Hezbollah’s Bulgaria Problem

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

The Bulgarian probe linking Hezbollah to the attack on the Israeli tourist bus in the city of Burgas last July, spells trouble in more than one way for the Lebanese group. The charges could spur the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and thus complicate its funding and diplomatic operations, as well as add pressure on the group within Lebanon.

The Bulgarian government concluded Tuesday its findings on the attack that killed five Israelis, by confirming that two of the suspects “were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah,” and that “there is data showing the financing and connection between Hezbollah and the two suspects.” Those findings are raising the pressure on the EU to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group, something that many of its members have been reluctant to do despite calls from the United States and Israel.

The Netherlands is the only EU country today that views Hezbollah as a terror group while the UK singled out the party’s military wing as terrorist. Both the Dutch and the British governments have urged the EU to designate Hezbollah, while France and Cyprus opposed such move. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said in September that “an organization can be placed on the terrorist list only when there is a legal case against them” and his Cypriot counterpart Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis contended that “should there be tangible evidence of Hezbollah engaging in acts of terrorism” then the EU can approve such listing.

The Burgas six months investigation, soon to be followed by judicial action, might offer the legal justification the French are seeking and a terrorism validation for the Cypriots. Based on the Bulgarian officials’ findings, this marks the first time that Hezbollah targeted European territory, twenty years after the Israeli embassy bombing in Argentina and which has been linked to Iran and possibly Hezbollah.

If the EU goes ahead with the designation, it would have a resounding effect on Hezbollah’s political and financial deliberations. Such a step would most likely freeze funds, and prohibit transit and travel through member states. Regular meetings, held between Hezbollah’s head of International Affairs division Ammar Mussawi and European officials, might no longer be an option if a diplomatic ban is enforced on the group. Mussawi has met with almost every European ambassador in Lebanon. A blacklisting would also complicate European backchannels with the party. The German government led mediation efforts between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, culminating in a prisoner exchange deal a year later.

Inside Europe, the New York Times, quoting a report by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, indicated last August that “Germany is a center of activity” for Hezbollah, with “950 members and supporters.” Supporters in Europe offer Hezbollah a source of funding. Der Spiegel reported in January of 2010 that Hezbollah is “ using drug trafficking in Europe to fund part of its activities. ” The German police arrested two Lebanese citizens in the case, after transferring “large sums of money to a family in Lebanon with connections to Hezbollah's leadership.” Additionally, German authorities found 8.7 million Euros in the bags of four Lebanese men at the airport in Frankfurt in 2008.

While independent reports show that Hezbollah gets most of its funding through Iran, and via drug trafficking in Lebanon and Latin America, a blacklisting of the group by the European Union would block transactions through the continent and limit Hezbollah’s banking options.

The Burgas probe comes at a tumultuous time for Hezbollah in Lebanon. The party’s popularity has declined in the last few years due to divisive policies, accusations from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, as well as the continued support for the Assad regime in Syria. Reports on Hezbollah sending fighters into Syrian territory to help the government in the crackdown have not sat well on the Arab street, draining most of the capital that the party acquired fighting Israel. Today, Hezbollah is seen more as a Lebanese proxy for Iran, one whose performance in the Lebanese government since 2005 is as non-transparent and as corrupt as the rest of the Lebanese political class.

The Bulgarian probe will increase pressure domestically on Hezbollah and raise questions about the party’s arms and motives in carrying military operations. The Lebanese government in fact, was quick to distance itself from Hezbollah, and has shown desire to cooperate with the Bulgarian authorities. Prime Minister Najib Mikati affirmed “readiness to cooperate with the Bulgarian state to unravel the circumstances of this issue to achieve fairness and safeguard justice.”

The Burgas bombing thickens an already complicated political and military reality for Hezbollah. A designation by the EU will weaken the party’s infrastructure and subject it to more scrutiny in Lebanon.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

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