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Europe's Learning Curve on Hezbollah

For some, it may seem bizarre that Hezbollah is not already on Europe's terrorist blacklist. Critics in Israel have long complained that Europe is turning a blind eye to Hezbollah, adopting an ostrich policy, and appeasing its Muslim communities.

It's taken decades, but Europe is nearly ready to admit it: Hezbollah is terrorist group, and should be treated with stern diligence

It was the Bulgaria hit that did it. Confined to Lebanon, Hezbollah could easily be dismissed as a local phenomenon, a product of the entrenched, ancient enmities of an eternally troubled neighbourhood. But a bomb blast last summer in Burgas, blameless Bulgaria's second-largest Black Sea resort, seems to show Hezbollah taking their fight to European soil. The Iranian-backed Shia group appears to have crossed the line from regional nuisance into bona fide terrorists, and for Europe, it is a distinction that matters. Now, European Union ministers are ready to discuss conferring on Hezbollah the dubious designation of terrorist organization, a title that allows authorities to interrupt their funding and freeze assets in Europe.

The shift in thinking comes seven months after the July 18 attack in Burgas that killed five Israeli tourists, a Bulgarian bus driver and a presumed suicide bomber. Although Hezbollah immediately emerged as a the main suspect, with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu quick to pin the blame on them, it took half a year for the Bulgarian interior ministry to formally complete its forensic investigation into the attack.

Last week, Bulgarian interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said there were "well-grounded reasons to suggest" that two men who helped plan the bombing - one bearing an Australian passport and the other a Canadian one - were Hezbollah members who had been living in Lebanon prior to travelling to Bulgaria. "We have followed their entire activities in Australia and Canada, so we have information about financing and their membership in Hezbollah", Tsvetanov said as he unveiled the investigation's findings. Bulgarian foreign minister Nikolay Mladenov is now due to ask his European partners to back sanctions at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday and Tuesday.

For some, it may seem bizarre that Hezbollah is not already on Europe's terrorist blacklist. Critics in Israel have long complained that Europe is turning a blind eye to Hezbollah, adopting an ostrich policy, and appeasing its Muslim communities. Yet it's wrong to suggest Europe is oblivious to Hezbollah, which both the United States and Canada have deemed a terrorist organization.

The Netherlands and the United Kingdom have also blacklisted the group, a designation that permits both governments to outlaw Hezbollah's activities, freeze its bank accounts and monitor suspected members. But they are the only two EU countries to do so, which means Hezbollah members can raise money, stage demonstrations and work unimpeded in the rest of Europe.

Nor are Europeans unaware of Hezbollah's attacks on foreigners, from the 1994 bombing of the Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people to the 1983 suicide bombing of a US Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 American service members. After last week's revelations, the US weighed in again to urge a tougher response, with new US secretary of state John Kerry exhorting the international community, and particularly European states, "to send an unequivocal message to this terrorist group that it can no longer engage in despicable actions with impunity."

The easy critique of Europe's apparent dithering is that governments - mainly France and Germany - want to avoid retaliation. They fear, according to this line, that Hezbollah might lash out deeper in Europe's heart if they sense themselves under threat. But France's robust stance on Libya, Algeria and other Muslim hotspots seems to put paid to that notion. Rather, there are other considerations that are sometimes overlooked.

France, Lebanon's former colonial power, likes to believe it retains a brokering power in the region, which it would lose if Europe brands Hezbollah. Then there is what some see as a dichotomy between the militant and political wings of the group. Hezbollah currently has two of the 30 cabinet seats in Lebanon's government (having won 12 out of 128 seats in the parliament), and it also provides generous social welfare work for Lebanese Shiites. Its activities in Europe are mainly fundraising, and German intelligence estimates nearly 1,000 Hezbollah members are collecting money in the country. Could this be the same group as the Iranian-backed exporter of terrorism?

European officials have argued that not placing Hezbollah on its terrorism list and under a sanctions regime has been critical to maintaining the group's moderation and Lebanon's uneasy calm. But Burgas looks like changing this. While Paris is reluctant to jeopardize what it sees as its leverage in Lebanon, it may have to admit that its emollient approach has failed to glean any peace.

Matthew Levitt, director of The Washington Institute's Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, and an expert on Hezbollah, says Europe will eventually act when it recognizes group's extensive reach. "A lot of new evidence will come out about Hezbollah's terrorism in Europe," he says. "Also, Hezbollah has become much more involved in narcotics trafficking. You get attention when you mention drugs coming into the country."

Europe's changing viewpoint coincides with new phase in Syria's civil war, which is bringing Hezbollah's other role into sharp relief. Last month, Israeli aircraft struck Syria, in a rare attack against its long-time neighbour and foe. This was not an intervention in the civil war but rather a warning about the dangerous nexus of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah - and how Israel is unwilling to tolerate their planned arms build-up on its borders.

While Syrian TV showed images of a bombed military research centre in Jamraya, the real target appears to have been a weapons convoy carrying Russian-made SA-17 surface-to-air missiles bound for Lebanon. SA-17 missiles are able to shoot down aircraft up to a range of 50km, breaching what Israel considers its "red line" warning to Damascus. Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak later said, the strike was "proof that when we say something we mean it".

As Assad's regime unravels, Israel's fear is that not just that Syria's chemical arsenal could fall into the hands of Hezbollah (a headache in itself) but that the militant group could obtain anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, thus strengthening its ability to respond to Israeli air strikes. Channelling more arms to Hezbollah could be Assad's last roll of the dice: escalating the conflict to set the whole region ablaze, thus somehow giving him some breathing space.

Europe is slowly coming round to the notion that Hezbollah is as sinister and malicious as it was when it first emerged three decades ago. The question then is whether blacklisting the group will make a difference in the region.