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The German government has denied reports that it has decided to impose a blanket ban on the Lebanese militia. Does Hezbollah wield too much power for Berlin simply to ban it?
Several German federal ministries have stated unanimously that there has been no decision to ban the political wing of Hezbollah in Germany. These government representatives were contradicting a report in the news magazine "Der Spiegel," which said that the German Foreign Office, Internal Affairs Ministry and Ministry of Justice had agreed to ban all activity by the Lebanese Shiite militia in Germany. The United States called for such a ban in September.
A Foreign Office spokesperson said that Germany's minister of foreign affairs, Heiko Maas, supported Germany taking "all suitable and effective measures" in order to "take decisive action against criminal and terrorist intrigues, including by Hezbollah." The militia's military wing has been banned in Germany for a long time — but the political wing has not. How does that add up?
The history of Hezbollah
Hezbollah was founded in Lebanon in 1982 during the country's civil war as a coalition of Shiite militias. Iran's Revolutionary Guards played a significant role in its establishment. In the years that followed, Hezbollah was fighting the Israeli army, which had occupied southern Lebanon; Iran supported the militia by sending weapons and instructors.
Hezbollah's network of social-welfare organizations has made it popular, particularly with the impoverished Shiite populations of Beirut and southern Lebanon. Its approval ratings here have to do with the fact that it forced the Israeli army to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000. Hezbollah's image as a defender of the country meant that, when the civil war ended in 1990, it was the only party to the conflict that was allowed to keep its weapons.
Hezbollah is most visible in Germany on "Al Quds Day." Proclaimed by Iran, this is marked by calls for the so-called "liberation" of Jerusalem from the "Zionist" occupiers, i.e. Israel.
In Germany, as in most other EU states, only the military wing of Hezbollah is banned. The political wing is not. The European Parliament did not approve a complete, EU-wide ban on the organization, mainly because of opposition from France. Consequently, since this summer, Maas has been advocating a ban on Hezbollah under Germany's law on associations. A Hezbollah fundraising organization was banned in Germany several years ago.
Strain on relations with Lebanon
Banning Hezbollah is likely to put a strain on relations with Lebanon, as the organization has been represented by its political wing as part of the Lebanese National Assembly since 1992. In the 2018 parliamentary elections, it won 13 seats, making up around 10% of all Lebanese parliamentarians. It held three ministerial posts in the coalition formed, after months of negotiations, by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, until Hariri's resignation in October of this year.
A ban on Hezbollah would therefore also be an affront to any Lebanese government in which it is represented. Such a government would consider itself to have been at least partially criminalized and is hardly likely to accept this. Since Hezbollah also has very close ties to the regime in Tehran, a ban would probably also affect German-Iranian relations. However, it remains to be seen what importance the leadership in Tehran would attach to the ban. Following the renewal of US sanctions, Iran is dependent on good relations with Germany and with the European Union as a whole.
Effects of the ban within Germany
If a ban were imposed, all Hezbollah activities in Germany would become illegal. It would no longer be permissible to display the flag of the Lebanese militia, a green rifle on a yellow background. Hezbollah might establish a successor organization, but it would have to bear a different name, which means it would lose an important, if not the most important, component of its "brand," one that has considerable propaganda power.
However, a ban is unlikely to effect much change in the worldview of Hezbollah supporters. And this would be the real challenge — one the German government is also officially taking on. "The fight against politically or religiously motivated and extremist violence includes security policy tasks, on the one hand," it says in its strategy paper on the prevention of extremism and the promotion of democracy. "But security for the people of our country also includes both preventive measures to strengthen democratic action and measures to thwart radicalization processes. Only when security-orientated, preventive, and democracy-promoting measures go hand in hand can the fight against all forms of extremism, and for democracy, be successful."
A ban would, however, create the legal conditions for taking stronger action against Hezbollah. In June of this year, the CDU member of the Bundestag Marian Wendt, who advocates a complete ban of the organization, was quoted in the daily Frankfurter Rundschau: "Hezbollah finances itself through crime, trafficking stolen cars, money laundering. Germany is a refuge for Hezbollah, where it raises money." The newspaper further quoted her as saying that Hezbollah not only spreads propaganda, but is a military, terrorist, highly criminal organization. Wendt believes that imposing a ban would bring advantages. For example, remittances and rent payments could be stopped, and clan structures and networks exposed.
Germany's 2018 report on the protection of the constitution also devotes two pages to Hezbollah, but does not accuse it of concrete crimes or violations of the law. It does, however, say: "It must be expected that 'Hizb Allah' will also continue to plan terrorist actions against Israel or Israeli interests outside the Middle East. In Germany, supporters of 'Hizb Allah' cultivate organizational and ideological solidarity in local mosque associations, among others, which are financed primarily by donations."