BERLIN – The European Union on Monday declared the military wing of Hezbollah a terrorist organization, a move designed to put pressure on the Shiite political and militant group after years of urging from the United States and Israel.
The unanimous decision by foreign ministers of the 28-nation EU, confirmed by Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, will place travel restrictions on members of the military wing of Hezbollah and will freeze EU assets associated with that part of the group.
It comes at a time when Hezbollah has significantly escalated its backing for Syrian President Bashar Assad in the sectarian civil war there and has increased its efforts to carry out attacks on Israelis and Iranian-chosen targets around the world, according to assessments by U.S. intelligence officials.
“It is good that the EU has decided to call Hezbollah what it is: a terrorist organization,” Timmermans said in a statement. The move will have the effect of “limiting its capacity to act.”
But Iran-backed Hezbollah is also one of Lebanon’s most powerful political forces. Some European countries had previously resisted the terrorist designation, fearful that such an action by the EU would lessen Europe’s influence in Lebanon’s fragile political system. Hezbollah has dominated Lebanon’s parliament since 2011.
The decision to sanction the group’s military wing might be difficult to implement, analysts said, because of the trickiness of separating political activities that Europe deems legitimate from military activities that it does not — a distinction Hezbollah does not make. The group’s leaders had previously dismissed attempts to label them as a terrorist organization as symbolic.
Europe, with its long history of immigration and cultural ties to Lebanon, has been fertile ground for Hezbollah to do fundraising and outreach. France, bound by history and language to Lebanon, has a large Lebanese Shiite community. And Germany’s domestic intelligence agency estimated in 2011 that there were 950 Hezbollah supporters living within its borders.
The EU’s “military wing” distinction will allow Europe to carry on diplomatic relations with Hezbollah politicians inside Lebanon, unlike the U.S., which has added the entire Hezbollah organization to its terrorist list.
Pressure to add the military wing to the terrorist list increased after Hezbollah ramped up its involvement in Syria’s civil war, analysts and officials said. The group’s support for Assad has helped him make important military advances in recent months, putting rebel groups under pressure.
“It is important for us to show that we are united and strong in facing terrorism,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters Monday ahead of the decision. Britain had pushed for the move and has listed the military wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization since 2008.
Hague said the broader European move was inspired by evidence that Hezbollah was involved in the bombing of a bus of Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, last year that killed seven people.
“When a terrorist attack takes place on European soil, there has to be consequences for that,” Hague said.
The move came after a EU decision last week to forbid the European Commission from funding Israeli entities in the West Bank on land that Palestinians claim for a future state. Monday’s decision on Hezbollah may help mend fences between European countries and Israel, some Israeli officials said.
Even as they applauded the designation, however, many Israeli leaders wondered aloud why it took European ministers so long and said the decision should also apply to Hezbollah’s political wing.
“We make no distinction between the political and military activities of Hezbollah,” Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin said in an interview. “The group has been responsible for many acts of terror in Europe and elsewhere.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Hezbollah “a terror group of the Iranian regime, a terror group that has carried out attacks around the world . . . one organization with no difference between different wings.”
In 2006, Israel and paramilitary units from Hezbollah fought a 34-day war across the Israel-Lebanon border and in the Golan Heights, which Israel has controlled since 1967. Currently, Israeli intelligence reports say, Hezbollah has tens of thousands of rockets in southern Lebanon, ready to fire at the Jewish state. In recent months, Israeli airstrikes have hit targets in Syria in what Israel says is an effort to stop Syria and Iran from transferring sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah.
Knesset member Avigdor Lieberman, a former Israeli foreign minister and head of the parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said the decision to designate only Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization was “partial and insufficient.”
“The military wing and the political wing of Hezbollah are two sides of the same coin,” Lieberman said in remarks to Israeli media. “Any attempt to portray this organization as one that has an extremist side and a more moderate side is like asking whether a cannibal could be a vegetarian.”