On watching Ukraine through Palestinian eyes

A woman bathes a child by the rubble of their home, destroyed in an Israeli airstrike on the northern Gaza Strip (Mohammed Zaanoun - ActiveStills)

Yousef Munayyer

The Nation  /  March 4, 2022

The rightful outpouring of support for Ukraine teaches us that the West can condemn occupation when it wants to.

Tanks rolling through city streets. Bombs dropping from fighter jets onto apartment buildings. Military checkpoints. Cities under siege. Families separated, fleeing to seek refuge and not knowing when they will see each other or their homes again.

When a military occupation begins to unfold before our eyes, the whole world is forced to pay attention. But while we may all be watching the same thing, some of us see it a little differently.

My first thoughts as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine commenced last week was for the civilian population in Ukraine, who will face the heaviest burden as a much more powerful force seeks to impose its will on them. How many must die? How many civilians will be killed by “precision bombs” that are anything but precise? How soon will freedom come for them? Will they see it in their lifetime? Or will they, like us Palestinians, see the struggle last for generations? I hope, for their sake, that it is the former.

Still, even as it was easy as a Palestinian to identify with the scenes of bombardment, destruction, and refugees, the international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was totally foreign to us.

Overnight, international law seemed to matter again. The idea that territory could not be taken by force was suddenly an international norm worth defending. Western countries sought to advance a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s actions despite knowing full well that Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, would veto it. “Russia can veto this resolution, but cannot veto our voices,” said the US ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “Russia cannot veto the UN Charter. And Russia will not veto accountability.”

When the inevitable Russian veto came down, Western diplomats emphasized how it highlighted Russia’s isolation. Indeed, Russia was Isolated. Just as the United States has been each time it cast the lone UNSC veto on over 40 resolutions condemning Israel’s violations of international law and abuses against Palestinians.

The US also decided to rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council just at this moment. It left the UNHRC several years ago because it opposed the council’s efforts to hold Israel to account. Meanwhile, countries have called on the International Criminal Court to act on Russia’s invasion—the same court whose prosecutor the United States sanctioned for investigating war crimes committed in Palestine.

Then there is the regime of “restrictive economic measures” that the US and its European partners have taken against Russia. Together they have not only imposed broad sanctions but have initiated a robust series of targeted sanctions to hold powerful actors personally accountable. Meanwhile, not only have Western nations refused to use sanctions to hold Israel to account for its violations, it actively enables them through economic, military, and diplomatic support.

Even boycott and divestment efforts are being heralded by the West. Liquor stores in Canada and states in the US are de-shelving Russian vodka. The Metropolitan Opera said it would no longer engage with performers that support Putin. Within two days of the invasion, Russia was kicked out of Eurovision. It has also been suspended from premier international soccer leagues like FIFA and UEFA. Russian ballets are being canceled.

All of this after just five days. Not five weeks or months, let alone decades. Five. days.

Remarkably, boycotts, divestment, and sanctions are not controversial when used to hold certain violators accountable, but when it comes to the rights of Palestinians, we are repeatedly told that nonviolent economic measures like boycotts are wrong. In fact, several US states that have taken action to ban using boycotts for Palestinians rights are now passing boycott and divestment resolutions targeting Russia!

The double standards don’t stop at nonviolent efforts. In Ukraine, the West is actively supporting armed resistance by both shipping weapons and glorifying their use. In Palestine, the West is sending weapons too—to an Israel government practicing apartheid.

When Ukrainians prepare Molotov cocktails to use in resistance against the Russian military, we will call them freedom fighters—and The New York Times memorializes their efforts with expertly produced videos of the explosive-making process. When Palestinians do so against the Israeli military, they are invariably shot and killed by a Western-financed weapon in the hands of an Israeli soldier, whom we will then shield from accountability at the United Nations and the International Criminal Court.

And as social media erupts with crowdfunding links to help purchase weapons for Ukraine, those of us who try to send money for food or medicine to families in Gaza or Syria or Yemen routinely have their transactions denied.

What could possibly explain these gob smacking double standards that have been so brazenly on display this week?

Well, some western news reporters have offered us clues. The Ukrainians, we are told, are not like Iraqis or Afghans, because Ukraine is “relatively civilized, relatively European.” This isn’t “some developing third world nation.” Their cars “look like ours.” They look like “prosperous middle-class people…like any European family you might live next door to.” They are “people with blue eyes and blonde hair. Or, as one correspondent put it, they “are Christians. They’re white.”

How deeply ingrained is this racism? As Russian soldiers entered Ukraine, a photo of a young, blond Ukrainian girl standing up courageously to a Russian soldier went viral on social media. It was going viral, that is, until it was revealed that the girl wasn’t Ukrainian but Palestinian and the soldier was Israeli, not Russian.

It seems the main reason Westerners were quick to jump to defend the human rights of Ukrainians while they’ve ignored the human rights of Palestinians and so many others is that they see some of us as less human than others.

To be clear, the international community should hold human rights abusers and law violators to account, and the swift action against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates unequivocally that such action is possible when governments have the political courage to do so. But not doing so when our allies are the oppressors, or when the victims look different than us, has significant costs, most directly for people like the Palestinians and others with a generally darker complexion and eyes, but also for the world at large. When international law is enforced only when it suits powerful nations to enforce it, and ignored when it suits powerful nations to ignore it, then international law does not exist as anything other than an instrument of power. If we want there to be an international norm against aggression, colonization, and the acquisition of land by force, we can’t keep making exceptions for our friends when they violate it. When we do such things—and we have done so consistently when it comes to Israel, for example—we make it clear that there is no rules-based international order; there is only the rule of power. Might makes right.

A world based on might makes right is ultimately a threat to all—blue- and brown-eyed humans alike—and anyone who doubts this should just look at Ukraine.

Yousef Munayyer is a Palestinian American scholar and nonresident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C.