There's an important discussion to be had about Hezbollah—but it's not through the lens of Westminster politics

If only we bothered to gaze up from Westminster, we’d discover a more nuanced debate about terrorism, peace and the messy diplomacy of talking to people we don’t like

February 27, 2019
Supporters of Hezbollah demonstrate in Beirut. Photo: PA
Supporters of Hezbollah demonstrate in Beirut. Photo: PA

Within hours of Sajid Javid’s announcement earlier this week that the political wing of the Lebanese Islamist movement, Hezbollah, would be designated as a terrorist group, the debate swiftly moved away from the Middle East. There was no discussion about what this would mean for Lebanon’s political stability; not a word about whether it would help or hinder efforts to bring peace to neighbouring Syria; barely a whisper about its impact on Israel.

Instead, it was framed as a domestic political story. Would Jeremy Corbyn, who had previously referred to Hezbollah as “friends” and is under fire for failing to deal with anti-Semitism within the Labour party, back the Home Secretary’s decision or would he prove himself to be “a threat to national security”—as Independent Group MP Mike Gapes put it?

In the end, the Labour party last night voted in favour of the ban under a one line whip, while noting that the government had provide no new evidence to back their sudden decision.

But they weren’t the only ones who were sceptical. If only we bothered to gaze up from Westminster, we’d discover a more nuanced debate about terrorism, peace and the messy diplomacy of talking to people we don’t like.

French president, Emmanuel Macron—not someone who can be dismissed as somehow “weak” on terrorism, nor a man with question marks hanging over his attitude towards anti-Semitism—said that France would not be following suit.

“No other power has the right to decide what Lebanese political parties are good and which are not,” he said. “This is up to the Lebanese people.” Germany indicated it would not be changing its policy, either.

The move also puzzled experts in Beirut. “It’s not like much has changed recently that would give the government proper cause to change its position now,” Heiko Wimmen, an analyst for International Crisis Group told me. “If anything, the opposite,” he added, pointing out that three Hezbollah members have just been named as government ministers.

According to Wimmen, the decision could weaken Britain’s ability to influence politics in the Middle East. “The disadvantage is clear. You have a group which is a major political player here in Lebanon and in Syria. A potential escalation between Hezbollah and Israel is always a possibility. Do you really want to make it impossible for yourselves to talk to one of the protagonist of this conflict? What’s the benefit? The British will now have to go through the French. I’m not sure if the foreign office likes that very much.”

There is a reasonable case to be made that the political wing of Hezbollah is, like its armed wing, a terrorist organisation. Indeed, Hezbollah itself claims there is no separation between its different parts. The US, for instance, decided to designate Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organisation in 1997, while the UK proscribed its external security unit in 2001 and its military wing in 2008.

Since then, Hezbollah has been a key supporter of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, sending around 7,000 fighters (and losing, by one estimate, around 1,700) in its attempts to shore up his regime.

There is a realpolitik case to be made too. When US president Donald Trump chose to break up the Iran nuclear deal—otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—Britain sided with its European allies, France and Germany. Given Iran’s support for Hezbollah, both in terms of funding and weapons, this decision allows Britain to prove to the US that it is not turning a blind eye to Iran’s support for terrorism.

All these issues are worth discussing—but instead, the conversation has been reduced to whether the Labour leader is “a threat to national security.” It’s a debate that helps no-one—not here, and certainly not in the Middle East.