[Published here July 25, 2013]
In a long-awaited move, the European Union on Monday designated the military wing of Lebanon’s Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The months-long discussions were catalyzed by American pressure and proof of Hezbollah’s involvement in a 2012 terrorist attack in Bulgaria. The precise effects of the designation on Hezbollah’s operations in Europe remain unclear; nevertheless, as British Foreign Secretary William Hague and EU officials assessed, the move serves as an important message to Hezbollah that its era of impunity in Europe is coming to an end.
Hezbollah, however, has responded with its own message. Amid the condemnations by the party and its allies—who blasted the designation as “hostile and unjust” and a result of “US and Zionist pressure”—a critical narrative is being built. The first indication came from Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, head of the Shiite Amal Movement and a staunch ally of Hezbollah, who ominously warned that the EU designation will hurt EU states and Lebanon, but would leave Hezbollah unharmed. In a statement demanding the European Union retract its decision, Berri cautioned that the move “would harm all the Lebanese” and would “expose the fragile situation in Lebanon to more tension and unrest.”
Curiously, the narrative of collective punishment against Lebanon is being picked up by other Lebanese actors. The “centrists,” including Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Prime Minister Designate Tamam Salam, and President Michel Sleiman, have issued statements expressing their worry that the decision would hurt “all of Lebanon.” Mikati even ventured to say that the Lebanese government rejects the EU decision and would work on annulling it.
Most surprising of all are the remarks by Hezbollah’s political adversaries. The Future Movement’s statement appeared to lament the EU decision, nostalgically recalling Hezbollah’s “significant national role in fighting the Israeli enemy.” Portions of the remarks seem a near regurgitation of Berri’s words: according to the statement, the decision’s consequences would “affect Lebanon’s reputation and ergo, all the Lebanese’s interests.” Kataeb-Phalangist MP Sami Gemayel said that “all the Lebanese people will pay the price” for the designation.
Particularly for organizations like the Future Movement and the Kataeb-Phalange Party, limits against Hezbollah’s activities in Europe ostensibly should have been met with relief and gratitude, not regret. Why are centrists and Hezbollah’s enemies alike echoing Berri’s line, then?
It seems that these political actors are confirming to Hezbollah that its own message has been heard loud and clear. Hezbollah and Amal, through Berri, informed the rest of Lebanon this week that the EU designation will have no effect on Hezbollah’s stranglehold on Lebanon. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said it himself in a televised speech on Wednesday evening, declaring to his political adversaries that the decision will not bar Hezbollah’s involvement in the next cabinet. Hezbollah will continue to block PM Designate Salam’s efforts to form a government and will carry on its blatant involvement in the Syrian conflict—the rest of Lebanon is merely along for the ride. Many of Hezbollah’s domestic opponents realize that opposing Hezbollah directly and politically is not only futile, it’s dangerous. Acknowledging that Hezbollah will not abandon its brazen domestic and regional policies, and knowing that confronting the party would prove fruitless, political parties like the Future Movement and the Kataeb-Phalangist Party concluded that, indeed, all of Lebanon “will pay the price.” Even if the EU’s designation limits Hezbollah’s activities in Europe (and the extent to which it will is still in question), Hezbollah, as both Nasrallah and Berri said, will not be damaged.
For many of Lebanon’s political parties, this hostage situation is nothing new. Lebanon as a whole has become captive to Hezbollah’s warmongering whims. The most recent examples are the violence in Tripoli, Saida, and even Beirut, symptomatic of Hezbollah’s growing role in the Syrian crisis. The war of 2006 is another devastating reminder that Hezbollah’s actions put the whole of the Lebanese state at risk.
When examining the curious Lebanese reactions to the EU’s designation, then, it is critical to remember that Hezbollah has been able to construct a narrative of collective, national punishment for the party’s ventures—whether they are in Syria, against Israel, or in Europe. Other Lebanese parties, seemingly believing that “they’re all in this together,” have refrained from praising the EU’s decision. Unfortunately, however limited the Hezbollah’s actions become abroad, it has delivered the message that at home not much will change.