Bennett condemns Bucha massacre without accusing Russia of war crimes

Multiple requests for comment from the Prime Minister’s spokespeople on the Bucha Massacre remained unanswered.

  Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset, March 6, 2022.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset, March 6, 2022.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett condemned on Tuesday the massacre in Bucha, Ukraine, four days after photos of mass civilian casualties came to light, but stopped short of accusing Russia of war crimes.

“We are shocked by what we see in Bucha, horrible images, and we condemn them,” Bennett stated. “The photos are very harsh. The suffering of Ukrainian citizens is huge and we are doing all we can to help.”

In contrast to Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid reiterated his accusation that Russia has committed war crimes.

“A large and strong country is invading the territory of a smaller and weaker country with no justification,” Lapid said in Athens. “The photos and testimony from Ukraine are horrific. Russian forces committed war crimes against a defenseless civilian population. I condemn these war crimes.”

Lapid said there is hope, because “the world is not silent; the world is not cynical and limited to interests and economic benefit” and is working together to stand with Ukraine.

“It is impossible to remain indifferent in the face of the horrific images from the city of Bucha near Kyiv, from after the Russian Army left,” Lapid said on Sunday. “Intentionally harming a civilian population is a war crime and I strongly condemn it.”

Photos released of the incident show that Russian forces organized the killing of civilians in Bucha by a gunshot with their hands tied behind their backs, according to a report by The Kyiv Independent. Similar killings took place in the city of Irpin, the report added.

 A mass grave with bodies of civilians, who according to local residents were killed by Russian soldiers, is seen, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Bucha, in Kyiv region, Ukraine April 4, 2022.  (credit: REUTERS/VLADYSLAV MUSIIENKO) A mass grave with bodies of civilians, who according to local residents were killed by Russian soldiers, is seen, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Bucha, in Kyiv region, Ukraine April 4, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/VLADYSLAV MUSIIENKO)

“We expect the prime minister to take the position like the rest of the democratic countries in the world and take a side in this conflict – better sooner than later,” a Ukrainian official said in response to Bennett’s remarks. “If you are neutral, that means that you are supporting the aggressor.”

US President Joe Biden has called for Russian President Vladimir Putin to be tried for war crimes. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz similarly said Russia committed war crimes, and he and French President Emmanuel Macron called for a new round of EU sanctions.

“I condemn murder of this kind,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on Monday. “It really is a war crime.

“Even in war, we must make sure to follow the values that are called morality in fighting,” Gantz told KAN Bet. “Unfortunately, civilians may be harmed in the framework of war but they cannot be murdered as part of a war. This is something that looks very serious.”

While Lapid has repeatedly condemned Russian actions during the war in Ukraine, Bennett has avoided doing so. The prime minister has, however, expressed regret at the bloodshed and loss of life, which he has not done since the massacre in Bucha came to light.

Israeli officials have cited three main reasons for Israel taking a less vocal stance on the war, while sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

One is Bennett’s efforts to mediate between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, at the latter’s request.

However, in light of the wave of terrorist attacks in Israel, a source close to the prime minister said last week, “We’re not currently dealing with this topic at all.”

Another is Israel’s coordination with Russia before striking Iranian targets in Syria. Jerusalem notifies Moscow before the strikes in order not to hit the Russian Army, which is the dominant military force in Syria.

When asked if that deconfliction mechanism can continue even after Lapid condemned Russia for committing war crimes, Gantz said, “We will continue to act everywhere in the Middle East where we need to act.”

The third reason is to maintain an open channel with the large Jewish communities in Ukraine and Russia.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman also declined to condemn Russia for war crimes in Bucha.

“We all condemn war crimes,” Liberman told Army Radio, responding to a question about the massacre. “There are mutual accusations here – Ukraine blames Russia and Russia blames Ukraine.

“We need to understand there is a bloody war there and we need to maintain Israel’s moral position and, at the same time, our interests,” he said.

Asked about his comment hours later, Liberman persisted in his refusal to condemn Russia, saying: “First and foremost, we have to deal with threats to Israel.”

The primary threat, the finance minister said, is that world powers might sign a nuclear deal with Iran “that lets the ayatollahs... earn $300 million every day from gas and oil. We will see that money in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq and Yemen.”

Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk invited Liberman to visit Ukraine.

“We will take him with a convoy to Bucha and to other places where he can see for himself the bodies of civilians and meet the women who were tied up and raped,” the ambassador wrote on Facebook. “Maybe then he will know what happened.”