German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer on Thursday banned Hezbollah activities in the country, his ministry spokesman said on Twitter.
He also confirmed that “police measures are underway in several federal states concurrently,” and added that even in times of crisis, the “rule of law is able to act.”
The police raids are focused on four mosque associations in Berlin, Dortmund, Bremen and Münster accused of belonging to Hezbollah.
Germany has also classified it as a terrorist organization.
“Hezbollah openly calls for the violent elimination of the State of Israel and questions the right of the State of Israel to exist,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
“The organization is therefore fundamentally against the concept of international understanding, regardless of whether it presents itself as a political, social or military structure.”
Read more: Pro-Iranian militias: How autonomous are they?
German special police guard the entrance of the El-Irschad centre in Berlin
The American Jewish Committee (AJC) praised Germany’s move to ban Hezbollah, calling it a “welcome, much-anticipated and significant German decision” in a statement.
“We now hope other European nations will take a close look at Germany’s decision and reach the same conclusion about the true nature of Hezbollah,” wrote AJC CEO David Harris. “Permitting its [Hezbollah’s] ‘political’ wing to operate on European soil allows for active recruitment, fundraising, and the poisonous spread of anti-Semitism,” the statement read.
Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Israel Katz, issued similar praise for the decision. “In my conversations with [German Foreign Minister] Heiko Maas, he promised to help and I thank him,” Katz tweeted. “Hezbollah is a terrorist organization must be treated as such.”
Maas tweeted that “Hezbollah denies Israel’s right to exist, threatens violence and terror and continues to massively upgrade its missile arsenal. In Germany, we have to exhaust the rule of law to tackle Hezbollah’s criminal and terrorist activities.”
What does the ban mean — at home and abroad?
By implementing a total ban on all arms of Hezbollah, authorities have effectively made it easier to take action against Hezbollah, thus making it more difficult to conduct such transnational activities — with Germany as a transit point.
Banning Hezbollah could also strain relations between Germany and Iran. However, Iran is dependent on good relations with Germany and the European Union, exemplified most recently by the use of Instex — an EU-Iran trading mechanism designed to skirt US-imposed sanctions and export medical supplies to the pandemic-hit country.
The ban risks impacting Germany’s relationship with Lebanon as well, as the organization has been represented as part of the Lebanese National Assembly since 1992, and also makes up around 10% of all Lebanese parliamentarians.
Kathrin Vogler, a spokesperson on peace policy for the Left Party parliamentary group told DW last year that banning Hezbollah would not improve the security situation, but would make things worse for it in the future, as the move gives the impression that Germany is siding with US demands. “This should be rejected with the necessary clarity,” she said.
As for activities within Germany, the ban essentially criminalizes public expression of support for Hezbollah. Followers can no longer display the flag of the Lebanese militia, a green rifle on a yellow background.
Hezbollah in Germany
Authorities estimate around 1,050 people in Germany are active members of the Lebanese militant group.
Pressure has been mounting on Germany to ban all arms of the organization since before 2013. However, international calls to do so became louder after the UK implemented an outright ban on the group in February of last year.
In response, Niels Annen, the deputy minister in the Foreign Ministry, told Der Spiegel that Germany would not declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The movement was a prominent part of Lebanese society and part of the country’s political landscape, he said. Many German politicians have opposed a total ban, saying that allowing Hezbollah’s political arm to exist is essential to maintaining relations with Lebanon.
In September, US Ambassador Richard Grenell published an op-ed in German daily Die Welt, formally calling for a ban on the group, saying that it sponsors terrorism and anti-Semitism.
AJC CEO David Harris echoed that sentiment in October, following a shooting at a Halle synagogue, which left two people dead and two injured.
Just a month later, however, the Interior Ministry denied that an outright ban of Hezbollah was under consideration, following reports that the ministry had been moving closer to an agreement on a total ban.
A group with international roots
Hezbollah maintains close ties with Iran and is seen by many as an extension of the Iranian regime. According to Nathan Sales, the Coordinator for Counterterrorism within the US Department of State, Iran provides Hezbollah’s Lebanon chapter with over $700 million (€643 million) per year, while the group’s annual budget is estimated to be around $1 billion.
Within that financing mechanism, Hezbollah makes an estimated $300 million per year through international transactions, including drug smuggling and trafficking in counterfeit products. In order to conduct such activities on such a broad international scale, the group needs strong international roots – not just a foothold within the Middle East.
Some experts and diplomats have said that by allowing the political arm of Hezbollah to thrive in Germany, the government has effectively made the country a hotbed for money laundering.
“Germany is incredibly important for Hezbollah, because Germany is an Eldorado for money laundering,” political scientist and scholar of Islam Ralph Ghadban told DW.
US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell has echoed that sentiment in previous calls to ban the group.
Hezbollah, or Party of God, was conceived by Muslim clerics in the 1980s in response to the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon in 1982. The Shiite group has a political and military wing.
Hezbollah emerged in the 1980s as an amalgamation of Shiite militias and played a major role in the Lebanese civil war. It used guerrilla warfare to drive Israeli forces out of South Lebanon — Israel withdrew in 2000. Israel and Hezbollah fought another war in 2006. Its defense of Lebanon against Israel had won it cross-sectarian support and acceptance in Lebanese society.
Since its creation, Hezbollah has received military, financial and political support from Iran and Syria. Today, Hezbollah’s military wing is more powerful than Lebanon’s own army and has become a major regional paramilitary force.
Hezbollah turned its focus to politics following the end of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. It represents a large section of the Lebanese Shiite population and is allied with other sectarian groups, including Christians. Their political development has mostly come under Hassan Nasrallah (pictured), who became the group’s leader in 1992.
Unlike other parties in Lebanon’s multi-sided 1975-1990 civil war, Hezbollah did not disband its armed wing. Some Lebanese political groups, such as Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, want Hezbollah to put down its arms. Hezbollah argues its militant wing is necessary to defend against Israel and other external threats.
A number of countries and bodies, including the United States, Israel, Canada and the Arab League, consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization. However, Australia and most of the European Union differentiate between its legitimate political activities and its militant wing.
Hezbollah has been one of the main backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country’s civil war. Its entrance into the war helped save Assad, one of its chief patrons; secured weapons supply routes from Syria and formed a buffer zone around Lebanon against Sunni militant groups it feared would take over Syria. As a result it has won considerable support from Shiite communities in Lebanon.
Lebanon has long been at the center of regional power struggles, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, Hezbollah’s military and political ascendancy, as well as its intervention in Syria, have also helped stoke Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions in Lebanon and across the region.
Iran and Hezbollah have increased their political and military strength through the war in Syria. Israel views this as a threat and has carried out dozens of airstrikes on Iran/Hezbollah targets in Syria. Israel has vowed to not let Iran and Hezbollah create a permanent presence in Syria. There is growing concern of another war between Hezbollah and Israel that could draw in Iran.
Activities in Syria and Lebanon
The Shiite Islamist political, military and social organization wields considerable power in Lebanon.
Hezbollah — the Party of God — emerged with the support of Iran during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in the early 1980s, though its ideological roots date back to the 1960s. The group’s exact origins are difficult to pinpoint.
Hezbollah also backs the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab, which took office in January.
The organization’s military units have fought alongside President Bashar Assad’s army in Syria.
Hezbollah has been headed by Hassan Nasrallah since 1992.