By JAMES KANTER and JODI RUDOREN, NY TIMES—
The military wing of Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite group, was blacklisted by European Union ministers as a terrorist organization on Monday in a policy shift that reflected their concern about Hezbollah’s suspected involvement in Europe-based bombings and its growing role in the Syria war.
The blacklisting designation was welcomed by the United States and Israel, which have long regarded Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah and Iran, the group’s biggest ally, denounced the designation as a capitulation to United States and Israeli pressure. “It appears that the decision was written with an American hand in Zionist ink,” Hezbollah said in a statement from Beirut.
The immediate practical effects of the new designation were not clear, but symbolically at least they were an embarrassment to Hezbollah, the most important political organization in Lebanon. Many Lebanese expressed concern the designation would damage Lebanon’s international relations and worsen internal tensions, and Lebanon’s president, Michel Suleiman, asked the European Union to “re-examine its decision,” Lebanese media reported.
The sanctions that result from the European Union designation are expected to include asset freezes and possible travel bans on some individuals. But some sanctions experts said the policy shift set a precedent that over time could compromise Hezbollah’s fund-raising operations.
Europe has been an important financial conduit for Hezbollah, which has been implicated in attacks on Israelis abroad, maintains an arsenal of rockets trained at Israel and has come to the aid of Syria’s government in its effort to crush an uprising now in its third year.
The shift in policy toward Hezbollah, announced by European Union foreign ministers at a meeting in Brussels, comes as the United States is trying to broker new talks in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that could start in the next week or so.
“It is good that the E.U. has decided to call Hezbollah what it is: a terrorist organization,” Frans Timmermans, the foreign minister of the Netherlands, said in a statement. He said the move would have the effect of “limiting its capacity to act.”
European diplomats said government experts would need a day or more to agree on how to phrase language to punish only the armed wing of Hezbollah and not its other operations, which run schools, clinics, hospitals and charitable fund-raising activities.
That declaration is expected to affirm that the union’s authorities will maintain contacts with all political parties in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, and that “legitimate financial transfers” to Lebanon can continue, the diplomats said.
Asked about the effectiveness of the measures, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, said at a news conference that “of course it’s partly a political signal.”
In commending the designation, Secretary of State John Kerry said the European Union had sent “a strong message to Hezbollah that it cannot operate with impunity.” Mr. Kerry also asserted that the designation would “have a significant impact on Hezbollah’s ability to operate freely in Europe by enabling law enforcement agencies to crack down on Hezbollah’s fund-raising, logistical activity and terrorist plotting on European soil.”
But complicating the application of the decision is the intense secrecy surrounding Hezbollah’s military activities. While the group’s political leaders are well known, its fighters hide their affiliation, sometimes even from their own families. The identities of the group’s highest-ranking military commanders usually become publicly known only after their deaths.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel welcomed the move, but implied criticism that it was addressed only to Hezbollah’s militant wing.
“As far as the State of Israel is concerned, Hezbollah is one organization, the arms of which are indistinguishable,” he said in a statement. “I hope that the implementation of the decision will lead to tangible steps against the organization.”
Britain began to campaign for the designation after a terrorist attack in Bulgaria a year ago, which killed five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian driver, and the conviction in March of a Hezbollah operative in Cyprus for plotting a similar attack.
The decision, which required the approval of all 28 members of the European Union, “shows that no organization can carry out terrorist acts on European soil, such as the appalling attack in Bulgaria one year ago, without facing the consequences,” William Hague, the British foreign secretary, told reporters while leaving the meeting. “European nations have rightly come together in response.”
Support for the sanctions grew in recent months partly because of Hezbollah’s aid to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in his military campaign against the insurgency.
To make the decision possible, Ireland and Austria were among the countries that dropped their opposition. Both countries have peacekeepers in the Middle East. Those countries were wary of destabilizing Lebanon by cracking down on militant elements like Hezbollah, and of eroding their own influence on events there.
Italy also was wary of the decision because it has significant numbers of peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, and European diplomats said the country had gone along with the decision to maintain unity in the bloc’s foreign policy.
After the decision, Mr. Hague sought to reassure member states that support for Lebanon, including significant aid payments, would remain intact.
Kamel Wazne, a Lebanese analyst and director of the Beirut-based Center for American Strategic Studies, said that by designating only the military wing of Hezbollah, the Europeans appeared to want to maintain dialogue with others in the group, including members of Parliament and the cabinet. He doubted such a strategy would work.
Others called the European Union’s action a significant setback for Hezbollah, partly because it could provide the United States with a new legal basis for strengthening its own sanctions against Hezbollah’s commercial and fund-raising activities in a way that could then pressure the Europeans to do the same.
The toughened European sanctions against Iran, including an oil boycott, evolved in the same way under American pressure, said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a group in Washington that supports sanctions. “Today’s military designation was a powerful symbolic blow,” he said. “It hasn’t been a death blow. But it’s certainly laid an important predicate.”
James Kanter reported from Brussels, and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem. Reporting was contributed by Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon; Michael R. Gordon and Michael D. Shear from Washington; Thomas Erdbrink from Tehran; and Rick Gladstone from New York.