As Russia’s brutal war of imperialist expansion and colonialism against Ukraine enters its ninth month, far too many Israelis and Palestinians lack self-awareness as to how the war is terribly embarrassing for them when it comes to two fundamental aspects of how they behave towards each other in their Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One main area of embarrassment is that Russia is engaging in an old-fashioned war of ethnonationalist imperial conquest and colonial settlement, more-than-a-little reminiscent of its past depredations against Ukraine: at some time or times past, Russia controlled most of Ukraine, and thinks it is entitled to take parts of Ukraine to be part of Russia by outright annexation, regardless of international law, clear maps and legally binding international agreements.
And in this process, as it has in previous eras, Russia is happy to deport many Ukrainians into Russia and replace them with Russians, make life unpleasant enough so as to encourage emigration, make the claimed parts of Ukraine more Russian, suppress Ukrainian nationalism and activism, and even impose Russia’s propaganda narrative of history, among other related outrages.
This draws attention to the similarities between Israel’s own expansionist and colonialist activities. Legally speaking in specific text and in spirit, the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly – and even Israel’s closest allies – have repeatedly condemned Israel’s occupation, annexation, settlement and control (de facto or de jure) of Palestinian territory it occupied at the end of the 1967 Six-Day War.
In fact, no foreign government has recognized Israeli’s control over these lands (even with recent diplomatic moves by a tiny number of nations – admittedly including the US under former president Donald Trump – to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, those moves did not do so to the exclusion of a Palestine with a capital in East Jerusalem).
No parsing contortions by apologists for Israel can change the fact that binding agreements to which Israel is a signatory were specifically created to stop precisely what Israel has been doing in the Palestinian territories for decades: planting a flag in land taken in war, calling it theirs, creating a dual system of rights as they import their people into that land to give them preference over the conquered, and often expelling and/or fostering oppression with the hope of emigration of said conquered in order to shift demographics in their favor: dictionary-definition ethnic cleansing, even if dressed in the niceties of the occupying power’s illegitimately-applied legal system.
While there are obviously differences between the situations (especially in scale), in principle, there is little difference between Russians doing this with land not presently legally recognized as theirs but as Ukrainian and Israelis doing the same with land recognized as belonging to Palestinians and intended to be formally part of a future Palestinian state.
Russians say: “This used to be Russia [using the revanchist label “Novorossiya”], this is part of the historic cradle of Russian civilization, and Ukraine is not a real state and Ukrainians are not a distinct nationality;” Russians, thus, cannot be colonizers in their own land.
Israeli-Russian kindred fictions
THESE ARE kindred fictions to the fictions Israelis often say about what they revanchistly term “Judea” and “Samaria,” which comprise the West Bank, which is most of Palestine (recognized since 2012 by the United Nations 139-9 as a non-member UN observer state), that it used to be theirs long ago and should be theirs now, that Palestine is not a real state (that Palestinians don’t have a full formal and fully-formed state, largely because of Israeli design, is not an appropriate moral excuse); for many advocates of Israel, the idea of Palestine as a state has no legitimacy and Palestinians are not an actual people.
The second major area of embarrassment is that Russia has continually targeted civilian population areas, from great cities to small villages, firing essentially blindly with area artillery, rocket, missile and now Iranian kamikaze drone bombardment, mostly when either there are no valid military targets present (often far behind the front lines) or when such weapons are often not capable of targeting with any serious precision, indiscriminately bombarding entire residential areas – terrorism against civilians.
This draws attention to Hamas’s rocket barrages against Israel, as there is little difference in principle with the way Russia targets civilian areas with its longer-range weapons and the way Palestinian militant groups employ rocket attacks: both are inherently indiscriminate terrorism against civilians even allowing for any differences in the circumstances.
While many Israeli attacks kill – and kill relatively more – civilians, in most cases there are Hamas military targets operating near or where Israel is targeting, with Hamas often operating and firing their rockets from densely populated civilian areas.
Yet this is also hardly always the case with Israel’s targeting: see the case from May when clearly-marked-as-a-journalist Palestinian-American dual citizen Shireen Abu Akleh was killed nowhere near any Palestinian militant activity, just one of many examples of questionable Israeli use of lethal force against Palestinians, which I discussed in The Jerusalem Post years ago.
Still, while not exactly rare exceptions, they are not the standard attack of Israel, unlike the situation with the aforementioned attacks by Russia and Hamas (and also Islamic Jihad), which in spite of Palestinian apologists’ contortions are by default fired deliberately at civilian areas without an ability to be specifically aimed at legitimate military targets, hitting targets far behind the combatant lines and nowhere near significant enemy military formations.
Adding to the embarrassment and responsibility for both Israelis and Palestinians is that large swaths of their peoples – from large majorities to pluralities or near-pluralities – at least tacitly condone, approve or even celebrate these policies and the leaders who push them, as is evident from Israeli election after Israeli election and repeated polling of Palestinians over the years even if there has been a significant fluctuation in those sentiments on both sides; indeed, as I have argued in-depth, there seems to be a blindness that the worst in each symbiotically encourages the worst in the other.
With each act, Israelis and Palestinians must ask themselves: “Is our behavior right now closer to Ukraine or Russia?” And if the answer is “closer to Russia,” realize they are doing it wrong and adjust.
When the conflict between Russia and Ukraine settles – with dynamics overwhelmingly and clearly leading eventually, as I have argued forcefully, to full Ukrainian victory – there will be a concerted effort by the West and others to make Russia’s horrific behaviors from this war to be considered beyond the pale, with international tribunals and many war crimes inquiries. Indeed, there are already investigations well underway, including by one of the laureates of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2022, the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine, the head of which – Oleksandra Matviichuk – I interviewed earlier this year.
In this context, there will be reckonings globally for those who behave like Russia, especially those who either practice expansionist, annexationist imperialism and colonialism or those who find indiscriminate area attacks against civilian population centers as acceptable tactics of choice.
Israelis, Palestinians and their leaderships would do well to keep this in mind and adjust their long-term support for unacceptable policies and not use the other’s to justify theirs. Especially as both sides often complain that they do not have more international support, some soul-searching for some self-awareness could help them realize that their own Russia-like crimes are a big part of the reason why.
The writer is a freelance journalist and consultant currently based in the Washington area, with over two decades of research and reporting experience on a variety of issues, including over five years working out of the Middle East. He runs his own news website: Real Context News. Follow him on Twitter: @bfry1981.