendency following its successful campaign of mass murder in Syria, true justice for their many victims seems as far away as ever, and this proscription barely scratches the surface.

At the very least those who have suffered under their reign of terror will no longer have to suffer the indignity of seeing Hezbollah’s fascist flags flying on the streets of London ever again.

Oz Katerji is a writer, filmmaker and journalist with a focus on the Middle East, and former Lesvos coordinator for British charity Help Refugees.​