“It’s a symbolic step,” said Guido Steinberg, an expert on Islamic radicalism at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “It might change their behavior to some extent within Europe, but it won’t change their position in Lebanon,” where they receive significant funding from Iran, he said.
The E.U.’s “military wing” distinction will allow Europe to carry on diplomatic relations with Hezbollah politicians inside Lebanon, unlike the United States, 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.
“The E.U. has sent a clear message that it stands united against terrorism,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday. Britain had pushed for the move and has listed the military wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization since 2008.
“It shows that no organization can carry out terrorist acts on European soil…without facing the consequences,” Hague said, adding that 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.
The move came after an E.U. 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.
Eglash reported from Jerusalem. William Booth in Jerusalem and Loveday Morris in Beirut contributed to this report.