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How Trump’s declaration inflames a Middle East already ablaze

Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a turning point in the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, the issue is much bigger than Palestine as Donald Trump may have just lit the match that will set off the powder keg of the Arab World.

by Eric Draitser

Part 3 - A region at war

Though it is often seen in a vacuum, the Palestine issue cannot be divorced from the broader dynamics of the region. And, given the heightened tensions and turmoil in the Middle East – the war in Syria, Saudi-Qatar conflict, the war in Yemen, the Islamic State’s rise, etc. – Palestinian resistance must be examined as part of a broader regional transformation.

Hezbollah has for years been seen by many, especially the Israeli state, as a principal belligerent on the side of Palestinians. Since 2006 and Hezbollah’s resounding victory over Israeli military forces, the organization has become perhaps the primary force for armed resistance against Israel. As such, the organization would undoubtedly have a vital role to play in any potential resistance. But questions remain about Hezbollah’s capabilities in the wake of its intervention in Syria and, to a lesser degree, Yemen.

According to a survey of news coverage of Hezbollah fighter funerals, more than 1,000 Hezbollah fighters were killed in combat in Syria in the four and a half years of Hezbollah’s involvement (September 2012 – April 2017). As Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council noted:

This number [1000 killed]…must be treated as an absolute minimum, since the Hezbollah leadership has every reason to downplay losses. Giving full information on number of killed would increase domestic (Lebanese) resistance to Hezbollah’s involvement and reveal more information about its forces to its adversaries… Of these Hezbollah fighters, 60 were identified as al-Qaid al-Shahid (martyred commander) or al-Qaid al-Maydani (field commander), which distinguishes them from the rank-and-file members of the Shia militia.

Aside from demonstrating how much blood Hezbollah has shed on the battlefields of Syria, the death toll indicates that, at the very least, Hezbollah’s battlefield leadership has been significantly impacted by the losses. Naturally, new commanders rise to take the place of their fallen leaders but, as any general could tell you, it’s not easy to replace competent field commanders. Indeed, some of those leaders were veterans of the 2006 campaign against Israel, and it remains an open question whether that experience can truly be replaced.

Of course, Hezbollah has also been actively involved in Yemen — if not in military actions, then certainly as advisers. According to a 2015 Financial Times exclusive, Hezbollah sources in Beirut were quoted as saying that Houthi fighters had “trained with us in Iran, then we trained them here and in Yemen,” and that Iran was “probably” supplying weapons to the Houthis. One Hezbollah source told the FT that “We are the guerrilla experts, so we give advice about the best timings to strike back, when to hold back.

While these points are disputed by some in the organization and its supporters, the fact remains that Houthi capabilities, to say nothing of tactical victories, owe much to Hezbollah as a role model, if not a direct mentor.

As Paul Salem — Vice President for Policy Analysis Research, and Programs at the Middle East Institute — noted recently:

Hezbollah has been building up its presence in Yemen and Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has raised the Houthi cause and the war against Saudi Arabia there as a main cause of Hezbollah in recent speeches. Hezbollah’s role in the missile that was launched at Riyadh on November 4 only punctuated the threat. Saudi Arabia fears that Hezbollah and Iran could build missile systems that threaten the kingdom from Yemen as they have done against Israel from Lebanon.

So, it seems that the war in Yemen, like that in Syria, has implications for the Palestinian resistance. While it’s highly unlikely that Yemen has drained much in terms of material resources from Hezbollah, that conflict has made Hezbollah into a direct belligerent against Saudi Arabia, a significant escalation from the indirect proxy conflict in Syria.

The implications for Palestine should be self-evident: why would Saudi Arabia, and MBS specifically, allow Hezbollah to become the leading edge of a fight against Israel when the organization remains the leading edge of the ongoing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran in both Syria and, to a lesser extent, Yemen? The contradiction here makes it apparent that, in the context of Palestine, any appearance of unity would be mere window-dressing. Beneath the surface, these forces would remain in conflict.

Also, one has to wonder whether MBS would attempt to extricate himself from the self-created quagmire in Yemen by using Palestine as a bargaining chip. Might Riyadh make a backroom deal wherein they sell out the Palestinian resistance in exchange for political and/or military support from the U.S. in Yemen? This would make some sense given President Trump’s recent comments urging the Saudis to end the blockade of Yemen, a statement widely regarded as an indication that Washington’s political cover for Saudi war crimes was wearing thin. Could we see a renewed backing from Washington in exchange for non-interference in any Palestinian uprising? It is a definite possibility.

And, given the recent news of the death of former Yemeni President Saleh, the chances of an escalated war against the Houthis have grown exponentially. The Saudis will need U.S. political cover and military/logistical support to prosecute their war.

Not to be forgotten, the ongoing diplomatic conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar complicates the situation in Palestine further. As mentioned above, the financial and political backing that each has provided to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas respectively will undoubtedly spill over into a proxy conflict in Palestine, one that could torpedo any chance of a truly unified resistance to Israeli oppression and occupation.

Of course, one cannot forget Turkey’s ongoing war against the Kurds, and the criminal networks and death squads operating under the Islamic State banner that have been decimated in recent months. The latter is particularly crucia,l as southern Lebanon had become a major battleground against ISIS fighters, which culminated in the controversial agreement between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Government and ISIS to provide safe passage for more than 300 ISIS militants and their families.

All these factors complicate the picture of a unified Palestinian resistance. Do they make it impossible? Of course not. However, it must be understood that any uprising in Palestine is connected to, and not divorced from, the politics of the region.

But what of the global players, specifically China and Russia? How might they factor into this increasingly complicated mosaic of political relations?

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