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Winging it

This is a guest post by Dave Rich

Last week, after the revelation that the British government would now seek contacts with the political wing of Hezbollah, Louise Ellman MP asked Bill Rammell, Minister of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, this question:

Mrs. Ellman: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what criteria the Government use to distinguish between Hezbollah’s political and military wings. [268154]

Bill Rammell: The Government distinguish [sic] between those parts of Hezbollah which are legitimately involved in Lebanese politics and those who are actively concerned in terrorism.

Since July 2008 the “military wing of Hezbollah, including the Jihad council and all units reporting to it (including the Hezbollah external security organisation)” has been proscribed as being concerned in terrorism, as set out in the Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) (No.2) Order 2008.

Louise Ellman is not the only one keen to know how the FCO intends applying this new policy. Britain’s closest ally, the United States, has been wondering the same thing:

The United States, the official said, wanted Britain to explain “the difference between the political, social and military wings of Hezbollah because we don’t see the difference between the integrated leadership that they see.”

One thing is for sure – there is no point asking Hezbollah for help in clarifying these distinctions, because they don’t accept there are any. Omar al-Moussawi, a member of Hezbollah’s Central Council and former Hezbollah MP, rejected the idea that the British government can talk to one part of Hezbollah while proscribing another:

“No one [i.e., the British] can say that made contact with Hezbollah’s political wing and not its military [wing], because Hezbollah is one entity, and the renewal of the British dialogue [with us] marks a change in their position, not Hezbollah’s.”

Al-Moussawi was not saying anything new: Hezbollah has always insisted that its military and non-military activities are indivisible. There are many examples of Hezbollah’s leaders saying this, which you can read here (pp34-39). To take just one, from Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary General, Sheikh Naim Qassem, in 2003:

“We are a political party whose top priority is resistance. For the struggle against Israel and the policy of opposing the occupation are acts of a political party. We believe that our political endeavors are combined with our resistance operations, which cannot be separated from our political activity.”

When the FCO tries to explain its new policy to Middle Eastern audiences it is met with utter incomprehension. Bill Rammell went on al-Jazeera on 13th March, to discuss it with Dr. Sami Khiyami, the Syrian ambassador to the UK, and Palestinian MP Mustafa Barghouti. First the presenter, Sami Haddad, explained to Bill Rammell that Hezbollah is “an Islamic movement and a religious creed, that the scholars and men of religion control this movement, and therefore, there is no difference between the political and military wings to them.” Then, when Rammell insisted that there is a difference, he was contradicted by Khiyami: “there is no difference between the political wing and the military wing of Hezbollah.”

You could forgive Syria and Hezbollah for assuming that the attempt to create an artificial division within Hezbollah is just another example of the FCO’s long tradition of divide and rule in the Middle East. If it is, nobody is falling for it this time.

Hezbollah is not like the IRA and Sinn Fein, two ostensibly different but connected organisations. Nor is it like Hamas, which, until relatively recently, maintained a cosmetic separation between Hamas itself and its military wing, the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades. Pretty much every serious analysis of Hezbollah has come to the conclusion that all of its activities – military, political, social, welfare, educational and media – form a single organisation under a single unified leadership. For instance, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, in Hizbu’llah, Politics & Religion (pp116-7):

There is much truth in Nasru’llah’s claim that, rather than subordinate its resistance to its political activity, Hizbu’llah’s political activity serves its resistance.

In the final analysis, it is the Resistance which necessitated the creation of the political and social institutions that now constitute Hizbu’llah, and not the other way around. The Resistance cannot therefore be reduced to an appendage of the party. It is in this respect that Hizbu’llah departs significantly from other political parties in the world that are divided into political and military wings. At least for now [2002], Hizbu’llah is more akin to an army with administrative and combative departments, than a part with two mutually exclusive wings. This analogy stems from the fact that each and every male affiliated with Hizbu’llah’s social and political institutions is considered a potential Resistance fighter. For this reason, all male adherents are subject to military training upon subscribing to the party, and are thereby expected to partake in the Resistance if and when the need arises. (emphasis added)

Not only do the political functions of Hezbollah support its military activities; not only is every male member of Hezbollah required to undergo military training; but the political leadership is directly involved in the military decision-making. When Hezbollah launched an operation to kidnap Israeli soldiers on the Israeli-Lebanese border in July 2006, triggering a month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah, it was a decision taken jointly, according to Hassan Nasrallah, by the political and military leadership:

“…we [i.e. Hezbollah] are a group, not an individual. I am not the one who takes the decision to carry out the capturing operation. The group has a political leadership and a military command. There are no less than 15 individuals involved in such a decision. These 15 individuals, be they political or military elements, have long political and jihad experience, and have been the leaders of the resistance from 1982 until 2006.” (Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, ed. Nicholas Noe, p.393).

Bill Rammell told al-Jazeera that:

“The situation is not as it was to say that we should deal with the military wing of Hezbollah. I believe that it is difficult to directly deal with individuals, who are members of a movement that carries out acts of terrorism and kills people.”

If they read what Amal Saad-Ghorayeb and Hassan Nasrallah have said on the matter, the FCO will be hard pushed to find any member of Hezbollah who does not fall into this category.

Hezbollah’s military activities can also support their political ambitions. Michael Totten, commenting on the shift in British policy, makes the connection:

Worse is Britain’s Orwellian excuse for re-establishing ties in the first place. The Foreign Office said it was encouraged by “positive recent political developments in Lebanon.”

One of the “positive recent political developments” the office referred to is the “national unity” government formed after Hezbollah’s violent seizure of West Beirut last year. Hezbollah acquired veto power in the Lebanese government’s cabinet by shooting up and terrorizing the most liberal and cosmopolitan neighborhood in the entire country. Hezbollah’s “political wing” seized power by deploying its “military wing.” You don’t need to be an expert on Lebanese politics to see that it’s a single organization or that an organization’s killing its way into a national unity government isn’t a positive development.

The overtures to Hezbollah may also be a prelude to formal contacts with Hamas. Rammell alluded to this on al-Jazeera:

“… I believe that there is a real difference [between Hezbollah and Hamas] at the moment. Hezbollah is engaging in the political process and it is a part of a national unity government. Hamas has actually expelled its political opponents from the area. This is not the same thing, which is taking place in Lebanon. I would like to reach a situation in which we will be able to talk to Hamas. There is a dialogue, which is taking place now. The Arab League has authorized Egypt to hold these talks. However, there must be a move by Hamas from where they are now. It should do what it should do so that there will be direct communication. This move has not taken place yet and I feel sorry for that.”

This is not just about foreign policy. The FCO has significant input into domestic counter-radicalisation work under the Prevent programme. This is one reason why Hezbollah MP Hussein el-Hajj Hassan was allowed into the UK this week.

Divide and rule in Lebanon is one thing. Do we really need the FCO doing the same in London?