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Analysis: EU Hezbollah policy draws fire

By MEGAN HARRIS, UPI Correspondent   |   Feb. 19, 2008 at 10:18 AM   |   Comments

The European Union has long resisted calls to add Hezbollah to its terrorist list, a move that could financially cripple the Lebanon-based political and militia organization, and a policy shift is unlikely, especially after recent hopes of German and French leadership on the issue have faded.

Experts had hoped French President Nicolas Sarkozy, elected in May 2007, would push the issue because of references he made to Hezbollah as a terrorist group before the election.

Even if France agreed to add Hezbollah to the terror list, any one of the other 26 EU member states could oppose it, explained Michael Jacobson, senior fellow with the Stein Program on Counter-terrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.

"Sarkozy's election was the best opening that there's been in a while, but, as has been evident, it was still far from guaranteed that it would happen," Jacobson told United Press International in a phone interview.

Another hope for change was that Germany would push the issue while it held both the EU presidency and hosted the Group of Eight summit in the first half of 2007.

Several members of the Free Democratic Party in the German Parliament submitted an inquiry last year about Germany's intention to push for a change in Hezbollah's status as well as other efforts to combat Islamic extremism in Germany.

In its written response, the German government said that the issue has been on the EU's agenda for a long time, but no consensus has been reached. It also cited numerous counter-terrorism efforts and programs in place to better integrate German Muslims.

Jacobson said that while Germany has been following the issue more closely than other countries and is certainly concerned, it had a large agenda for the six-month EU presidency and probably didn't want to spend time working on such a controversial issue with a low chance of success. Moreover, the German presidency was part of an 18-month trio presidency working on a common agenda.

Answering past requests from the U.S. Congress and other groups to add Hezbollah to its terror list, the EU has said it lacks adequate information and doesn't want to undermine the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Jesus Carmona, press officer for Justice and Home Affairs with the Council of the European Union, told UPI in an e-mail message that the EU still holds this position.

Jacobson said he doesn't think the former reason makes much sense, considering that in some terror designations very little information was provided.

"In the EU it's much more of a political issue -- can they get the others to go along. I think they could designate, even with little evidence, if there was the political will."

As for the second concern, Jacobson questions whether a designation would affect the peace process -- particularly given its current state -- but he noted that the Europeans do have real concern about the potential impact.

The larger reason for EU resistance is believed to be a fear of reprisals for countries, such as France, Spain and Italy, with troops stationed in Hezbollah's back yard as part of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, a peacekeeping force stationed there since 1978.

James Phillips, research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation, told UPI in a phone interview this is a very short-sighted policy.

"It's a very mistaken policy because those troops may ultimately come under attack from Hezbollah forces using weapons that were financed by Hezbollah fundraising activities in Europe." He continued: "It's unclear to me exactly what the EU hopes to gain by dragging its feet on this. Perhaps it hopes to appease Hezbollah and/ or Iran, but I don't think that will play out."

Phillips testified before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe last year about the Hezbollah threat. Hezbollah receives support from Syria and Iran and has about 900 supporters in Germany alone.

Asked whether progress in the Middle East peace process might trigger a change in EU policy, Phillips said he didn't see any prospect of forward movement on the negotiations for this year or the foreseeable future.

He added that a further complicating factor would be if fighting broke out between the United States and Iran and Hezbollah was used to attack U.S. facilities in Europe, killing Europeans in the cross-fire. Phillips noted that Hezbollah doesn't exert particular care to avoid killing civilians. A Hezbollah attack on a restaurant near a U.S. airbase in Torrejon, Spain, in 1984, killed more than 80 Spanish civilians, for example. Such an attack could "heighten the perceived risk" of Hezbollah to Europeans, he said.

Jacobson agrees attacks in Europe "could actually shift the debate" -- something like an attack on an Israeli establishment.

One proposal to move the issue has been a multinational research group. Jacobson agreed this could potentially be more effective than repeated requests, which may make the Europeans feel that they're bowing to U.S. pressure. Jacobson noted, however, that pressure isn't just from the United States, but from the EU Parliament, which in March 2005 came out very strongly in favor of designation.

Recent criticism of terror lists in Europe has stifled progress, however. The EU's terror list has two parts, Jacobson explained: those groups taken directly from the U.N. terror list and the EU's independent designation. The U.N. part of the list was criticized in different instances for a lack of transparency and for lacking in terms of due process.

Other designations have also come under fire.

"Adding Hezbollah to these lists would be a pretty aggressive step forward right now, from the Europeans' perspective," Jacobson said.

Some EU countries have their own terror lists, such as the Netherlands, whose list includes Hezbollah, and Britain, whose list includes only the military wing of Hezbollah.

© 2008 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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