The European Union declared Hezbollah a terrorist group Monday. But the EU also said the designation applied only to the military wing of the organization that has, through assassination and force, made itself the de facto ruler of Lebanon and now assists Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war.
This is mere hair-splitting. It makes a distinction Hezbollah itself does not recognize — and that is also not recognized by Israel, Hezbollah’s main target, or the United States, which has long accurately considered Hezbollah, as a whole, a terrorist group.
The distinction makes it difficult to design sanctions that only touch the secretive military organization of Hezbollah, one that possesses thousands of Iranian rockets aimed at Israel and that not long ago cowed the Lebanese army and parliament into submission.
That makes the designation mostly symbolic and means that Europe’s leverage will not be applied against Hezbollah as a political organization that operates as an ally of Iran in defiance of United Nations resolutions against militias in Lebanon.
The carefully hedged EU declaration comes almost exactly a year after suicide bombers linked to Hezbollah attacked an airport bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, wounding 32 and killing six, including the Bulgarian bus driver.
Earlier this year a court in Cyprus found a Hezbollah member guilty of planning attacks on Israelis visiting Cyprus.
Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev put a brave front on the declaration, hailing it as evidence of “EU’s readiness to defend the security of its citizens and of those living on its territory.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in the same vein, said, “The EU is sending a strong message to Hezbollah that it cannot operate with impunity, and that there are consequences for its actions.”
But without effective sanctions the EU declaration is just words. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made that point Monday. He thanked the EU for its decision but added, “As far as Israel is concerned, Hezbollah is one organization without distinctions between its wings.”
To pretend otherwise is mere wishful thinking.
The EU should be made of sterner stuff.