Sanctuary for refugees but safe haven for oligarchs - opinion

While Israel has granted sanctuary to Ukrainian refugees, it is in danger of becoming a safe haven for Russia and its oligarchs to bypass sanctions.

 Ukrainian refugees are seen arriving in Israel as part of Operation Israeli Guarantee, on March 6, 2022. (photo credit: Sraya Diamant/GPO)
Ukrainian refugees are seen arriving in Israel as part of Operation Israeli Guarantee, on March 6, 2022.
(photo credit: Sraya Diamant/GPO)

I appeal to the people of Israel to step up its support for my war-torn country, back the Kyiv Declaration and stop Israel becoming a route for Russia to bypass sanctions.

When I left my beloved Ukraine several days ago, to fly to the UN and appeal to the world’s leaders to do something about Russia’s carpet-bombing of my country, I left behind a scene that triggered traumatic memories for many Ukrainians.

My grandparents’ generation miraculously survived Holomodor – a deliberate famine in the 1930s, designed by Stalin, in part, to crush Ukraine’s independence movement. An appalling 7 million Ukrainians starved to death in two years. Today, we face the murderous intent of another dictator, determined to crush our independence.

We have done nothing wrong. Our crime is our simple desire to live in our own free, secure and democratic country.

The scene I left behind was tragic – indiscriminate slaughter being used as a weapon of population control and outright murder to cow the spirits of my people. Medical facilities and maternity hospitals have been bombed and thermobaric weapons deployed. The fear of chemical warfare is real and the threat of nuclear weapons has never been greater. In the besieged city of Mariupol, almost 400,000 Ukrainians are bombarded night and day by Russian forces, trapped underground, short of food and without running water. The Russian strategy is to starve us to death – again. It is leading to a humanitarian crisis outside Ukraine too, with 3 million refugees fleeing in just three weeks. Europe is, once again, seeing the mass flight of people escaping the megalomania of a single man’s crazed bunker regime.

 A view shows service members of pro-Russian troops and tanks during Ukraine-Russia conflict on the outskirts of the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine March 20, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO) A view shows service members of pro-Russian troops and tanks during Ukraine-Russia conflict on the outskirts of the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine March 20, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO)

It is not just inhumane, but senseless. Israelis will instinctively understand our predicament. Putin simply cannot stand that the Ukrainian people are here. That we exist, free, secure and independent. After centuries of persecution by Russian czars, Soviet dictators and Nazi fuhrers, three decades ago the Ukrainian people were finally granted liberty and the right to have our own, independent and democratic country. That new nation, based on an ancient one, was internationally recognized, and we worked tirelessly to build a pluralistic and liberal democratic state that has flourished after the miseries of Soviet repression.

Israelis will be familiar with the feeling of being indiscriminately shelled – waking in the middle of the night to the sound of sirens and the need to flee to shelters. You will understand in wordless ways the determined response from a motivated people fighting for their own land so hard won and so often threatened. Perhaps, it is why our president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has compared our struggle against Russia to Israel’s conflict with its neighbors, calling Israel an example for Ukraine. Much like Israelis have in the past, we fight because this is our country, and – to channel Golda Meir, another Ukrainian-born Jewish wartime leader – we fight because in our struggle with Russia “we have no place to go.”

We are grateful for Israel’s support in our struggle to defend our freedom, security and democratic values. Israel has condemned Russia’s invasion, sent humanitarian aid and is taking-in thousands of refugees. But, my beleaguered people are fighting for our survival. We plead for more.

Israel has the means to expand its support. Your defensive intelligence and technology can fend off the aerial bombardment. Israel must maintain pressure on Putin to withdraw from this senseless war. While Israel has granted sanctuary to Ukrainian refugees, it is in danger of becoming a safe haven for Russia and its oligarchs to bypass sanctions.

Israel should join its allies in sanctioning Moscow and undermine Russia’s war machine. Failure to do so will mean disaster, not just for Ukraine, but the whole world. It is up to every democratic nation to take a stand or lose out to a future of authoritarianism.

In Ukraine, we are fighting that fight alone. Our past compels us to battle for our future. Falsely predicated on the de-Nazification of Ukraine, this war has revived historical trauma for Ukraine’s Jewish community. In 1941, Kyiv’s Jewish population were ordered to assemble at the Babyn Yar ravine on the outskirts of the city. One by one, they were marched to the edge of the ravine and shot dead. Over two days, more than 33,000 Kyiv Jews suffered this slow treadmill of Holocaust by bullet. Nearly 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews were murdered between 1941 and 1944, almost 80% shot dead in a similar manner.

Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of the memorial site at Babyn Yar was a desecration of that bitter memory, but it served as a reminder of everything we have suffered, resisted and fight to preserve. It has become the emblem for our fight. Seeing such barbarism again, we will not flinch.

Ukrainians know Israelis share our struggle to live in peace, freedom and security. Please, heed the plight of my people, call on your government to step up support for Ukraine and stand on the right side of history.

The writer is head of the Human Rights Center ZMINA in Ukraine.