Riding the tiger

If Europe's leaders gambled that appeasement would buy them a measure of protection from the wrath of Hezbollah they may have tragically miscalculated

Hezbollah
Europe has miscalculated badly with Hezbollah
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Douglas Davis
On 23 March 2013 18:50

It was, as far as the Bulgarians were concerned, an open-and-shut case. The bombing of a tourist bus at the Black Sea resort of Burgas last July, which killed five Israelis and the bus driver, had “obvious links” to Lebanon and Hezbollah.

The prime suspects are Australian-Lebanese and Canadian-Lebanese dual nationals who had been living in Lebanon for several years. “We have established that the two were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah,” declared Bulgaria’s Interior Minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov. “There is data showing the financing and connection between Hezbollah and the two suspects.”

Just days before the Burgas bombing, Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, a Hezbollah activist with dual Swedish-Lebanese nationality, was arrested in Cyprus, another European Union state. He confessed to having scouted out locations where Israelis spend their holidays on the Mediterranean island. He also monitored buses used by the Israelis.

On March 21, Yaacoub was convicted on five charges, including participation in a criminal organisation and in the preparation of a criminal act. Terrorism charges were dropped because Hezbollah is not listed as a terrorist organisation by the European Union, of which Cyprus is a member. Inhibited by Europe’s semantic timidity, but also apparently irritated by it, Judge Tasia Psara-Miltiadou declared that, “Hezbollah acts as a criminal organisation.”

Semantics aside, did the leaders of the European Union rise up in their wrath to condemn Hezbollah for taking – and plotting to take – Israeli lives on European territory? Did they, like the United States and others, declare Hezbollah to be an illegal terrorist organisation? Did they hell.

The reactions to the Burgas killings are instructive:

In The Hague, Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, which co-ordinates policing across the European Union, backed Bulgaria’s conclusions that Hezbollah was responsible: He detected “obvious links to Lebanon… From the modus operandi of the terrorist attack, from other intelligence that we see, I think that’s a reasonable assumption.”

In Washington, John Brennan, head of the CIA, urged the European Union to “take proactive action to uncover Hezbollah’s infrastructure and disrupt the group’s financing schemes and operational networks in order to prevent future attacks”.

But Brussels was not ready for such radical action. Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s high representative for foreign policy, declared there was a “need for reflection… The implications of the [Burgas] investigation need to be assessed seriously as they relate to a terrorist attack on EU soil, which resulted in the killing and injury of innocent civilians”. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt had no hesitation in blaming Bulgaria for having named Hezbollah as the culprit.

When Israeli President Shimon Peres visited the European Union headquarters in Brussels last month, the issue of European sanctions against Hezbollah was top of his agenda. But he hit a brick wall of prevarication. Speaking at a press conference with Peres, the unelected, unaccountable president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, declared that the EU still had insufficient evidence to add Hezbollah to its list of terrorist organisations. But he did offer Peres a crumb of comfort: “Once the perpetrators are known, their inclusion on the list… may be considered.”

Why this bizarre behaviour? Why is Europe – invariably the first to cast a stone at Israel – so craven when it comes to confronting Hezbollah? Conventional wisdom says European political leaders are animated by fear, pure and simple.

They fear that turning up the heat on Hezbollah might destabilise the delicate power balance in Lebanon, with unpredictable fall-out in Syria, where Hezbollah is fighting to preserve the regime of Bashar al-Assad. They fear reprisals against European elements in UNIFIL, which is monitoring the border between Israel and Lebanon. And they fear intensifying the hostility of Europe’s own restive Muslim populations.

There are traces of credibility in all these assertions, but the truly honest explanation is somewhat more mundane.

Europe chose to transact a Faustian pact which essentially involved turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s activities in exchange for immunity from Hezbollah attacks on Europeans and their interests. They now fear that, if rattled, Hezbollah will turn its attention from Israeli to European targets. European leaders have only themselves to blame for their predicament.

Europe has been playing its old game of appeasement. In the name of appeasement, it allowed Hezbollah to establish a presence and to operate with impunity on its territory – spreading its message, recruiting members, raising funds and plotting attacks. But Hezbollah went much further.

It is believed to have established a substantial network of sleeper cells throughout Europe, with Germany at the core. The latest threat report from the German BfV domestic intelligence agency estimates that there are now 950 Hezbollah members and supporters in Germany alone (up from 900 in 2010).

There is yet another dimension to the threat: Hezbollah is not a free-standing terrorist organisation. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran and an instrument of Iranian foreign policy. With the end-game to Iran’s nuclear ambitions now in sight, there is a real possibility of military action to stop Teheran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

But that will not be the end of the matter. There is little doubt that Hezbollah has been primed to launch reprisal attacks on Israel; equally, there is little doubt that Israel will have an effective response. Less certain, though, is Europe’s ability to withstand an onslaught from Hezbollah as part of its anti-Western crusade.

Detumescent Europeans have made a virtue of lowering their defences and exposing their vulnerabilities. But if they gambled that weakness would buy them friends and that appeasement would buy them a measure of protection from the wrath of Hezbollah they may have tragically miscalculated. For when European weakness confronts rampant Islamism, the consequence is likely to be bloody and painful.

Riding the tiger was the easy part; trying to dismount will be a far more perilous business.

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