Global Independent Analytics
Max J. Schindler
Max J. Schindler

Location: Palestine-Israel

Specialization: Politics

Why do most Palestinian-Israeli politicians defend Hezbollah against Gulf Arabs? It is due to their secularism, not religiosity

In one of the Levant’s stranger squabbles, Palestinian politicians in the Israeli parliament condemned the Gulf Cooperation Council for classifying the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia as a “terrorist organization.”

The GCC – a group of sixmostly Sunni Arab Gulf countries –opposes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the war in Syria, while Shi’ite Hezbollah fights forAssad. (Almost all Palestinian-Israelis are Sunni.)

Israel’s communist and Arab nationalist factions–Hadash and Balad–blasted the GCC’s attack of Hezbollah, saying that it served “Israel’s interests.”The two secular factions are part the Joint List, Israel’s sole Arab and third largest politicalparty in the Knesset.

Notably, Islamist Ta’al, the third faction in the Joint List, stayed mute. It’s another sign that religious observance plays a major role in how Arabs view the war in Syria.

Palestinian-Israelis who are more religious are more likely to sympathize with Sunni Islamist rebels fighting against Hezbollah and Assad who is an Alawite. (Alawites are a heretical sect that broke off from Sunni Islam, angering those who are orthodox.)The same is true of those who are secular.

In contrast, the non-religious Hadash party posted on its Arabic-language website that the GCC declaration “acts in the service of occupation and the continued occupation of Arab land.”Similarly, nationalist and anti-clerical Balad said it was inaccurate “to tag Hezbollah – an organization which represents a large part of the Lebanese nation - as a terrorist organization, despite criticism over its participation in the fighting in Syria.”

Given that Israel has fought with Hezbollah in the past, many Israelis may feel as if Arab parties are supporting the enemy.To assuage skepticism amongstparts of the Arab and Jewish publics in Israel, one former Hadash parliamentarian compared his party’s position on Hezbollah with how Israelis used to view the Palestinian Authority decades ago.

 “We want to explain it to the public in Israel. At the time, we said the Palestine Liberation Organization was a liberation group and that it needed to be talked to, and in Israel it was considered a terrorist group until negotiations with it began,” said former MK IssamMakhoul in an interview with Israeli liberal daily Ha’aretz.

“Hezbollah is a resistance movement that has fought the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon and supports the fight of the Palestinian people to end the occupation,” Makhoul added.

Party activists have also pressured Hadash and Balad to speak out in support of Hezbollah. Yet despite the recent statements, Palestinians in Israel, like Arabs in the region, are increasingly divided on the war in Syria.

Outside of Israel proper and especially in the occupied Palestinian territories, stark financial differences emerge over Hezbollah.

The Palestinian Authority, along with most other countries in the Arab League, has vociferously opposed Hezbollah’s support for Assad in Syria. It may be because one of the PA’s main donors, Saudi Arabia, is a major opponent of Assad.

Its Palestinian counterpart in Gaza, the Islamist group Hamas, has refused to take a side. (Hamas used to be allied with Iran and Hezbollah.)

With all that,problems emerge when Western analysts invoke the usual bogeyman of sectarianismto reduce the complexity of Syria’s war.

While Hezbollah is Shi’a, all the major Palestinian-Israeli politicians are Sunni.Palestinian-Israeli political support for Hezbollah undermines traditional sectarian affiliations of Sunni Muslims versus Shi’a Muslim.

Yet leading newspapers such as the New York Times often fall into this trap, explaining the war in Syria through a lens of millennial sectarianism.

It’s akin to using religion to explain the Euro-zone conflict –southern Europe as home to profligate Catholics versusnorthern countries that host a Protestant work ethic. A correlation does not indicate causality. A half-millennium-old analysis of the religious 30 years war is merely one piece of the puzzle when understanding contemporary geopolitical strife.

As The Atlantic observed in Syria in 2013:To call a conflict "sectarian" is to single out religious difference from among the many salient aspects of human identity and hoist it above all the others as the factor that determines political outcomes. The narrative assumes that religious identities are fixed and immutable, with bright lines between the groups -- even though in real life those identities are often much more fluid.

Palestinian-Israeli political support for Hezbollah is yet another puzzle piece in a complex war that defies rigid lines of sectarianidentity. It is possible that Balad and Hadash representatives are merely taking a principled, more secularist stance.

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