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EU adds Hezbollah to terror group list

Targets military; move could hurt group’s funding

BRUSSELS — The European Union on Monday added the military wing of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militant group, to a list of terrorist organizations, a policy shift that was welcomed by the United States and Israel despite questions about its overall effects.

The accompanying sanctions are expected to include asset freezes and possible travel bans on some individuals, which could initially represent little more than political embarrassment for Hezbollah. But some sanctions experts said the policy shift set a precedent that could compromise Hezbollah’s fund-raising operations.

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Europe has been an important financial conduit for Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful political party.

Hezbollah has been implicated in attacks on Israelis abroad, has 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 on Hezbollah, announced by EU foreign ministers at a meeting in Brussels, comes as the United States is trying to broker a new round of talks in the Middle East peace process that could start in the next week.

The shift also has the effect of bringing the European Union more into line with the US approach to the region, after the European Union infuriated Israel last week by slapping it with financing restrictions to push the Israelis to resolve their conflict with the Palestinians.

“It is good that the EU 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 contact 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 decision, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters that the European Union had taken an “important step” that would send a “strong message to Hezbollah that it cannot operate with impunity.”

But complicating the application of the decision is the 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.

“There are some distinctions within Hezbollah itself,” William Hague, the British foreign secretary, told reporters while leaving the meeting. “They do have a political council and a military or military-equivalent council.” But, he added, “that’s not to say that is exactly the neat distinction that can be made.”

Hezbollah issued a statement late Monday describing the EU decision as ‘‘hostile and unjust and not based on justification or evidence,’’ the Associated Press reported.

It alleged that the EU gave in to ‘‘Zionist American pressure in a dangerous way and took dictation from the White House,’’ adding, ‘‘It seems that this decision was written by an American hand with Zionist ink.’’

The United States and Israel have long listed the group as a terrorist organization and have urged the European bloc’s members to follow suit.

Britain began to campaign actively for the designation after a terrorist attack in Bulgaria a year ago and the conviction in March of a Hezbollah operative in Cyprus for plotting a similar attack.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel welcomed the news but implicitly criticized that the move was addressed only to Hezbollah’s militant wing.

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