The United Kingdom last week added the political wing of Hezbollah to its list of terrorist organisations, meaning that those found to either be a member of or supporter of Hezbollah will face criminal prosecution with up to ten years in prison.
The move is a shift from Britain’s previous policy, under which the military wing was criminalised following a ban on the military wing which came into force in 2008, but diplomats would negotiate with political members.
Many of Hezbollah's political members hold office the Lebanese parliament. In the country's last elections, in May 2018, Hezbollah’s political bloc emerged as the largest in parliament, gaining 13 MPs. They were able to name three cabinet members in the current government, two of whom belong to the Hezbollah’s political wing.
This move follows increased pressure on the UK to align with the US administration. President Donald Trump's administration has introduced a number of sanctions on Iran and those considered 'Shia proxies' in the region, of which Hezbollah is the largest. The US Treasury has imposed targeted sanctions on key financiers and entities affiliated with the group and urged the UN Security Council to aid them in their efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.
Speaking on this issue, the British home secretary, Sajid Javid told reporters:
“Hezbollah is continuing in its attempts to destabilise the fragile situation in the Middle East, and we are no longer able to distinguish between their already banned military wing and the political party […] Because of this, I have taken the decision to prescribe the group in its entirety.”
Israel welcomed this decision with its security minister, Gilad Erdan tweeting: “All who truly wish to combat terror must reject the fake distinction between ‘military’ & ‘political’ wings,”. He followed this tweet by tweeting, “Now is the time for the #EU to follow suit!”
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party, has in the past attracted controversy for advocating greater dialogue with this group.
Hezbollah does not acknowledge the existence of separate wings.
Professor Andreas Krieg, a lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King's College London, warned the decision could be “counterproductive” as it leaves British diplomats “no wiggle room to engage” with Hezbollah. Speaking to reporters Krieg stated that "coercion and hawkish approaches to the organisation ... in the long run will be counterproductive because Hezbollah are where they are - they are deeply embedded in the social fabric of Lebanon”.
Sami Nader, director of Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, raised similar concerns telling The Independent:
“It used to be the case that European countries would distinguish between military and political wings because it offered them a certain space to manoeuvre, so it could keep dealing with Lebanon independently from its position on Iran and Hezbollah’s behaviour”
“But after the last election, Hezbollah has the upper hand in the government; it’s the number one stakeholder. The big question now is how this will impact the relationship between the UK and the Lebanese government, given that this margin of manoeuvre doesn’t exist anymore.”
Phillip Smyth, a fellow at the Washington Institute and a researcher on Shia armed groups spoke on the complex history between the organisation and the UK:
“Hezbollah has sent ‘political’ representatives to the UK before and its supporters would wave its banners at religious celebrations. That will now come to a halt. Fundraising, while less developed in the UK, will also be stopped”.
Hezbollah was initially set up in 1982 with the support of Iran in response to the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon. Israel and Hezbollah last fought a war in 2006. Following the end of the civil war in 1990, Hezbollah was the only militia which refused to disarm claiming that it was necessary to deter another Israeli invasion. Hezbollah is the most powerful armed group in Lebanon, surpassing the national army and not under the government’s control.
The group has played a crucial role in the Syrian civil war pledging its support to Bashar al-Assad. The group alleges they wish to prevent the war from spreading to Lebanon but critics note that they also seek to protect the main delivery route of weapons from Iran and prevent a Sunni majority opposition from claiming power.