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Two days before Christmas, Israeli flags fluttered against Tbilisi's gray sky. Some 150 Georgian students gathered to support Israel's antiterrorist battle in Gaza. One waved a sign that read "Israel has the right to defense." Like Israel, Georgia is an ancient but tiny country that must fight for freedom. Like Israelis, Georgians understand war and they know the global dimension of the threat to freedom.
Since our modern independence in 1991, Russia bullied Georgia with separatism, terrorism, subversion, provocation and economic embargoes. After NATO refused us a Membership Action Plan last April, the Kremlin prepared for war - logistics prepared, forces marshalled and exercised, air targets listed, naval infantry provisioned. In August, they attacked.
The world initially stood with Georgia, but for many, opposing Russia for too long was inconvenient. Focus shifted from Russian tanks and burning apartments to the decisions our president made at the outset of the war.
"Georgia," wrote Barry Rubin of the GLORIA Center in Herzliya, "a country which knows what it is like to be attacked by a neighbor and then blamed for defending itself, understands the situation which Israel faces. The world turned away when Russia attacked Georgia and, for all practical purposes, annexed some of its territory."
WATCHING ENGLISH-LANGUAGE television coverage of the war in Gaza, one might think that it all began with Israel's air strikes on December 27. The students in Tbilisi's Freedom Square know better. "Stop terrorism," said one of their signs - precisely what Israel is doing.
Like Georgia, the modern State of Israel has never enjoyed a quiet existence. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad routinely calls for its destruction. Syria, Iran's ally, sponsors Hizbullah terrorists who rain rockets on Israeli towns from southern Lebanon. This was the root of the 2006 incursion into Lebanon.
At the opposite end of a country less than one third Georgia's size, Jewish settlers and the army withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Hamas terrorists won an election there, violently expelled the Palestinian Authority and established a terrorist zone sandwiched between Israel and Egypt.
Imagine if the London or Madrid train bombers ruled in Kent or Guadalajara! Hamas promises to raze Israel to the ground. It has launched thousands of rockets at civilians. Last June, through Egyptian mediation, a six-month cease-fire was arranged. The situation reescalated, Hamas ended the truce and each day launched rockets. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas implored, "We called the leaders of Hamas... Please, do not end the cease-fire." It was of no use. Israel was forced to stop the brutality directed against its people from the Gaza Strip.
THE GEORGIAN Foreign Ministry expressed "its concern over the escalation of tensions in the Gaza Strip and the deteriorating humanitarian situation, which has been triggered by rocket attacks launched by Hamas against innocent Israeli civilians."
"Hamas is not popular here," explains Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, "because during the Georgian-Russian war, the Hamas leadership took very seriously the Russian side."
Recall that in 2006, then Russian president Vladimir Putin hosted Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Moscow. Russia is also stoking relations with Iran and Syria. Moscow shields Teheran from effective sanctions against its nuclear weapons program, and Russians will complete construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant this year. The Russian navy drops anchor at the former Soviet base at Latakia, Syria.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hosted Bashar Assad in Sochi last summer, where the Syrian president applauded Russia's assault on Georgia.
Russian surface-to-air missiles are bound for Syria, Vedomost recently reported. And, though denied, press accounts of the sophisticated S-300 air defense system bound for Iran continually appear.
Israel has warned Russia that further weapons sales to Syria and Iran will upset the Middle East power balance, as weapons could fall into even more dangerous hands. Particular sales may be delayed or even derailed. But Moscow persists in backing Iran and Syria and, therefore, Hizbullah and Hamas.
Commercial interests, particularly oil and gas, partially explain why Moscow backs powers that are dangerous to the democratic world. But the greater explanation is that Russia supports these powers precisely because they are dangerous to the democratic world, a world the Kremlin wants to revise.
The battle in Gaza is between democracy and terrorism, and the consequences of defeat are far greater than the range of Hamas rockets.
The writer lives in Tbilisi and is a senior associate of the Georgian Security Analysis Center.
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