Analysis: UK Hezbollah ban comes into force

Britain’s ban on Hezbollah came into force last Friday. It means that being a member or supporter of the antisemitic terror group is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The government’s move followed several years of campaigning by LFI and Jewish groups. Previously, only Hezbollah’s military wing was banned in the UK. Hezbollah itself does not recognise a separation between its political and military operations, with its leaders consistently insisting that “we don’t have a military wing and a political one” and that “the same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads jihad actions in the struggle against Israel”.

This anomaly regarding Hezbollah’s legal status in the UK has been highlighted in recent years following the parading of the group’s flag at the annual Al Quds Day rally in London. Police have said they are powerless to act because Hezbollah’s political wing was legal in Britain.

LFI chair Joan Ryan and vice-chair Louise Ellman have been at the forefront of the effort to close the loophole and proscribe Hezbollah in its entirety. Ms Ellman has repeatedly lobbied Home Office ministers to explain why they insisted on maintaining the distinction. She also met with the Metropolitan police who explained that, contrary to the government’s claims, they were unable to stop the flag being flow while Hezbollah’s political wing wasn’t banned.

In January 2018, Ms Ryan stepped up parliamentary efforts, securing a debate on the subject on the floor of the House of Commons.

Opening the debate Ms Ryan stated: “Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation, driven by antisemitic ideology, which seeks the destruction of Israel. It has wreaked death and destruction throughout the Middle East, aiding and abetting the Assad regime’s butchery in Syria and helping to drive Iran’s expansionism throughout the region. It makes no distinction between its political and military wings, and nor should the British government.”

Her call to ban Hezbollah in its entirety met with strong cross-party support. Both the government and opposition frontbenches resisted any change in Hezbollah’s status.

Over 10,000 emails were sent to MPs in the run-up to the debate thanks to the efforts of the Israel Britain Alliance and We Believe In Israel.

The government continued to defend its opposition to a total ban through last summer, despite repeated calls for action by LFI.

Last week, however, the government executed an abrupt u-turn and announced it would heed LFI’s calls and fully proscribe Hezbollah. The move was welcomed by Ms Ryan and Ms Ellman in a debate in parliament last Tuesday, as well as by LFI parliamentary supporters Mike Gapes and Wes Streeting. The Labour frontbench refused to support the government’s ban. Mr Streeting said in response: “There is a long and proud tradition—a strong, proud social democratic tradition—in the Labour party of confronting and facing down murderous, hateful ideology, and I deeply regret that that proud tradition has not found expression at the Opposition front bench dispatch box this evening.”

The proscription will end what Ms Ryan described last week as the “the annual travesty of the flags of an antisemitic terror group being paraded on the streets of London”. As she noted, the Community Security Trust has argued that failing to ban Hezbollah fully is “highly damaging to social cohesion and community relations”.

The ban will have a series of additional positive effects, according to an analysis produced by BICOM.

First, it will constrain Hezbollah’s ability to fundraise in the UK – previously, only seeking cash for the military wing was illegal – and also prevent it from using British banks to transfer money globally.

As Anshel Pfeffer argued in the Jewish Chronicle: “Hezbollah raises funds across the world. This comes in the form of donations from local Shia communities, as well as drug smuggling and money laundering. Britain is not regarded a major hub for operations such as these. But the home secretary’s decision — when combined with the City of London’s role as a global centre of banking — could assist Israel and other western governments in their attempts to track down and block financial transactions carried out in accounts controlled by Hezbollah.”

This comes at a crucial time. Thanks to its role assisting Assad in the civil war, Hezbollah’s bills are rising, especially the expense of providing support for injured fighters. But Iran – which funds and direct the terrorists’ operations – slashed by around half the estimated $1bn it gives to Hezbollah. Iran is under immense financial pressure due to the reintroduction of sweeping sanctions by the Trump administration.

Second, the UK police and other law enforcement bodies will gain greater powers to freeze Hezbollah’s assets in Britain. Importantly, this encompasses front organisations, including those which go under the guise of charities.

Third, any expression of support for Hezbollah in Britain will face criminal penalties, just as voicing backing for ISIS, al-Qaeda or Boko Haram currently does.

Moreover, as Ms Ryan set out in parliament last week, the claim that banning Hezbollah’s political wing might prevent the UK government from encouraging it to abandon terrorism in favour of democratic politics is utterly false. Aside from the fact that Hezbollah has explicitly stated that it has no desire to be part of any meaningful dialogue or peace process in the Middle East, the Terrorism Act 2000 says that the arrangement of “genuinely benign” meetings with proscribed groups are permitted.