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'Nothing to lose' - Germany bans Hezbollah under US, Israeli pressure

German special police carry a box from the premises of the El-Irschad (Al-Iraschad e.V.) centre in Berlin, Germany, April 30, 2020, after Germany banned all activities of Iran-backed Hezbollah on its soil and designated it a terrorist organisation.
German special police carry a box from the premises of the El-Irschad (Al-Iraschad e.V.) centre in Berlin, Germany, April 30, 2020, after Germany banned all activities of Iran-backed Hezbollah on its soil and designated it a terrorist organisation. REUTERS - HANNIBAL HANSCHKE

Germany on Thursday banned all Hezbollah activity on its soil, as police raided mosques and venues linked to the Iran-backed group. The much-anticipated move was long urged by Israel and the United States but has been sped up by the Covid-19 crisis.

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Germany had until now only outlawed Hezbollah's military wing while tolerating its political wing, like much of the European Union.

Not anymore. On Thursday, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer banned all of the group's activities and designated the entire movement a terrorist organisation.

“The activities of Hezbollah violate criminal law and the organisation opposes the concept of international understanding,” the interior ministry said in a statement.

"Even in times of crisis the rule of law is upheld," the ministry's spokesman tweeted.

Raids took place at several association buildings across the country even before authorities announced the group's total ban.

Dozens of police and special forces stormed mosques and associations linked to Hezbollah in Bremen, Berlin, Dortmund and Muenster in the early hours of the morning, German media reported.

The associations under investigation are suspected of forming part of Hezbollah due to their financial support and propaganda for the organisation said the interior ministry, which estimates that the group has as many as 1,050 members.

They are thought to use Germany as a safe haven to make plans, recruit sympathisers and raise funds, including through criminal activities.

What the ban does

By implementing a total ban on all of Hezbollah, authorities have effectively made it easier to take action against the Lebanese group, allowing Berlin to confiscate its assets.

Residents of Germany can now be criminally prosecuted for displaying symbols or other expressions of the Hezbollah movement.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said the ban was necessary because the group's "criminal activities and plannings for attacks are also taking place on German soil," he told the daily paper Bild.

In 2018, security officials foiled a suspected Hezbollah attack on several Jewish sites across the country.

Pressure had been mounting from Israel and the United States for Angela Merkel's government to ban all arms of the organisation since 2013. Today, it has "nothing to lose," reckons Mitchell Belfer, Director of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre in Rome.

"Previously, Germany's relationship with Iran and access to the Iranian market prevented it from taking decisive action against Hezbollah, a proxy of Iran," he explains.

"Iranians were very clear in the past that if you target Hezbollah you’ll lose your market share in Iran," Belfer told RFI.

The Covid-19 crisis has shifted the dynamics.

"Iran's relationship with Europe is in decline, its business transactions have all but dried up," continues Belfer.

"Germany did a cost-benefitting analysis and concluded there were more benefits in suspending Hezbollah activities than losing potential trade with Iran, considering that the market place is now dried up," he said.

'Significant step'

The legacy of the Holocaust also motivated Germany's decision to fully ban Hezbollah.

Interior Minister Seehofer recalled that the group had openly called for "the violent destruction" of the Israeli state.

"It's part of our historic responsibility that we use all means under the rule of law to act against this," he said, in a nod to Germany's responsibility for the Holocaust during World War II.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz praised what he called "a significant step in the global fight against terrorism," urging the European Union "to do the same."

The American Jewish Committee also hailed Germany's move.

Last year, Britain outlawed Hezbollah's political wing, making membership of the Shiite movement or inviting support for it a crime.

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