BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s Hezbollah group on Friday strongly rejected the British government’s move to ban it as a terrorist organization, calling it an “insult” to the Lebanese people and evidence of subservience to the United States.
In a statement issued in Beirut, it stressed that Hezbollah is a “resistance” movement against Israeli occupation but also a political and popular force with representatives in the Lebanese parliament and government.
“The British government by adopting this decision has insulted the feelings, emotions and will of the Lebanese people which consider Hezbollah to be a significant political and popular force and granted it large representation in parliament and in the new government,” the statement said.
It was the first comment by the Iran-backed group on Britain’s move earlier this week to ban Hezbollah as a terrorist group, accusing it of further destabilizing the Middle East.
The British government’s decision means being a member of, or inviting support for, Hezbollah will be a criminal offense, carrying a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. Until now, the military wing of the Lebanon-based group has been outlawed in Britain, but not its political arm.
Hezbollah — Arabic for Party of God — is a Shiite Muslim movement that emerged during the early 1980s to fight Israeli occupation of Lebanon, with financial backing from Iran. The group maintains a formidable military force that rivals the Lebanese army. It is also a powerful political force that takes part in elections, has members in parliament and the government, and dominates the country’s politics.
The U.S. and others accuse the group of destabilizing the region through its military intervention in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad’s government.
The Hezbollah statement added that the U.K. decision is proof that the British government is “merely a puppet” that does the bidding of its American “masters.”
“No country in the world that embraces terrorism, funds and supports it has the right to accuse Hezbollah or any other resistance movement of being terrorist,” it said.
The British ban comes as the United States is increasing its pressure on Hezbollah, placing several sets of sanctions on the group and its regional backer, Iran.
Last week, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon described what she labeled as Hezbollah’s “growing” role in the new Lebanese Cabinet as a threat to the country’s stability. U.S. officials have also expressed concern that Hezbollah will exploit the ministries it runs to funnel money to fund the group’s operations.