What the war in Ukraine taught us, Palestinians

'I keep having dreams that the [Israeli] army has come back and destroyed our house again', Adham (8) says (Shatha Hammad - MEE)

Mohammed Rafik Mhawesh

Al-Jazeera  /  March 6, 2022

We fight our oppressors, and we get branded terrorists. Ukrainians do the same, and they get applauded for their courage.

Since the early hours of February 24, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, the world at large has been watching the Ukrainian people’s bravery and resilience in awe.

As soon as the first Russian soldier set foot in Ukraine, thousands of civilians took up arms and joined Ukrainian troops to defend their homeland against an indisputably superior military power. Even after shells started to rain on Ukrainian cities, devastating military infrastructure and residential areas alike, brave troops and civilians supporting them made it clear that they will continue to fight for their nation’s freedom until the very end.

In the face of this display of dignity and heroism, politicians and diplomats across the world raced each other to condemn Russia’s aggression and call on everyone to put their support behind Ukraine’s “resistance forces”.

And one of the politicians who rushed to voice his support for Ukraine and its people was Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.

Speaking at a brief news conference, Lapid defined the “Russian attack on Ukraine” as “a serious violation of the international order”. “Israel condemns that attack and is ready and prepared to offer humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian citizens,” he said. “Israel is a country that has experienced wars, and war is not the way to resolve conflicts.”

Many watching this war from afar likely did not pay much attention to what Lapid has said, or dismissed him as just another politician trying to score points by making empty calls for peace and solidarity.

But for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and apartheid, his defence of and support for the Ukrainian people was a slap in the face – it was a blatant display of hypocrisy.

And it was not only Israel’s foreign minister who hypocritically condemned Russia’s invasion and expressed support for the Ukrainian resistance while ignoring Israel’s own actions.

Thousands of Israelis also took to the streets in Tel Aviv “for Ukraine”. And as they marched with Ukrainian flags at hand and chanted “Free Ukraine”, Palestinian residents of the city watched on speechless. After all, that many Israelis have never taken to the streets in Israel to demand a “Free Palestine” or at least equal rights for Palestinians living under their state’s apartheid regime. To make matters worse, they undoubtedly know that whenever Palestinians try to take to the streets in Israel to say “Free Palestine” and raise their own flag, they face immediate arrest, police brutality, or worse.

The shock experienced by the Palestinian people since the beginning of the war in Ukraine was not caused solely by the hypocritical actions and words of Israeli officials and citizens either.

Since February 24, they also came face to face with the inherent hypocrisy of the global community at large.

After Russians entered Ukrainian territory, claiming that Ukraine was never a real country and the land was always Russian, all the Western leaders, media organizations and institutions started to passionately talk about “the illegality of occupations”, “occupied peoples’ right to armed resistance”, “the importance of sovereignty and national autonomy” – arguments and concepts that they never seriously put forward in defence of Palestinian people and their decades-long struggle for freedom.

In this past week, we Palestinians have been shocked time and again, realizing that the global community has been gas-lighting us for years.

We learned that, despite what we have been experiencing in our homeland, international law does exist, and indeed functions. States do have the capacity and the will to take action when a people invade the land of another. We learned that sanctions can be used swiftly and efficiently against aggressors and that sanctioning a country for its international law violations is not necessarily a racist action. We learned that civilian casualties are not just numbers but actual living, breathing people who genuinely matter. And we also learned from politicians, pundits, analysts and even our very own oppressors and occupiers, that armed resistance to occupation is not “terrorism” but a right.

Indeed, for the past week, newspapers, websites and social media have been filled with stories of Ukrainian “heroism and resistance” – stories about soldiers blowing up bridges to delay the approach of Russian tanks and sacrificing themselves in the process, civilians attacking armed vehicles with whatever they have at hand, common people receiving weapons training and digging trenches. If any of these stories took place in Palestine rather than Ukraine they would of course not be perceived as acts of heroism – they would be classified and condemned as “terror”.

News organizations published positive, even inspiring stories about Ukrainians making Molotov cocktails to attack Russian soldiers. The international media, of course, never praised Palestinians for making Molotov cocktails and throwing them at Israeli settlers and their uniformed protectors who try to forcibly push them out of their homes, neighbourhoods and villages. When Ukrainians do it against the Russian occupier, it is heroism. When Palestinians do it against the Israeli occupier, it is only terror.

Throughout the past week, we also watched populations in Europe overwhelmingly welcome Ukrainian refugees with open arms. The same politicians who treated millions of refugees created by Israel’s illegal occupation and apartheid at best like a nuisance and at worse like a threat to peace for years, delivered public speeches about the importance of providing a haven to those being pushed out of their homes by an occupying power.

And we know all these realizations were not unique to us Palestinians. I’m sure many Afghans, Yemenis, Ethiopians, Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans, Somalis, Kashmiris and others who have been at the receiving end of colonial and imperial violence and oppression have come to similar realisations as they watched the crisis in Ukraine unfold.

In the past week, I have heard so many people say “now is not the time to talk about Palestine, Yemen, Libya or Iraq”. So many seemingly well-meaning people claim mentioning these double standards now is “whataboutism” that is feeding into Russia’s hands.

But to them, I confidently respond, no – the timing actually could not be any better to talk about all and every act of military aggression, occupation and oppression around the world. Now that all the powerful Western nations, the international media and even Israel’s rulers seem to publicly accept that occupation is bad, resistance is not only legitimate but honourable, and all victims of war should be supported, we should all start talking about Palestine, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir.

On February 26, just two days into the Russian invasion, Paul Massaro, a senior policy adviser at the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, tweeted: “I’m racking my brain for a historical parallel to the courage and fighting spirit of the Ukrainians and coming up empty. How many people have ever stood their ground against an aggressor like this? It’s legendary.”

Well Mr Massaro, have you ever heard of the Palestinians? We have been courageously standing our ground against an aggressor for 73 years. You cannot think of a “historical parallel” only because you view our struggle not as resistance, but as “terrorism”.

Terrorism and bravery, it seems, are interchangeable. We fight our oppressors, and we get branded terrorists. Ukrainians do the same, and they get applauded for their courage.

Alas, Palestinians still support all other oppressed peoples’ struggles for liberation. We uplift them in solidarity because we have been through the same. We support Ukrainians in their fight against the aggressors trying to steal their lands and their futures too, because we have been there ourselves.

But after last week’s events, and witnessing the same media organizations and politicians demonizing Palestinian resistance as “terror” publicly admit that defending your homeland and your people is actually a good, noble thing, we understand everything is just a matter of perspective. We understand that how your actions are seen is dependent only on the identity of the aggressor you are fighting. And we do not think this is OK, but we accept it is what it is. Perhaps because we too are “relatively civilised”.

Mohammed Rafik MhaweshPalestinian writer and journalist, based in Gaza City