Recently the UK Parliament debated whether the British government should extend its current ban on the ‘military wing’ of Hezbollah to cover the entire organisation. Joan Ryan described Hezbollah as a ‘terrorist organisation, driven by anti-Semitic ideology which seeks the destruction of Israel’ with numerous MPs from across all parties sharing this view. By not defining the ‘political wing’ of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, it gains legal protections and can operate much more freely within the UK. Hence many MPs wished to see the whole of Hezbollah classified as a terrorist organisation so that its operations in the UK can be more effectively shut down.
The division of Hezbollah into a ‘military wing’ and a ‘political wing’ is a very British idea, not shared by the United States or the Arab League which have both declared Hezbollah to be a terrorist organisation. The idea of dividing a movement goes back to The Troubles in Northern Ireland. In that conflict there was a clear division between the ‘military wing’ of Irish republicanism, the IRA, and the ‘political wing’ of the movement, primarily represented by Sinn Fein.
Hezbollah is not the IRA, and the Arab-Israeli conflict is not The Troubles. Hezbollah does not distinguish between its military and political wings; as far as the leadership are concerned the whole organisation is the same.
Joan Ryan is right that Hezbollah has committed acts of terrorism and has a lot to answer for, but banning the organisation is not the way forward. Hezbollah’s popularity comes from real grievances felt by many in Lebanon and the Muslim world more widely. Israel’s military doctrine of disproportionate retaliation has led to a large number of unnecessary deaths and needless destruction in Lebanon, Gaza and Palestine. Hezbollah’s image of being the underdog, taking on Israel and the West and in the 2006 war in Lebanon winning, will only be helped by a ban on its activities in the UK.
The criminal and terrorist activity of Hezbollah should rightly be condemned and be met with the full force of the law, but banning the organisation will only fuel Hezbollah’s narrative that they are a persecuted minority, fighting Western oppression. A more effective strategy would be to acknowledge and understand the legitimate grievances that have led to Hezbollah’s rise, and help moderate politicians in Lebanon address those grievances.