German Minister of Interior, Horst Seehofer, declared on 30 April the total banning of the Lebanese extremist organization, Hezbollah, which Germany had already partially banned in the past. This move does not come out of nowhere. At the end of last year, the German parliament voted to enact the so-called Betätigungsverbot, a ban on all group-related activities by members in Germany, and now it has been put into action. According to Seehofer, Hezbollah, which is a department of the revolutionary government in Iran, denies Israel’s right to exist and calls for violence against Israelis. The parliament ruled that Germany’s special historic responsibility to protect Israel necessitates the ban.
Hezbollah’s presence in Germany is disguised by being divided between multiple organizations that have operated in Germany for many years. These organizations and their approximately 1,050 members had been watched by the German domestic intelligence service, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz or “Federal Office for Constitutional Protection” (BfV), but restrictions fell short of a total ban of their activities. The so-called military wing of Hezbollah was designated as a terrorist organization by the EU in 2013, but member states handled the situation very differently. Germany, in contrast to the Netherlands or the UK, had until this year differentiated between Hezbollah’s militant and political arm, allowing the latter to operate on German territory. Until late last year, the German government had denied plans to ban Hezbollah in toto, stating that it was important to maintain a dialogue with all forces in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is not only the dominant political entity but is an important player in running hospitals, schools, and care facilities. This belief seems to have changed now.
As a direct result of the enactment of the Betätigungsverbot, raids have been carried out on mosque associations in Berlin, Bremen, Dortmund, and Münster, as well as in private apartments of members across Germany. The Hezbollah-affiliated organizations in Germany are now prohibited from collecting donations and from showing Hezbollah’s yellow flag with the fist and rifle emblem. Mathias Middelberg, the spokesperson Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said that Germany had been a refuge for Hezbollah activities and this could no longer be tolerated since it was raising money in Germany that was used for terrorism further afield. Last year, political scientist Ralph Ghadban had even called Germany an “Eldorado” for Hezbollah’s money laundering activities. With the enactment of the ban, Hezbollah-related activities can be prosecuted in German courts.
Israel and the US lauded Germany for the ban. Israeli Foreign Minister Katz expressed his gratitude to Germany and spoke of a “very important step” to diminish Hezbollah activities. The US ambassador also spoke favorably about the ban but expressed his wishes for more strict regulations across all EU countries. A politician with the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), Benjamin Strasser, now wants to take further action and using Germany’s upcoming EU presidency to lobby for an EU-wide ban, which is likely a difficult endeavor, especially considering France’s historical ties to Lebanon.
Supposedly, Seehofer acted now in order to increase the leverage law enforcement agencies have in handling the anti-Israel protests on Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day, traditionally the last day of Ramadan—falling this year on May 16. On this day, protests are occurring for the “liberation” of Jerusalem from the “Zionist occupation forces”. Last year, protesters had shouted, “Child murderer Israel” and various anti-American slogans. Whether law-enforcement will actually utilize their new powers during the march remains to be seen, especially in light of the Covid-19 crisis and the uncertainty about whether the protests will take place at all. Another reason for acting now might be a symbolic demonstration that the government remains committed to enforcing security measures amidst the pandemic. A spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior wrote that the state remains able to act even during times of crisis.
Time will tell whether the total ban against Hezbollah in Germany will amount to more than a symbolic act, but there are reasons to be doubtful it will have a material impact. After operating on German soil for years, it is likely that Hezbollah-affiliated organizations in Germany have already established a far-reaching network that the restrictions might simply drive further into covert, underground activities. The EU always lacks unity and on this issue the differences in interest are especially acute, potentially allowing Hezbollah to simply move some of its activities on the Continent. Even in Germany, the legal question will arise about organizations that claim they are not “officially” part of Hezbollah, merely affiliated or supportive. The risk of such lawfare is likely to restrain law-enforcement agencies, unless they manage or have managed to infiltrate the Hezbollah network extensively and can provide insider knowledge that can be used in court for swift and timely prosecutions. For all these reasons, the balance of probability is that the total ban on Hezbollah in Germany remains symbolic, albeit better symbolism than Europe has often displayed in the forty-year conflict with the Islamic Republic in Iran.
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