The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Germany’s decision is an important step in the international effort against Hezbollah. It will hamper the criminal network and terrorist activities of Hezbollah in Europe and even in Lebanon. Hezbollah should be outlawed across Europe.

For many years, Germany refrained from declaring Hezbollah movement a terrorist organization. The organization’s so-called political arm is a key component of the March 8 camp, led by Hezbollah and Amal, which plays a significant role in the government and the Lebanese parliament. Germany, which seeks stability in Lebanon, did not see fit to act fully against Hezbollah. Germany exploited the legal vacuum to allow its representatives to meet with Hezbollah officials and influence the Lebanese political system, mainly for mediation and behind-the-scenes coordination between Israel and the organization.

That position changed on April 30, 2020 when Germany cancelled the distinction between Hezbollah’s “political arm” and its “military arm,” essentially declaring all of Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The move is a continuation of a decision taken in the German federal parliament in December 2019 that called on the Merkel government to completely ban Hezbollah activity in Germany due to the organization’s “terrorist activity,” including in Syria. The proposal was backed by Merkel’s Conservative Party, the Social Democratic Party and the opposition’s Free Democrats.

Background for the Decision

There are several reasons for Germany’s recent decision to abolish the separation of Hezbollah’s so-called military and political arms. First, Germany realized that this was not a zero-sum game. The US and the UK have proven that Hezbollah can be declared a terrorist organization, and at the same time both countries can continue to influence Lebanon’s political system.

Second, it is possible that Israel’s public campaign to expose the existence of Hezbollah precision missile works in a civilian populated area in Beirut, and the revealing of Hezbollah’s involvement in the establishment of a terror enclave in the Syrian Golan (which could undermine regional stability and lead to escalation and large-scale conflict) also were factors. Israeli intelligence gave accurate and specific information about Hezbollah activity in Germany to the German intelligence agency.[1]

Third, the German federal government’s decision also was the result of pressure exerted by the Trump administration, notably by the US Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell. In an article in the German newspaper Die Welt in September 2019, Grenell called on Germany to abolish the distinctions in definition of Hezbollah, because it is a terrorist organization that acts from anti-Semitic motivations and calls for the destruction of the State of Israel.[2]

Hezbollah’s Activities in Germany

Hezbollah activists in Germany have taken advantage of the distinction between the military and political arm of the organization for drug trafficking, money laundering and fundraising for the Lebanese home base. Hezbollah’s criminal activity in Germany took place as part of its organized crime network, which operates mainly in South America and Africa, whose products are destined for European soil.

According to an intelligence report of the North Rhine-Westphalia State, about 110 Hezbollah members were active in the state in 2018.[3] There are about 250 Hezbollah members in Berlin and 30 in Hamburg.[4] Hezbollah activists and supporters in all of Germany are estimated to be over 1,000 people. Hezbollah’s activity in Germany is divided into two main areas: criminal activity, and socio-cultural activity aimed at Shiite immigrants (mainly from Lebanon).

According to the Tagesspiegel newspaper, Hezbollah’s criminal proceeds stem from drug smuggling, trade in stolen cars and money laundering. For example, cocaine is smuggled from South America to Europe via Africa, including through the port of Hamburg.[5] In February 2016, an extensive international operation was conducted with German participation to thwart Hezbollah’s international criminal activities. Security forces in Germany and France arrested 16 suspects involved in drug trafficking and money laundering allegedly belonging to Hezbollah’s finance department.

In addition, Hezbollah operates in Germany a network of cultural and welfare centers aimed at strengthening the organization’s image among Shiite Muslims in Germany and raising funds for the organization in Lebanon. According to the Hamburg Intelligence Agency, about 30 mosques or cultural centers throughout Germany are associated with Hezbollah or the organization’s ideology. One of the main goals of the organization’s supporters is to raise funds for the terrorist organization.[6] A report by the North Rhine-Westphalia State Intelligence Agency states that the Hamam Mahdi Center has been operating for over 20 years in the city of Munster, providing a meeting place and platform to support Hezbollah.[7]

A 2019 Berlin Intelligence Agency report shows that Hezbollah is operating in the country to spread propaganda, recruit new members and transfer donations to Beirut. For example, a Muslim preacher at the Imam Riza Islamic Center in the Berlin district of Neukölln distributes Hezbollah propaganda on social networks, echoing Hezbollah leaders’ incitement against the State of Israel and publishing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Another building located near the Islamic Center is prayer center for Hezbollah supporters.[8]

Implications of the German Decision

Germany’s decision to outlaw the entire Hezbollah organization has significant implications for its operation in the country, in Europe and to some extent in Lebanon. The direct impact of the decision is that it will be easier to combat the criminal, cultural and terrorist activities of the organization in Germany. Law enforcement agencies in Germany will hold better legal, intelligence and operational tools, including the abilities to freeze bank accounts and financial assets, and level financial sanctions against Hezbollah companies and individuals. In addition, international cooperation against the organization will intensify as Germany joins the US, the UK, Canada and the Netherlands, which have already declared Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

The damage to the organization could reach its home base in Lebanon. In recent years, Hezbollah has been suffering from a fall in its revenue due to the economic sanctions imposed on Iran, the organization’s main sponsor. Germany’s decision may reduce the flow of money to Lebanon at a very problematic time for Hezbollah.

Cancelling the distinction between Hezbollah’s so-called military and political arms is an important goal of Israeli foreign policy; it reveals the true nature of terrorist organizations in the Middle East and around the world. To increase the pressure on Hezbollah, extensive international cooperation is needed. Israel, with the help of the United States, needs to press other countries to emulate Germany. The EU must be targeted first and foremost, as well as France and Italy, which are among the leading countries on the continent that have not yet outlawed Hezbollah’s military “branch.”

Alongside intelligence and cooperation with intelligence agencies around the world, Israel needs to increase government-to-government contacts and public diplomacy efforts. For example, Israel should publicly expose Hezbollah activists and exert pressure on the French government, which ignores the organization’s activities in the country. In addition, Israel should take advantage of its close relations with eastern European countries, which are more supportive of Israel than western European countries. These include the countries of the “Visigrad” group: Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic; and other countries in the region such as Romania and Bulgaria. The decision of Germany, perhaps the most important country in Europe, represents an important stage in the international fight against Hezbollah.

[1] “Mossad gave Berlin intel on Hezbollah ops on German soil ahead of ban – report”, Times of Israel (May 2, 2020).

[2] “Germany needs to ban Hezbollah, US Ambassador Grenell says”, Deutsche Welle (September 6, 2019).

[3] Benjamin Weinthal, “Increase of Hezbollah members in German state, says intel report”, Jerusalem Post (July 4, 2019).

[4] Benjamin Weinthal, “Hezbollah uses Germany to finance terrorism, weapons purchases”, Jerusalem Post (December 2, 2019).

[5] Ibid (“Hezbollah uses Germany to finance terrorism, weapons purchases”).

[6] Benjamin Weinthal, “30 German mosques and cultural centers tied to Hezbollah: intel report,” Fox News (July 11, 2019).

[7] Ibid (“Increase of Hezbollah members in German state, says intel report”).

[8] Ibid (“Hezbollah uses Germany to finance terrorism, weapons purchases”).

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