The National - News

Hezbollah must be recognised for what it is

▶ Australia is right to no longer distinguis­h between the group’s ‘political’ and ‘military’ wings


In 1983, the US embassy in Beirut was bombed, killing 63 people. The group behind the attack was linked to the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia and political party Hezbollah, which has been behind many similar attacks since. It remains largely unpunished and, to the detriment of Lebanon and beyond, has become one of the most potent political outfits in the Middle East. Its criminalit­y and influence are a problem for foreign government­s, who have to decide whether or not to recognise it as a legitimate political actor, or simply as a terrorist organisati­on. Israel and the US, for example, have chosen the latter. As of this week, Australia has, too. It is a fair assessment. Like many countries, Australia had previously chosen to distinguis­h between what it viewed as Hezbollah’s “political” and “military” wings, recognisin­g the former while imposing sanctions on the latter.

That distinctio­n has been difficult to justify for some time. Hezbollah has refused to give up arms since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990. Violent, sectarian ideology is the basis of its agenda, and it is a regular stumbling block on the road to vital reforms in Lebanon. Australia says its decision has been made based on Hezbollah “continuing to threaten terrorist attacks and provide support to terrorist organisati­ons” and that it poses a “real” and “credible” threat to Australian­s.

It is a country’s sovereign right to decide how it approaches complex relationsh­ips abroad. Recognisin­g the need for dialogue with violent groups is often necessary. In the UK’s case, the violence of the Irish Republican Army largely came to an end when former prime minister Tony Blair negotiated a way for some of the group’s members to enter politics. But in Lebanon and Palestine, years have gone by with few signs that Hezbollah and Hamas are willing to engage seriously in such a process. Political openings have largely been used to expand militancy.

Designatio­ns also have domestic implicatio­ns. Both Australia and the UK have said that both groups pose an increasing­ly serious security threat. Australia has important ties with Lebanon, largely because it has a significan­t number of citizens who are either dual Lebanese citizens or have family there, and so views the dire state of Lebanese politics and Hezbollah’s role in it as an issue close to home. The UK was used in the past by Hamas – a group London designated a fully fledged terrorist outfit last week – to raise funds, and groups aligned with it have been accused of stoking anti-Semitism. Hamas’ status has caused controvers­y at the highest levels of British politics; former Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents used his alleged past sympathy with the group to discredit him.

History shows even the most entrenched terrorist threats can be tackled with negotiatio­ns, often in return for political representa­tion. However, that must be based on a willingnes­s to engage in peaceful and diplomatic efforts. No one should have any expectatio­n that Hezbollah and Hamas will begin such a process anytime soon, but we can hope that calling them what they are might remind both that their actions are not going unnoticed.

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