SYDNEY – Revelations that Hezbollah may have sleeper cells operating in Australia have triggered renewed calls to ban the entire Iranian-backed Shi’ite organization in the country.
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The newspaper The Australian last week cited Sheikh Bilal Radwan, a rival Sunni cleric, who claimed in an interview in Lebanon that Hezbollah has three separate sleeper cells operating here named Abu Abbas, Abu Jafaar and Zaiter.
“I warn your government about such a thing,” he said.
The news of sleeper cells comes amid escalating fears that Hezbollah may retaliate against Israel for air strikes on arms shipments inside Syria, which intelligence experts claim were Iranian missiles bound for Hezbollah.
The Australian government first detected Hezbollah support here in 1991. But it was not until 2003 that Hezbollah’s military wing – named the External Security Organization – was listed as a terror group.
However, Hezbollah's political wing is still recognized in Australia, whereas in America and Canada the entire organization is proscribed as a terror group.
The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, a privately run lobby group chaired by Melbourne-based powerbroker Mark Leibler, renewed calls this week for Australia to follow in the footsteps of North America.
“AIJAC has been calling for the complete banning of Hezbollah for some time, and still does,” Colin Rubenstein, the group's executive director, told Haaretz.
He said he had received assurances from both sides of the political spectrum that a complete ban is “actively being considered” in Canberra and hoped Australia would soon “drop the artificial distinction” between the two wings of Hezbollah.
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry has also lobbied “very recently” for a total ban of the organization, the council’s executive director, Peter Wertheim, confirmed this week.
Australia may have followed the “erroneous thinking” of the British government in distinguishing between the military and political arms of Hezbollah, Wertheim said.
“The falsity of that proposition has been made especially evident by further Hezbollah terrorist attacks around the world and its brutal defense of the criminal Assad regime in Syria.”
The reports of sleeper cells in Australia were “very concerning,” he added. “We should remain alert but not alarmed. Hezbollah is not the only potential source of a security threat to Australia, including the Jewish community.”
Michael Danby, a junior cabinet minister in the Labor government, agreed that the distinction between Hezbollah’s military and political wings was an illusion.
“I share the view of Congressman Peter King, the former chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, that people can be flipped from one group to another so any distinction about the military wing is in my view a false construct,” he said.
It is understood that Australia differentiates between the political and military wings of Hezbollah (as it also does with Hamas) because legal activity helps intelligence agencies keep track of their movements in Australia.
In addition, authorities believe communication must remain open with a political party that plays a role in government, as is the case with Hezbollah.
The support for Hezbollah here – made clear by the presence of its yellow flags at pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel protests – may help explain why its TV station, Al-Manar, transmits into Australia via an Indonesian satellite.
Dubbed “Terror TV” by the media, Jewish leaders have made multiple complaints about Al-Manar to authorities, accusing it of glorifying terrorism, spewing anti-Semitic vitriol and soliciting support for Hezbollah.
Although their submissions to the Australian Communications and Media Authority did prompt the amendment of the Broadcasting Services Standard in 2011, Arabic-speaking Australians can still subscribe to Al-Manar here even though it is banned in France, Germany, Spain and the United States.
“It is utterly anomalous that, despite a 2010 ACMA report into Al-Manar, which found it breached regulations, glorified terrorists and promoted anti-Semitism, and despite our other counter-terror laws, a television station owned and operated by a terrorist organization, and used to mobilize support for that organization, still remains legal here, according to ACMA," said AIJAC's Rubenstein.
“We are hopeful that a ban on Hezbollah in its entirety will make it unequivocally clear that Al-Manar is not legal here, and also provide additional leverage to help Canberra to convince the Indonesians to take action, in their own interests as well, against Indosat’s broadcasts of the station,” he added.
Roland Jabbour, chair of the Australian Arabic Council, conceded there is a lot of support for Hezbollah in Australia but he stressed he was not aware of any Hezbollah activities in Australia or of the existence of Hezbollah’s military wing in Australia.
“It would be a concern if we are to be selective of who we ban in Australia,” he told Haaretz. “If we are to be selective in terms of banning a political view that would be contrary to our values of democracy and freedom of speech in Australia.”
But Rubenstein believes that a case for a total ban is still compelling, "especially in view of the way Hezbollah relies on support from abroad as an important source of financial support and recruitment, and the evidence that Australians have become involved in Hezbollah activities, both in Bulgaria and at home.”
Last year a man who held dual Australian-Lebanese citizenship was linked to the bus bombing in Burgas, which killed five Israelis and the Bulgarian bus driver. He is believed to have moved to Lebanon in 2006 to join Hezbollah’s military wing and, if proven, would be the first Australian linked to a terror attack allegedly perpetrated by Hezbollah.