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On the night of 30 April, German police raided the premises of organisations thought to be affiliated with Hizbullah. The reason for this foray was the newly authorised ban, issued by the German Ministry of the Interior, against any activity carried out by the group. While the military wing of Hizbullah had been previously designated as a terrorist organisation, the group’s political wing had been free to operate in Germany.
Although the current decision means that Hizbullah’s political arm can no longer operate on German soil, it does not mean that it will be designated as a terrorist organisation, as Germany does not have its own list of such groups. Instead, it follows the EU’s lead, which only lists Hizbullah’s military arm as a terrorist organisation.
In an official statement, the Ministry justified the ban by stating that the group stands contrary to criminal law and the ‘understanding amongst nations’ – as protected in Article 9 of the German constitution – given the group’s continued rejection of Israel’s right to exist. This is a taboo in German politics; in a 2008 speech at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that Germany’s historic responsibility towards Israel was part of its raison d'état. For Merkel, Israel’s security is non-negotiable.
As Hizbullah is not registered as an organisation in Germany, the activity ban provides a legal channel through which the Ministry can prevent any potential affiliates or sympathisers from displaying the group’s symbols and flags, and allows the Ministry to appropriate the group’s assets.
The decision is the outcome of a political process that started last year. In November 2019, the Bundestag agreed on including Hizbullah’s political wing to the existing ban on the military arm of the organisation, which was denominated as a terrorist organisation by the EU in July 2013. The EU’s decision had then been prompted by the investigation into the Burgas bombing in Bulgaria, with added impetus due to the situation in Syria. As Matthew Levitt, a US writer on Islamist terrorism, describes, Hizbullah’s participation in the conflict marked a watershed moment in which the group, which had previously played down its sectarian nature and Iranian affiliations by emphasising its image as a Lebanese organisation with the goal of liberating Palestine, sided openly with the Syrian regime.
Previous steps of curtailing the group’s activities include a ban of the Al-Manar television station in 2008 and the injunction against a fundraising cover for the group called ‘Waisenkinder Libanon Projekt e.V’ [‘Project for Lebanese Orphans’]. With this new ban, Germany follows a string of countries, including the UK, who no longer make a distinction between Hizbullah’s political and military wings – a division that has long been seen as artificial and externally nominated, as the group itself does not distinguish between its branches in this way. The distinction was intended as a compromise during the EU discussions regarding the designation of Hizbullah in 2013, allowing the EU to maintain its relations with Lebanon while restricting the terrorist group.
While the banning of Hizbullah’s activities in Germany is not altogether surprising given the similar actions of its allies, the crucial question surrounds the timing of the decision. Part of the reason for this is domestic: the injunction came just before the Al-Quds march, an annual gathering in the centre of Berlin which has often seen anti-Semitic slogans. It is expected that the new restrictions will allow police to crack down further on the march – the Hizbullah flag had been banned from the protest a few years ago already.
Despite the fact that each year also sees a counter-protest in support of Israel, anti-Semitism is still a prevalent problem in Germany – a survey conducted in 2019 found that 27% of respondents agreed with ‘a range of anti-Semitic statements’. While the restrictions on the Al-Quds march will not solve Germany’s anti-Semitism problems alone, they send a very public signal that the sentiments are not tolerated. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas reiterated Merkel’s remarks regarding Germany’s special historic responsibility towards Israel in the context of the ban. So, while the decision ultimately carries foreign policy implications, it is also partly domestically motivated.
Another explanation for the timing is simply practical: intelligence services were gathering evidence to make the case against Hizbullah airtight, ensuring that any potential counter claims could not hold up in court. The collection of evidence was supported by the Israeli national intelligence agency, who tipped off the German agencies about the presence of ammonium nitrate – which can be used in the assembly of explosives – in a storage facility in south Germany. The announcement through Israeli media of the cooperation with Mossad was not well received in Berlin, with the latter quickly pointing out that the majority of the work was carried out by the German authorities and not by their Israeli counterparts.
Following the announcement at the end of March, the decision was praised by Israel and the US, both of which had previously lobbied for the ban. Statements from Iran and Hizbullah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, stated that Germany’s decision was a result of finally caving into pressure from the US. The German ambassador to Lebanon, Georg Birgelen, was further summoned to explain the reasoning behind the decision and was reminded of Hizbullah’s role in Lebanese politics, such as in the formation of the new government in January. Birgelen confirmed that Germany’s stance towards Lebanon remained unchanged. The maintenance of previous relations is significant – Germany had acted as an important intermediary before, as in the 1996 prisoner exchange between Israel and Hizbullah.
Birgelen’s statement echoed the words of then Minister of State for the Middle East and International Development Alistair Burt after the UK’s ban of the organisation in early 2019. Both countries are facing a tightrope walk with their policies – maintaining good relations with the Lebanese government and thus ministers nominated by Hizbullah, while at the same time curtailing the group elsewhere.
Fitting into the Bigger Policy Picture
This diplomatic balancing act does not only have bilateral implications – it also has wider repercussions in the bigger picture of ongoing US–Iran tensions. Part of the reasoning behind the timing of the decision was diplomatic.
In the US–Iran tussle, Europe’s – and specifically Germany’s – leverage towards the US is limited and there are few tools at Germany’s disposal that allow it to be an influential actor within this dynamic. One of these tools is diplomacy, as Germany is perceived to be driving the EU efforts towards the JCPOA and has also attempted to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This makes it clear that Germany is seen as a credible and trustworthy actor by Iran and could serve as a mediator in future discourse.
Further evidence of Germany’s diplomatic toolkit is the fact that it is being considered as a potential mediator of JCPOA+ negotiations, should the prospect arise. It has partly achieved this role by clearly distancing itself from the US policy towards Iran.
This position might be questioned if stakeholders such as Iran view Germany as siding with the US. This is a real possibility as statements by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with open calls of praise – as well as the previous ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, formerly lobbying for a ban – are augmenting the risk that Germany could be viewed as giving in to side with the superpower and complying with its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign towards Iran. Meanwhile, Germany’s E3 partners – France and the UK – likely recognise the nuanced position it has taken and hold no interest in portraying Germany as siding with the US, as doing so would undermine their unified efforts in dissolving the crisis.
This risk makes it all the more important for Germany to make clear that the activity ban does not change its stance towards the JCPOA, and that the decision was not in response to outside pressure. Germany must state that it was made of its own accord, based on its own values and due to the most recent evidence uncovered – namely, the find of ammonium nitrate and a malware server.
Will Germany’s activity ban have its desired effect? The decision was driven by both domestic and international factors and will affect the disruption – though not the dissolution – of Hizbullah’s European network. According to investigations, the group used its German base as a recruitment ground, a potential space to retreat, and for fundraising and procurement efforts.
Prior to Germany’s steps of curtailing the group, the Netherlands and the UK had already banned the group in its entirety. While both Israel and the US are continuously lobbying more European states to follow suit, there is hesitation – including from France – for fear of deteriorating relations with Lebanon.
Germany’s steps to restrict Hizbullah’s activities in Europe will not automatically result in a regional change of mind. In navigating its own diplomatic course, it is now critical that Germany does not lose its diplomatic balance by seemingly siding with the US, which would endanger its clout in the wider US–Iran dynamic, where it has much to contribute.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: German police have recently been involved in raids on sites linked to Hizbullah. Pictured is a German police task force. Courtesy of Philipp/Adobe Stock.