The German government, after years of equivocating, has announced what amounts to a partial ban on the Iran-backed Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah — Arabic for "The Party of Allah" — in Germany.
The so-called ban — supported by the center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats, the two parties that make up Germany's ruling coalition, and also by the classical liberal Free Democrats — has been hailed as "important," "significant," and "long overdue."
The ban is in fact a compromise measure between German lawmakers who want to take a harder line against Iran and those who do not. As a result, the ban falls far short of a complete prohibition on Hezbollah and appears aimed at providing the German government with political cover that allows Germany to claim that it has banned the group even if it has not.
On April 30, the German government's Federal Gazette (Bundesanzeiger) reported that Hezbollah was subject to an activity ban (Betätigungsverbot), but not an organizational ban (Organisationsverbot) — an important legal distinction because the activity ban is weaker than the organizational ban.
The two-page document, which carefully avoids referring to Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, prohibits the group's logo to be displayed "in public, in meetings or in writings." In addition, any assets that Hezbollah may have in Germany are to be confiscated.
The ban does not call for Hezbollah mosques or cultural centers to be closed, nor does it require that members of the group be deported. The ban also does not prohibit Hezbollah operatives from travelling to Germany.
After the so-called ban was made public, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer ordered police to carry out raids on four mosques and cultural centers linked to Hezbollah: Berlin's al-Irschad mosque, two cultural centers in Bremen and Münster, and a Lebanese community group in Dortmund.
Hezbollah, however, is believed to have more than 30 mosques and cultural centers in Germany, where the group is estimated to have upwards of 1,000 operatives, according to German intelligence assessments. It was not immediately clear why German police did not raid all of the mosques and cultural centers linked to Hezbollah.
In any event, the German government effectively gave Hezbollah at least four months to move its assets and operatives out of Germany. The newspaper Die Welt explained:
"It is still unclear what concrete effects the raids will have.... Berlin SPD politician Tom Schreiber suspects that Hezbollah was prepared for the searches. 'I assume that an attempt was made to relocate assets and take people out of the country,' Schreiber told Welt. 'The question is, what exactly has the ban produced: what assets have been secured, what procedures have been initiated, what further information has been gained about the Hezbollah scene in Germany?'"
On December 19, 2019, the German Parliament, known as the Bundestag, approved a three-page resolution — "Effective Action against Hezbollah" ("Wirksames Vorgehen gegen die Hisbollah") — that called on the German government to ban the activities of Hezbollah on German territory.
According to the Bundestag, a complete ban of Hezbollah is impossible because the group's structures in Germany are "not currently ascertainable." The Bundestag's statement in the original German states:
"Hezbollah-related association structures, which could justify an organizational ban, are not currently ascertainable." ("Der Hisbollah zuzurechnende Vereinsstrukturen, die ein vereinsrechtliches Organisationsverbot begründen könnten, seien derzeit jedoch nicht feststellbar.")
The Deputy Chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag, Thorsten Frei, stated:
"Hezbollah-related association structures, which could justify an organizational ban (vereinsrechtliches Organisationsverbot), are not ascertainable, despite efforts by the federal government since 2008. An organizational ban is therefore not an option due to the lack of a verifiable domestic organizational structure. However, we are free to pursue an activity ban (Betätigungsverbot) that we have also applied to other terrorist organizations that lack a demonstrable domestic organizational structure."
It is utterly implausible that Germany, one of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced countries in Europe, is unable to ascertain the organizational structure of Hezbollah within its own borders. More plausible is that Germany wants to project a public appearance of cracking down on Hezbollah while maintaining direct access to its leadership.
The idea to ban Hezbollah in its entirety originated with Germany's conservative party, Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD), the third-largest party in the German parliament. The AfD has not been pleased with the partial ban. Addressing the German parliament on December 19, when the Bundestag called on the German government partially to ban Hezbollah, the deputy chairwoman of the AfD parliamentary group in the German Bundestag, Beatrix von Storch, explained:
"Six months ago, the AfD presented a resolution in the Bundestag to ban Hezbollah, a resolution which you vehemently rejected and which, since then, you have blocked in caucus. Now, six months later, you are collectively rushing through the door that we have politically opened. If this would happen with more AfD proposals, Germany would be in a much better place....
"Nevertheless, your resolution has two central weaknesses. The first weakness is that you are asking for only an activity ban (Betätigungsverbot). We want a specific organizational ban (Organisationsverbot). According to the Crime Fighting Law (Verbrechensbekämpfungsgesetz) of 1994, the activity ban is the weaker legal means when compared to an organizational ban. There is no reason in the world why you would fight a terrorist organization with the weaker means and not the stronger. You are making a loud bark, but you are not biting.
"The second fundamental weakness of your resolution is your justification for using the weaker means. You write, and I quote, 'Hezbollah-related association structures, which could justify an organizational ban (vereinsrechtliches Organisationsverbot), are not ascertainable.' That is objectively false, as confirmed by the 2017 and 2018 annual reports of Germany's domestic intelligence agency (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, BfV). The 2018 report states, and I quote, 'In Germany, Hezbollah followers maintain organizational and ideological cohesion, among other things, in local mosque associations, which are primarily financed by donations.' Do you even read your own intelligence reports? In case it is too long for you to read, it is located on page 214. Just check it!
"If you do not want to touch Hezbollah's mosque associations, then this resolution is pure symbolism politics (Symbolpolitik), and symbolism politics cannot continue. What is needed is the complete ban of Hezbollah. Hezbollah's propaganda and terror financing in Germany must be stopped. The mosque associations that exist must be disbanded, and most importantly, Hezbollah supporters must be deported. This, by the way, is also demanded by the Bundestag's Anti-Semitism Resolution, which expressly calls for the deportation of supporters of anti-Semitism. If this does not apply to supporters of Hezbollah, which wants to send Jews to the gas chambers, and wants to destroy Israel, then to whom could it apply?"
On April 30, after the German government announced its half-measure against Hezbollah, von Storch said:
"Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has finally pushed through a ban on Hezbollah in Germany, which the Alternative for Germany (AfD) faction has been demanding for a very long time but was blocked in the Bundestag. The AfD welcomes Seehofer's measures against the Hezbollah terrorist organization, although they are not sufficiently extensive. The AfD continues to demand that the Islamic terrorist organization be completely banned from organizing and we regret that our request in the Bundestag has been rejected. There is no place for Israel haters in Germany."
The AfD's Chairman in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Bundestag, Petr Bystron, added:
"This step was long overdue. The Federal Government has finally given in to pressure from the AfD parliamentary group. Hezbollah was allowed to do mischief in Germany for far too long: the Al-Quds March in Berlin demanded the destruction of Israel, speakers were allowed to spread their anti-Semitic agitation in Berlin and Hamburg.
"Now further steps must follow: Taxpayer support of anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) organizations close to the SPD, the Greens and the Left, must end, as well as the taxpayer's funding of the Hezbollah government in Lebanon and the Islamic terrorist regime in Tehran. We will now pay particular attention to the infiltration of German universities and public broadcasting by sympathizers of these terrorist organizations. The 'ban on activity' was only the first step. The fight goes on."
On April 30, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted:
"Hezbollah denies Israel's right to exist, threatens violence and terror, and continues massively to upgrade its missile arsenal. In Germany we have to exhaust the rule of law to tackle Hezbollah's criminal and terrorist activities."
Maas, however, is one of Europe's top supporters of Iran, which shares Hezbollah's visceral hatred of Israel. On March 31, Maas proudly announced that European countries, led by Germany, had circumvented U.S. sanctions on Tehran.
The AfD's concerns about Germany's half-measures regarding Hezbollah are justified. The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), for instance, has been subject to an "activity ban" in Germany since 1993. Despite the ban, the PKK remains very active in Germany. The group had more than 14,500 members in Germany in 2020, according to German intelligence.
German security expert Stefan Schubert wrote that Germany's partial ban on Hezbollah reflects a lack of political will to crack down on the group. He also predicted that the ban will likely have only a very small impact on Hezbollah's activities in Germany:
"Today's completely late action by the federal government is primarily a symbolic gesture. If the government were really serious about annihilating Hezbollah in Germany, it should have established a special commission and provided the security authorities with financial and human resources to identify and dismantle the group nationwide."
The most immediate focus of the ban appears aimed at ending the annual anti-Israel Quds Day (Jerusalem Day) rally, originally scheduled to be held in Berlin on May 22, the last Friday of Ramadan. The annual rallies, held in cities around the world, are often attended by Hezbollah operatives and sympathizers waving the yellow Hezbollah flag and shouting anti-Israel slogans. After the German government announced its ban on Hezbollah, the organizers of this year's rally in Berlin decided to cancel the event.
Worldwide, Britain, Canada, Israel, the Netherlands, the United States, the 22-member Arab League, the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council as well as Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Paraguay have banned Hezbollah in its entirety.
The European Union, however, has resisted pressure to outlaw all of Hezbollah. European officials, who make an artificial distinction between Hezbollah's military and political wing, regularly claim that a total ban might destabilize Lebanon's political system, which is now dominated by the terrorist group. Others are worried that a complete ban of Hezbollah could hinder political and diplomatic efforts to salvage the now-defunct 2015 nuclear accord with Iran.
The European Union reluctantly banned Hezbollah's "military wing" in July 2013, after the group was implicated in the July 2012 bombing of a bus carrying Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria. Five Israelis were killed in the attack.
Hezbollah officials, however, have repeatedly affirmed that the group operates as a single organization with a unified system of command and control. In a July 2013 interview with the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, conducted immediately after the EU announced its partial ban on Hezbollah, the group's spokesman, Ibrahim Mussawi, said:
"Hezbollah is a single large organization, we have no wings that are separate from one another. What's being said in Brussels doesn't exist for us."
Hezbollah's deputy secretary general, Naim Qassem, repeated that the group is structurally unified:
"We don't have a military wing and a political one; we don't have Hezbollah on one hand and the resistance party on the other.... Every element of Hezbollah, from commanders to members as well as our various capabilities, is in the service of the resistance, and we have nothing but the resistance as a priority."
Qassem, in an interview with the Lebanese newspaper Al-Mustaqbal, said:
"Hezbollah has one single leadership, and its name is the Decision-Making Shura Council. It manages the political activity, the jihad activity, the cultural and the social activities. Hezbollah's Secretary General is the head of the Shura Council and also the head of the Jihad Council, and this means that we have one leadership, with one administration."