Ukrainian soldiers at a checkpoint outside of Mariupol last week.
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
An Israeli citizen captured while participating in combat operations in eastern Ukraine was freed in a prisoner exchange over the weekend, according to local media reports.
Alex Vetko,39, identified as Pavel in Ukrainian reports, is reported to be a resident of Rehovot who fought as a sub-unit commander with the Moscow-backed separatists rebelling against Kiev’s rule in the industrial Donbass region. He was one of 38 rebels who were exchanged for 35 Ukrainian soldiers in a swap on Saturday.
Wounded in combat, he was treated by doctors in the Ukrainian held city of Kharkiv and later spoke out against his former comrades on television, calling them “semi-criminal,” an apparent propaganda coup for the Ukrainian government.
According to Alex Kogan, the editor of the Israeli-Russian language news site Izrus, there are many stories of Israelis fighting on both sides of the conflict, but there is little solid information to substantiate most, if not all of these claims.
“Both sides are trying to show that they are not anti-Semitic because they have Jews fighting with them,” he said, referring to the information war between Kiev and Moscow in which each side has used the specter of racial hatred to bolster their own moral standing.
“You can’t rule out that there is somebody who has Jewish blood [fighting] but the only thing that troubles me with all these stories is that we don’t see them. We have no physical proof of their existence,” he said.
While the Jewish communities located within the conflict zone have remained aloof from the conflict, studiously refraining from mixing in or taking sides in an effort to safeguard their members, the Jewish community of the eastern city of Dnepropetrovsk has contributed to the war effort, local leaders told The Jerusalem Post.
Interviewed in that city last week, Zelig Brez, the director of the city’s Jewish community, said that the war has engendered an intense feeling of patriotism among his coreligionists and that “the Jews feel proud to be citizens of Ukraine.”
“Our community took a strong position for supporting the independence of Ukraine and territorial integrity,” he said.
According to Pavel Khazan, a member of the Jewish community and a senior figure in the Dnepropetrovsk regional administration, “some Israeli citizens have participated in anti-terror operations” but there are currently no extant figures regarding Israeli volunteers.
Several members of the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community, including some who hold Israeli citizenship, are participating in the war on the Ukrainian side, he continued, adding that “many Jewish people… try to do their best to support the Ukrainian army,” by providing supplies and raising money.
Khazan works closely with Igor Kolomoisky, a Jewish oligarch providing financial backing for the volunteer Donbass Battalion fighting alongside the regular Ukrainian army.
Representatives of the Donetsk and Luhansk Jewish communities, now largely dispersed, have spoken out against taking sides in the conflict, apparently worried over the ramifications of placing themselves in the middle of a war in a region with a long history of anti-Semitism.
During the Maidan Square protests in Kiev last winter that led up to the ouster of then-president Viktor Yanukovich, triggering today’s bloodshed, the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, a communal organization, urged members of the capital’s Jewish community to refrain from participating in demonstrations.
Asked about reports of Vetko’s reported Israeli citizenship, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry declined to comment, saying that the separatist had “nothing to do with Israel” and that while he may or may not be Israeli, “his action’s are his, not Israel’s.”