More than 10 years after five Israeli tourists lost their lives in a suicide bombing in a Bulgarian resort, the Balkan nation’s supreme court last week affirmed the sentence handed down to two Hezbollah operatives: life in prison with no prospect of parole.
The sentence might have been more meaningful if the terrorist pair were actually in custody. However, as at their initial trial a decade ago, the supreme court’s decision was handed down in absentia. The whereabouts of Meliad Farah, a dual citizen of Australia and Lebanon, and Hassan El Hajj Hassan, who holds a Canadian passport, remain unknown, much to the chagrin of the families of those who were murdered.
The attack took place on July 18, 2012, at the airport in Burgas, a city that lies on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. A bus carrying 42 Israeli tourists who had just flown in from Tel Aviv was blown up by a suicide bomber, snuffing the lives of Maor Harush, Itzik Kolangi, Amir Menashe, Elior Preiss and Kochava Shriki, a pregnant woman, as well as the Bulgarian driver of the bus, Mustafa Kyosov.
One year into the investigation into the atrocity, the Bulgarian government concluded with confidence that Hezbollah—backed by the Iranian regime—was responsible. Prosecutors disclosed that both Farah and Hassan had entered Bulgaria about a month before the attack using false documents, as did the bomber, Mohamad Hassan El-Husseini, a dual French-Lebanese citizen whose remains were identified through DNA analysis.
Both Farah and Hassan are understood to have fled Bulgaria in the immediate aftermath of the attack and have not been heard from since. First charged in 2016 with complicity in terrorism, the two men were sentenced in September 2020. Prosecutors accused them of providing the explosive device and logistical support to El-Husseini, and said the evidence linked them to Hezbollah.
At the time, the attack brought fresh scrutiny to Iran’s mission of providing military, financial and political support to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to other terrorist organizations around the Middle East. It also resulted in the European Union adopting a new policy that many observers condemned as logically inchoate and morally feeble. In 2013, the bloc agreed to designate Hezbollah’s “military” wing as a terrorist organization, but not its “political” wing. This bifurcation doesn’t exist except in the E.U.’s imagination, and its persistence bolsters the false belief that Hezbollah would be a legitimate entity if only it abandoned its military operations—as though political engagement alone would satisfy a group that is committed to jihad and responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents.
The Bulgarian Supreme Court’s decision in the Burgas case presents the E.U. with an important, timely opportunity to correct its mistake. Hezbollah in its entirety should be designated, in keeping with the U.S. decision to do exactly that in 1997.
While Israel’s northern border has been relatively quiet for several years now, the threat posed by Hezbollah remains tangible. As was true during its bitter 2006 conflict with Israel, Hezbollah is still the world’s most powerful terrorist organization, commanding up to 25,000 fighters with 30,000 more in reserve – larger than the official Lebanese army and in defiance of a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding the disbanding of its military operations. By many estimates, Hezbollah possesses an arsenal of 150,000 missiles, as well. Additionally, it regularly boasts of its knack for deciphering Israel’s military strategy and goals. “If a new situation compels Israel to take some steps, we have the ability to foresee what the enemy will do,” one of its senior officials told the pro-Hezbollah news outlet Al Akhbar in 2021.
The idea that Hezbollah might at some point be amenable to negotiations is laughable. Its favorite propaganda trope is the same as that advanced by its Iranian paymasters; the prediction, without a scintilla of doubt, that Israel is fated to violently disappear from the map, and that those Arab and Muslim countries tempted to make peace with the Jewish state had best realize that or face the consequences. “The course of developments in occupied Palestine indicates that the Zionists are moving towards downfall and collapse,” Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, declared in a speech delivered on March 6. “We express our solidarity with Palestinian prisoners and take on our own responsibility in this regard. The entire Muslim world is obliged to support the Palestinian nation in the face of the Israeli regime.”
At the present moment, Hezbollah is trying to engineer a favorable outcome to Lebanon’s grave political and economic crisis. The country’s parliament has failed to appoint a new president in the aftermath of the resignation last October of the incumbent, Michel Aoun. On March 6, Nasrallah confirmed that both Hezbollah and Amal, another Shi’a paramilitary organization, would back veteran politician Suleiman Franjieh for the post.
While the 57-year-old Franjieh is a Christian, he is distrusted by large swathes of Lebanon’s Maronite community, in marked contrast to his main rival, Gen. Joseph Aoun, 59, who is also a Christian and who enjoys the support of the United States. Franjieh has established himself as a loyal supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, which like Hezbollah is backed by the Iranians, as well as the Russian dictatorship of President Vladimir Putin.
Despite Russia’s past claim to be a reliable partner for Israel, Moscow has actively cultivated the Jewish state’s deadliest adversaries, with the result that Iran has supplied the Russian military with hundreds of drones unleashed against civilian targets in Ukraine. Its position towards Hezbollah is similarly positive. “Some say Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. We maintain contacts and relations with them because we do not consider them a terrorist organization,” was how Mikhail Bogdanov, then Russia’s deputy foreign minister, explained it in 2015.
“Hezbollah was elected by people to the Lebanese parliament,” continued Bogdanov. “There are cabinet members and ministers who are from Hezbollah. It is a legitimate sociopolitical force.”
This airbrushed view of Hezbollah should hold no credibility in the West, especially as it is the official stance of a regime whose imperial appetite has created instability in Europe unprecedented since World War II. The E.U.’s position remains that Hezbollah is half a terror group and half a political party. For the sake of the atrocity in Bulgaria a decade ago and the slaughter in Ukraine now, that position needs to be reversed immediately. There are no political penalties in doing so; what the E.U. needs to overcome most of all is its own reticence.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.