It is not often that a self-styled “Party of God” makes political waves in the UK.
After all, this is the country where Alastair Campbell famously told Tony Blair “we don’t do God” in response to the then Prime Minister’s attempts to discuss his faith in public.
But that is what happened this week, with the decision by home secretary Sajid Javid to proscribe the Lebanese group of that name – Hezbollah – as a terrorist entity in full, superseding a previous designation that had banned its so-called “military wing”, but allowed a “political wing” freedom of movement and organisation on UK soil.
In truth, this arbitrary division of responsibility had always sat uncomfortably with the reality of Hezbollah’s existence as a unified entity, albeit with differing strands.
Hezbollah was formed in 1983, purportedly as a military resistance to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which had itself been provoked by the use of that country as a base for Palestinian terrorist activity during its bitter civil war.
The organisation was funded and supported by Iran and Syria, with the Iranian element increasingly becoming dominant. Its creed has always been viciously antisemitic, with its leaders not shy to share their abhorrent views about Jews as well as the Jewish State.
When the Israelis finally withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah refused to disband, despite the proximate rationale for its existence having ended. As with so many other entities that outlive their original objectives but find reasons to reinvent themselves, its backers had found it far more expedient to develop its capabilities to further their own purposes.
It is not hard to see why Iran has been keen to maintain its Lebanese catspaw. Over time, the organisation has augmented its military capabilities with political outreach.
Lebanon’s tripartite political system is balanced precariously between Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shia Muslims. Hezbollah, which is explicitly an Islamist Shia creation, offers the chief global Shia power Iran an effective veto on the course of Lebanese politics.
Lebanese governments need Hezbollah support, either tacit or open, to survive. Just last month, Hezbollah had three ministers appointed to the cabinet as a result of the 2018 election results.
But it is military capability that has always been at the heart of Hezbollah’s utility to Iran. In recent years, Hezbollah has enabled Iran to fight a proxy war with Israel in 2006 and to develop an arsenal of tens of thousands of missiles to threaten Israel with on its northern border.
And were it not for thousands of Hezbollah fighters crossing the border in order to defend his precarious position long before Russian intervention was on the cards, Bashar al-Assad’s brutal Syrian regime would have fallen.
It was Hezbollah muscle that kept the Syrian rebels at bay, and allowed Assad to engage in human rights abuses on an industrial scale.
And right from the moment of its inception, Hezbollah has also been prized by Iran for its ability – demonstrated many times over the years – to conduct domestic and international acts of terrorism.
To cite just a few examples of its historical litany of infamy over the decades, it was responsible for the attacks on the US Embassy and US French Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983, the suicide bombing at the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association in Buenos Aires in 1994, and the 2012 Burgas bus bombing in Bulgaria targeting Israeli civilians.
Four Hezbollah members were also indicted by the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005.
In short, no depravity has been too great for Hezbollah to contemplate and action. It has interfered with impunity within domestic and regional affairs, and wreaked havoc further afield.
The bar for proscription had long ago clearly been crossed, which is why the UK government’s decision – citing Hezbollah “continuing in its attempts to destabilise the fragile situation in the Middle East” – should be welcomed.
The most extraordinary aspect of this whole episode, though, has surely been the spectacle in the House of Commons after the government’s announcement.
Amid howls of outrage from his own backbenchers, Labour’s shadow Home Office minister Nick Thomas-Symonds suggested that the government needed to provide evidence for its change of heart. With Jeremy Corbyn having once infamously called Hezbollah his “friends” – a comment he had to apologise for – this resistance from Labour’s front bench may not be surprising. But it remains disappointing.
The only real mystery around the government decision is why it took so long to see through a Chinese wall of Hezbollah division that never existed. Hezbollah’s own leader, Hassan Nasrallah, long ago publicly debunked the notion that his organisation could be split into wings in any meaningful sense – unsurprising perhaps, seeing as he is the head of both of them.
It was always an awkward situation to be “terrorist-splaining” when the terrorists themselves rejected their halfway house designation.
Fortunately, we now have one fewer foreign and domestic policy contortion to make when considering the reality that is Hezbollah.