Pressure is growing on the EU to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization. A probe has concluded that the Shiite group was behind a 2012 bomb attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. But how would it affect Lebanon?
When Hezbollah comes under pressure, it bans its members from talking. "Bulgaria? No comment." Rana, the organization's press spokeswoman in Beirut, is friendly but determined. "I am sorry - really," she added.
The press center is based on a busy street in Dahiya. Hezbollah dominates the district in southern Beirut. It is ubiquitous: in the schools and hospitals it has built or the high-rise buildings it financed.
"Lebanon is no longer imaginable without Hezbollah," said Björn Blaschke, the Middle East correspondent for Germany's ARD public broadcasting network. "It is part of the Lebanese government and represented in parliament. At the same time, it's also a social movement." Hezbollah, for example, also awards scholarships and financed orphanages.
But Hezbollah is even more: the group includes an armed militia, which emerged in response to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in the early 1980s and grew stronger during the Lebanese civil war. Many Shiite Muslims live in southern Lebanon, which was for a long time less developed than the rest of the country. Hezbollah, the "Party of God", is therefore explicitly a Shiite party. Its leaders are Shiite scholars. The black turban of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah demonstrates that he is directly descended from the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
"Hezbollah is everything," Blaschke said.
Blacklisting Hezbollah's military arm only
Philipp Mißfelder, foreign policy spokesman for the ruling CDU, chose other words to describe the organization. "Hezbollah is not a charity, like it sometimes appears, but rather a political, aggressive, fundamentalist unit, which does not shy away from violently pushing through its goals," he said.
Mißfelder was referring to a Bulgarian investigatory report from earlier this month which concluded that Hezbollah was behind a July 2012 bombing in Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists and their local driver. He wants the EU to blacklist Hezbollah as a terrorist group.
Organizations such as Hamas in Gaza or al Qaeda are already on the list. These are groups which the EU defines as having committed a series of serious crimes, such as kidnapping or murder, for the purpose of damaging a country by intimidating the population and "destabilizing or destroying its fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures."
"The West has to date not shown enough toughness against Hezbollah," Mißfelder said. The organization has been able to operate undisturbed in Europe, financing its activities though legal and illegal business. But once Hezbollah is registered on the terrorist list, European and German security agencies could "act much harder and more severely" against the organization, he said. This would also open up the possibility of sanctions or ban Hezbollah members from entering the EU.
The United States and Israel, which have already classified Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, would welcome such a move. But several EU countries are reluctant. Mißfelder has called on Germany to go it alone, if necessary. Another possibility would be a compromise similar to the British government's dealings with the IRA: talks with the political arm, and a terrorist label for the militant division.
"That is an artificial division but could be considered in Brussels," Mißfelder said.
Serious implications could ensue
Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow from the London-based think tank Chatham House, said he would caution against taking "premature steps." Though certain definitions of terrorism did in fact apply to those parts of Hezbollah, which committed attacks during the Lebanese civil war and kidnapped people, Shehadi said he was concerned about the repercussions such a blacklisting would have on EU relations with Lebanon.
"There is a danger of trying to cure the disease and killing the patient while doing that," Shehadi said. "Because Hezbollah is a legitimate part of the government in Lebanon and any EU labeling which would have implications in terms of sanctions or dealing with the Lebanese government would affect the whole country. If it results in isolating the country, then it will be strengthening Hezbollah rather than weakening it."
ARD's Blaschke shares this position. It would be the wrong strategy to allow any dialogue to break off. "If Hezbollah is put under pressure from outside, it could result in it gaining the impression of having to defend itself," he said. And, warns Shehadi, the military arm has enough weapons at its disposal for a war.
Hezbollah looking for de-escalation
Hezbollah has also come under pressure in Lebanon for some time now due to its allegiance to Syria. The organization has - together with Iran - placed itself on the side of Syrian President Bashar Assad and has therefore lost a lot of support, Blaschke said.
According to Blaschke, Hezbollah is trying to appear as a stabilizing factor in Lebanon and refrain from any provocation. On his last visit to Beirut, Blaschke said, he noticed that the pictures of Iranian revolutionary leaders had been taken down from numerous buildings.
"Even from a hospital in Dahiya which was financed by Iran," he said, adding that he came across similar behavior during the war in Gaza last year, with Hezbollah acting conspicuously inconspicuous - a sign of a tactic of de-escalation.
"I believe that the West would be wise to realize that there are elite groups which don't suit them," Blaschke said. "Hezbollah cannot simply be talked out of existence." Talking is anyway one thing Hezbollah is not doing much of at the moment. Press spokeswoman Rana said Hassan Nasrallah may give a speech on the Bulgarian investigatory report this weekend - but then again, maybe not. She, though, has to keep silent on the issue.