LFI Vice Chair Michael McCann MP led an important House of Commons debate on 9 May to call for Hezbollah to be designated as a terrorist organisation by the EU, a policy which is supported by both Shadow Foreign Secretary Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP and Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Please read Michael’s full speech below, together with the response from Middle East Minister Alistair Burt, as well as links to media coverage of Michael’s speech.
House of Commons, Thursday 9th May 2013
Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): First, in the interests of transparency, I place on record the fact that I am one of the vice-chairs of Labour Friends of Israel. I am pleased that we are having this important debate today; it presents a timely opportunity to discuss the nefarious role of Hezbollah in the Middle East and beyond. This organisation is aggravating the current situation in Syria, creating instability in Lebanon and threatening not only Israel but nations across the globe. The heart-breaking news coming to us from Syria every day reminds us how complex and fragile is the situation all over the Middle East. One large cloud lurking over all these difficult situations is the presence of Hezbollah, and it is that presence that led me to seek this debate.
Before turning to the current political situation in Syria, Lebanon and the wider region, I would like to say a little about the true nature of Hezbollah, its structure and its objectives. Hezbollah is an organisation with a strong paramilitary force, independent of the Lebanese state. It was established in the early 1980s, and its fighters were organised and trained by a contingent of the Iranian revolutionary guards. Iran and Syria are its main sponsors, providing financial, political and military support to the organisation. The deputy leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh Naim Qassem, stated in April 2007 that
“all our policies including firing missiles into Israeli territories could not have been done without the consent of the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He has to agree to all Hezbollah’s activities in advance.”
Hezbollah is Iran’s proxy and is used by Tehran to exert its sphere of influence over Lebanon and the wider region. It has also been used by Iran to help prop up through military means the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
The Hezbollah manifesto document produced in 1985, entitled “An Open Letter: The Hezbollah Programme”, declares that the organisation operates under one command structure and shares the same goals. It states:
“No one can imagine the importance of our military potential as our military apparatus is not separate from our overall social fabric. Each of us is a fighting soldier.”
Hezbollah does not have separate streams for its military and non-military work. The jihad council, the political council, the executive council and the judicial council all report to the Shura council, and there is again no operational or ideological distinction between those who pursue terror and those who do not. The deputy leader, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said of Hezbollah’s structure:
“Hezbollah has a single leadership. All political, social and jihad work is tied to the decisions of this leadership. The same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads jihad actions.”
Today, Hezbollah continues to maintain its military capacity in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701, and in defiance of a UN military mission that was mandated to oversee the implementation of these resolutions. Hezbollah leaders continue to maintain that they are not only re-arming, but acquiring more sophisticated military technology.
Let me now focus on Syria and Lebanon. Historically, representations made in this place and beyond regarding Hezbollah have focused on the organisation’s impact on the state of Israel. I will talk about that in a moment, but I first want to say a few words about the organisation’s appalling activities in Syria and Lebanon.
As a member of the Select Committee on International Development, I have witnessed first hand the awful effects of war on innocent civilians, and few recent conflicts have been as brutal and bloody as the current Syrian civil war, set off by the violent suppression by Bashar al-Assad of his own people. Iran and Iranian-backed Hezbollah are supporting President Assad’s crackdown, and are supplying military and intelligence assistance to the regime and shipping weapons to Syria that have been deployed in violence against civilians. The elite Iranian Quds force has provided extensive logistical support and advice on how to suppress protests, following Iran’s successful crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2009. The Free Syrian army claims to have captured several Iranian and Hezbollah fighters, and many reports suggest that Hezbollah’s military assistance is invaluable to Assad in certain regions of the country.
It is to the eternal credit of the state of Israel that it alone has sought to intervene in the crisis in Syria, and its intervention was purely intended to prevent weapons transfers designed to allow Hezbollah to increase its military threat throughout the region. Syria is a febrile place and activities there are fast-moving, but one thing that is clear is the destabilising influence of Hezbollah on the situation.
Lebanon, too, has suffered at the hands of Hezbollah. Hezbollah triggered the collapse of the last Lebanese Government in January 2011, after its Ministers resigned over then Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s refusal to withdraw support from the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The tribunal is investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, widely assumed to have been perpetrated by Hezbollah. The head of the tribunal urged four Hezbollah members wanted in the case to appear before the court. The tribunal’s president, Judge Antonio Cassese, made the appeal in an open letter two days after he was told by Lebanese authorities that none of the four men identified by the tribunal in June as suspects had been arrested.
In March 2013, the Lebanese Cabinet, which was dominated by Hezbollah, resigned after failing to agree on a commission to oversee elections. The Hezbollah members also objected to extending the mandate of Lebanese internal security chief Ashraf Rifi. Their cynical destabilisation of the Lebanese political situation is intended purely to benefit their own interests, while prolonging uncertainty and fear for millions of innocent Lebanese citizens.
Also, of course, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah remains a clear and present danger to the people of Israel. While Israel faces the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran committed to the destruction of the Jewish state, the Iranian regime’s clients lurk just over the border. Make no mistake about it: Hezbollah is committed to continued war against Israel. The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, is on the record as saying:
“I am against any reconciliation with Israel. I do not even recognize the presence of a state that is called ‘Israel.’ I consider its presence both unjust and unlawful. That is why if Lebanon concludes a peace agreement with Israel and brings that accord to the Parliament our deputies will reject it; Hezbollah refuses any conciliation with Israel in principle.”
I have been to northern Israel and stared over our ally’s northern border, acutely conscious of the 60,000 rockets that are pointed at Israeli civilians.
Even by Middle East standards, Hezbollah is a particularly destabilising military actor. Israel’s actions last weekend in Syria were intended purely to prevent Hezbollah from transporting even longer-range missiles, supplied by Iran, thus putting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem under ever greater direct threat. In this context, Israel’s reported actions are entirely understandable and, I would suggest, commendable. The House should unequivocally condemn that Hezbollah threat and support the state of Israel.
Now is the time for the EU also to take the threat from Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah seriously. Speaking in Cyprus in September, the Foreign Secretary said that he wants to see the EU “designate and sanction the military wing of Hezbollah”.
A month later, my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary called for the EU to proscribe Hezbollah’s military wing. I am proud of the Labour party’s commitment to the proscription of Hezbollah, and the Government should use this cross-party consensus to push for firm EU action.
The reason for the new impetus was the acceptance that Hezbollah is not merely a Lebanese-based militant and political organisation, but a growing international terror network, working in tandem with Iran. Anyone in any doubt about the need for European action need only look at the number of international plots allegedly initiated by Hezbollah in recent months, one of which tragically succeeded when a bomb killed five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian driver outside Bulgaria’s Burgas airport in July last year. Two weeks prior to that deadly attack, the Cypriot authorities arrested dual Swedish-Lebanese citizen Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, a self-confessed Hezbollah member, for plotting to murder Israeli tourists in Cyprus. In court, the suspect said that Hezbollah had spies around the world monitoring locations that Jews and Israelis frequented, in order to plan attacks.
This debate is about Hezbollah and other Iranian-supported terrorist organisations. According to Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, what we are seeing is the result of new, heightened co-operation between Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds force, itself under EU sanctions for its operatives’ role in supporting Bashar al-Assad’s violence against Syrian civilians. In addition to the bombing in Bulgaria and the foiled attack in Cyprus, there have been recent foiled attacks linked to Iran and Hezbollah in Bangkok, Baku, Tbilisi and Mombasa, as well as a bombing in New Delhi, in India, which caused severe injury. Since the bombing in Bulgaria and the emergence of clear evidence of Hezbollah’s role in Syria, there has been greater pressure on the EU to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, something that a number of European countries are resisting.
Why is there resistance? Although the previous Government proscribed Hezbollah’s military wing, Hezbollah’s significant role in Lebanese politics is often cited as the reason why the UK has not gone further and proscribed the whole organisation, which even its leader says operates under a single command structure. The misplaced belief that Hezbollah’s politicians are legitimate and independent from its deadly terrorism is also behind the EU’s inaction. However, with Hezbollah politicians recently being responsible for causing the collapse of the Lebanese Government—a Government they have long dominated through military strength rather than votes—now is the time to expose Hezbollah’s supposed role in supporting Lebanese stability for the fallacy that it is. Hezbollah’s evil role in perpetuating the brutal military crackdown by Bashar al-Assad against his own people—again, as much a political as a military operation—further demonstrates that any attempts to draw some military/political distinction are naive at best.
Therefore, I would be grateful if the Minister updated the House on the Government’s view on proscribing the whole of Hezbollah, as recent developments in Lebanon and Syria appear to have undermined the Government’s argument that has sought to separate out Hezbollah’s military wing from its political operations. I urge the Government to extend the UK’s proscription of Hezbollah’s military wing to the whole organisation, and I would go further. With cracks beginning to show in French and German opposition to proscription, now is the time for the Government to use the cross-party consensus and make the case for tough EU action.
I accept that a full ban on Hezbollah may be difficult to achieve, but even an EU ban on the military wing of Hezbollah would send a powerful message that we do not tolerate Hezbollah’s and Iran’s terrorism, and that we will work hard to curtail terrorist fundraising and recruitment across Europe.
It is beyond doubt that Hezbollah does Iran’s bidding in upholding the bloody regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and that it perpetuates the misery of millions of Syrian civilians. Hezbollah has sought to destabilise the politics and social fabric of Lebanon for many years, most recently by undermining the Lebanese Government through a joint political and military effort. It also remains a clear and present military danger to millions of Israeli men, women and children, with tens of thousands of missiles pointed at major population centres that could be launched with one word from Hezbollah’s venal, anti-Semitic paymasters in Tehran.
It is clear that Hezbollah in its entirety should be proscribed by both the UK Government and the European Union. I urge the Minister to take decisive action to show that this country stands against terrorism in all its forms.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): I thank the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) for raising this important issue; for the clear and unequivocal support that he has given to the forces of stability in the middle east; for the way that he has pointed out the risks and the dangers that Hezbollah action poses in the area; for his support for the state of Israel; and for his courtesy in sending me a copy of his speech, which has helped me to tailor my response. I will make some comments for the record on the activities of Hezbollah, and on how the United Kingdom Government see Hezbollah and other Iranian-supported terrorist organisations.
The hon. Gentleman set out at the beginning of his speech his view and his sense of the origins of Hezbollah. Let me add my own comments. The United Kingdom Government concur that Hezbollah was born during the Lebanese civil war and in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. From the outset, resistance to Israel has been an important part of Hezbollah’s raison d’être. Hezbollah seeks to represent Lebanon’s Shi’a community and over time it has gained significant electoral support. As a major political force and the largest non-state military force in the country, Hezbollah clearly plays an important role in Lebanon, but its actions have often been highly destabilising.
Four members of Hezbollah have been indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon for involvement in the killing of former Prime Minister Hariri in 2004, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Hezbollah’s provocative actions led to the 2006 conflict with Israel, which caused extensive damage and casualties within Lebanon. It has refused to disarm, despite the requirements of UN Security Council resolution 1701. Indeed, it has continued to strengthen its arsenal, with Iranian and Syrian assistance.
The hon. Gentleman was good enough to recognise the dilemma facing not only this Government but other Governments in the EU that at other times Hezbollah has played a pragmatic political role in Lebanon—there might be all sorts of reasons for that—including as a member of the current caretaker Government. Also, in recent years it has helped to ensure that the southern border with Israel has remained relatively quiet.
As the hon. Gentleman also noted, Hezbollah has a relationship with Iran that stretches back to the establishment of the movement. Iran has provided Hezbollah with money, arms and advice from the outset, and it continues to do so. Iran’s supreme leader is also a source of religious authority for Hezbollah. In Syria and elsewhere, Hezbollah continues to work closely with Iran and in ways that the UK would argue certainly do not represent Lebanese interests.
However, it is difficult to say that Hezbollah is simply an Iranian proxy. Hezbollah’s leaders do not act solely at Iran’s behest and they tend to factor in domestic considerations, including the impact on Lebanon and on the Shi’a community, when making decisions—and sometimes when not making decisions.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has asserted yet again that the EU proscription of Hezbollah, which the hon. Gentleman made a significant part of his remarks, has become a topical issue in recent months with the announcement by the previous Bulgarian Government on 5 February, implicating Hezbollah’s military wing in the atrocious bomb attack on a bus in Burgas last July, which killed five Israeli tourists and the Bulgarian bus driver. The assessment of the involvement of Hezbollah’s military wing is shared by the United Kingdom. The guilty verdict in the trial of a Hezbollah operative in Cyprus, concluded on 21 March, is still further evidence of Hezbollah’s role in terrorist attacks or planned attacks on EU soil over the past 12 months.
In response, therefore, to the murderous terrorist attack at Burgas airport, and in light of the disrupted plot in Cyprus, we are calling for Europe to deliver a robust response. We firmly believe that an appropriate EU response would be to designate Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organisation. That would be in line with our national proscription of Hezbollah’s military wing, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The UK proscribed Hezbollah’s External Security Organisation in 2001. In 2008, the proscription was extended to include the whole of Hezbollah’s military apparatus, namely the Jihad Council and all the units reporting to it—that is, the military wing.
It is worth highlighting from the outset the distinction that I am making between Hezbollah’s political and military wings. I am referring to Hezbollah’s military wing, and not to Hezbollah as an organisation, as a terrorist group. It is a difficult distinction to make. The hon. Gentleman set out his case very well. At present the United Kingdom is still persuaded that the military and political wings of Hezbollah are organisationally distinct. It is important to recognise that Hezbollah’s political wing is and will remain an important part of Lebanon’s political scene. The EU shares that consensus.
However, I believe very firmly that EU designation of the Hezbollah military wing would send out a clear message, as the hon. Gentleman stated, that we condemn the terrorist activities of the military wing of Hezbollah and that terrorist activities on European soil will not go unpunished. We believe the evidence gathered from the investigation into the Burgas attack and from the Cypriot trial into the foiled attack by a Hezbollah operative to be sufficient to warrant designation action under the EU common position 931—the EU’s designation process. We will continue to work closely with our European partners on this issue.
Let me say a little more. From the tone of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks and the sense behind it, he wants to be very clear about what we are doing and how determined we are to carry it through. We will take the lead in the EU in initiating CP 931 action in response to what we believe has been an attack on EU soil. A number of other EU member states and the US, Canada and Israel have also called for the EU to take action. We are sharing information with our EU partners before calling for a meeting of the common position 931 working group to discuss our proposal for a designation. We expect this meeting to take place in the coming weeks—within the next four weeks. The UK has compiled a core script to address any concerns raised by member states ahead of the working group and to explain the implications of proceeding with designation.
One of the issues which is obvious and which might be raised is the fear of some that proscription might contribute to instability in Lebanon. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares my view that EU designation of Hezbollah’s military wing would not run contrary to our shared support for Lebanon’s stability. We see no reason why designation would in itself affect the EU’s positive relationship with the present Lebanese Government or the EU’s assistance to the Lebanese Government. So we do not assess that our designation of Hezbollah’s military wing and the EU’s designation of Hezbollah’s military wing would affect the legitimate political role currently played by Hezbollah in Lebanon. In fact, we believe that there is a greater risk in Europe in doing nothing or not enough in response to Burgas and Cyprus.
Moving on to other elements that the hon. Gentleman raised, we are also deeply concerned by credible information that Iran and Hezbollah are providing military support to the Syrian Government. Iran’s assistance extends to providing technical advice, training, equipment and weapons to aid Assad’s brutal repression of the Syrian people. Such support is unacceptable and in direct contravention of the UN embargo on the export of weapons by Iran in UN Security Council resolution 1747.
To counter Iranian support to the Syrian regime, we designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds force, part of the Iranian military supplying support to the Syrian regime, under EU Syria sanctions in August 2011. The UK has also designated five individuals under the Terrorist Asset-Freezing etc. Act 2010 in relation to the terrorist activities of Iran and the Quds force.
Hezbollah, too, is providing significant support to Assad, through both direct military intervention and through assistance and advice to the Syrian forces. We condemn this involvement. As well as aiding Assad’s brutal repression of the Syrian people, such involvement violates and undermines Lebanon’s policy of dissociation and so threatens the country’s security. During my visit to Beirut last week, I urged all Lebanese parties to put Lebanon’s interest first and to stop sending their sons over the border to Syria to die, because the only certainty that will result is that Syria’s war will come over the border to Lebanon. The policy of dissociation has worked so far, despite the fragility in Lebanon, and it is essential that that continues.
Turning to other Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups, we are seriously concerned by Iran’s support for terrorist groups that undermine regional stability. Iran provides financial resources, military equipment and training of groups not only to Hezbollah but to other groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and, to a lesser extent, Hamas. Such support undermines Iran’s claim to support stability in the Middle East.
We are also increasingly concerned by Iran’s involvement in terrorism outside its borders through the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds force, including in Thailand, India, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kenya, where two Iranian men were recently sentenced to life in prison by a Kenyan court for planning to carry out bombings in Nairobi and other cities last year. We are committed to the toughest possible international response to Iran’s support for terrorism and its refusal to operate within the bounds of international law.
I confirm for clarity that we recognise the grave concerns regarding Hezbollah and Iranian-supported terrorist groups and we are taking what action we can accordingly. We believe in particular, very much on the lines set out by the hon. Gentleman, that Europe can and must act, and I hope that I have been able to persuade him that I and my ministerial colleagues will continue to engage with our European counterparts in pursuance of that objective. What the Middle East needs most desperately now is peace and stability. It is difficult to see the part being played by Hezbollah’s military wing or by Iran in relation to that. The time for ending the cycle of violence perpetuated by Assad and his regime is now, and the time to bring peace and stability to the Middle East is now. We will support all attempts that aim to do that, but we will be ruthless in our condemnation of those who seek to upset it.