Hezbollah on Friday hit back at the British government's plan to designate the entire group as a terrorist organisation, calling the move "servile obedience" to the United States.
The powerful, armed Lebanese militia-cum-political party issued a statement saying it was a "resistance movement against Israeli occupation" and described the British move as an "insult to the feelings, sympathies and will of the Lebanese people that consider Hezbollah a major political and popular force".
Britain said last Monday that it planned to ban all wings of Hezbollah due to its destabilising influence in the Middle East, having previously proscribed its external security unit and its military wing. Many European and other states still distinguish the two arms.
The US, The Netherlands and Canada, as well as many Arab states, already proscribe the whole group a terrorist organisation. Despite this classification, the UK has not had a policy of no-contact with Hezbollah officials that goes back at least as far as the Iraq war where the group was accused of supporting militias that killed British servicemen.
"Hezbollah sees in this decision servile obedience to the US administration, revealing that the British government is but a mere a follower in service of its American master," the Hezbollah statement said.
Following the statement, Hezbollah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem said the UK was “unqualified” to determine what a terrorist organisation was.
“Britain’s proscription of Hezbollah is a condemnation of Britain and a reminder that it is standing by its dark history of colonialism and [its hand in] the establishment of Israel through the Balfour Declaration,” the state-run National News Agency reported.
Announcing the move last week, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid said: “Hezbollah is continuing in its attempts to destabilise the fragile situation in the Middle East and we are no longer able to distinguish between their already banned military wing and the political party."
Long the most powerful group in Lebanon, Hezbollah's clout has expanded in the region with its intervention to back Syria’s embattled president Bashar Al Assad and its support for groups from Iraq to Yemen.
Three of the 30 ministers in Lebanon’s new government are party members or allies, the largest showing it’s had since entering domestic politics in 2005. The group was founded in 1982 by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
Unlike Lebanon other myriad of civil war era militias, Hezbollah did not disarm when the conflict ended in 1990. It said it only direct its arms at liberating occupied Lebanese territory from Israel. Although its successful guerrilla campaign beat Israel into a hasty retreat from south Lebanon in 2000, the areas of the Shebaa Farms and Northern Ghajar village remain under Israel control.
Hezbollah’s supporters say that its huge arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets, as well as its battle-hardened fighters and support from many in Lebanon, are an essential bulwark against future Israeli invasions. The Lebanese army, although receiving significant international support, has no anti-aircraft capability and its weapons are limited so as not to threaten Israel.
The British ban means anyone who is a member of Hezbollah or invites support will be committing a criminal offence with a potential jail sentence of up to 10 years in the UK.
The move may raise questions for London's relationship with Lebanon, which includes military and security aid.
Following the decision, Prime Minister Saad Hariri said he hoped the decision should not harm bilateral ties, telling reporters: "We consider that this matter pertains to Britain, not Lebanon."
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt reiterated Britain's support for "a stable and prosperous Lebanon" and said the listing would "not change our ongoing commitment to Lebanon."
Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, a political ally of Hezbollah, said the British move would not have a negative impact on Lebanon and that Britain had informed Lebanon of its commitment to bilateral ties. Hezbollah allied Health Minister Jamil Jabak has also said that the UK’s move will not impact his department or the running of the health sector.