It's a mistake that many make when they first arrive in Lebanon. Along the highway between the airport and city center, they see portraits of a plump man hanging on buildings, billboards and street lamps. He wears a black turban and glasses, his mouth usually turned up in a smile under his bushy, gray beard. Visitors often wonder if this is Lebanon's president.
But Hassan Nasrallah holds neither the office of president, nor any other political post in the country. Nevertheless, he is a powerful man in his homeland -- perhaps even its most powerful -- as the leader of Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group and political party that heads the strongest coalition in the country's parliament. Nasrallah also directs thousands of elite fighters who are searching for like-minded recruits in the region. Thanks to Nasrallah's private army, which is fighting on the side of the Syrian regime, President Bashar Assad has the upper hand against rebels there once again.
On Monday, European Union foreign ministers agreed to put this armed wing of Hezbollah on the bloc's list of terrorist groups. The move marks a striking about-face in European policy regarding the Shiite militants. Previously, European leaders had argued that Lebanon, already in a vulnerable state, would be further destabilized if the influential group were declared outcasts.
Sanctions Won't Be Felt
But Britain, the Netherlands and France have pushed just such a measure through, arguing that by interfering in the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah is now threatening the fragile peace inside Lebanon as well. European restraint on the matter no longer makes sense, they argue.
This change in heart was sparked by a terrorist attack on European soil that has been linked to the militant group. In July 2012, five Israeli tourists and a bus driver were killed in a suicide bombing on a bus at an airport in the Bulgarian Black Sea resort town of Burgas. Advocates of Monday's decision to blacklist Hezbollah argued that the group must be thwarted before it became active in Europe again.
Hezbollah did not immediately react to the decision in Brussels on Monday, but a spokesperson had declared beforehand that the decision would not deter the "Party of God."
"Hezbollah is a single large organization, we have no wings that are separate from one another," spokesman Ibrahim Mussawi told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "What's being said in Brussels doesn't exist for us."
It is true that Hezbollah does manage and pay its many social institutions and armed forces from the same source. "Political and social work, in addition to jihad, are operated by the same leadership," reads an explanation from Hezbollah in response to a question about the division of labor within the party. In this way, the group has skillfully leveraged its way out of feeling the EU sanctions, because the 28-member bloc agreed to apply punitive measures solely to Hezbollah troops out of the fear that they would otherwise destabilize Lebanon.
Civil and Military Division Unclear
The fact that outsiders are unable to discern where Hezbollah's civilian wing ends and the militant one begins is likely to mean that the organization will escape the EU's measures unscathed, say Western diplomats in Beirut. The decision in Brussels was purely symbolic, serving only to appease the United States, which declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization in 1995 after two devastating attacks against the Israeli embassy and a Jewish organization in the Argentinean capital of Buenos Aires. Since then, the US has been pressuring its allies to follow suit.
Hezbollah was formed in 1982 after Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Iran had sent a few hundred members of its Revolutionary Guard to the Shiite-dominated south of the country to aid in resisting the occupier. Hezbollah grew from this nucleus, partially financed, armed and supported politically by Iran and Syria.
Today, the civilian arm of the group has created a state within a state, and runs schools, hospitals, orphanages and a television station. Through its charity work the group has secured the support and loyalty of the population, and since the party first stood for election in 1992, it has come to dominate parliament in Beirut. In doing so, it has shaped Lebanon's fate.
For many years, Nasrallah has been considered the most popular Arab politician. But since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, he has lost his top spot in the correponding yearly opinion poll. Hezbollah's interference in the Syrian conflict has deeply disappointed many Arabs. In their eyes, the "Party of God" has betrayed its own confession of faith. That's because instead of fighting Israel, the group's elite Shiite militants are now suddenly battling fellow Arabs. Getting mixed up in the dirty conflict between Shiites and Sunnis has cost Hezbollah many fans.