The Electronic Intifada / March 18, 2022
Since Russia invaded Ukraine late last month, there has been no shortage of comparisons with the situation in Palestine.
For many who support Palestinian rights, there is an instinctive identification with Ukraine as a country under attack, defending itself against a much more powerful force.
No one can be indifferent to scenes of civilians experiencing the horror of war and to the lives of millions upended as they become refugees.
Campaigners for Palestinian rights have also noted the parallels – and the vastly different and hypocritical responses – to calls for boycotts of Russia and Israel, as well as the selective application of international law.
While Russia has been virtually cut off from the world, Israel continues to enjoy impunity as it occupies and colonizes Palestinians’ land and imposes a brutal regime of apartheid on them.
‘We are like you’
Of course, the identification of Ukraine with the plight of the Palestinians is one Ukrainian leaders insistently reject. They see themselves as Israel and their Russian enemies, presumably, as the Palestinians.
In December, for example, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Israel is “often an example for Ukraine” and asserted that “both Ukrainians and Jews value freedom.”
“We know what it’s like not to have [one’s] own state,” Zelensky added. “We know what it means to defend one’s own state and land with weapons in hand, at the cost of [their] own lives.”
According to The Jerusalem Post, Zelensky has also urged that “we should be like Israel in defending our homeland.”
In February, before the Russian invasion, Ukrainian officials even complained that Israel was treating their country “like Gaza” by not giving them enough support – implying that such perceived mistreatment should be reserved for Palestinians, not Ukrainians.
Ukrainian officials have pressed home this identification with Israel ever since the Russian invasion began.
“I think that our army is one of the best in the world. Maybe after the Israeli army,” Markiyan Lubkivskyi, an advisor to Ukraine’s defense minister told The Jerusalem Post. “The army is very strong, because of experience and morale is very high, motivation is very high. We are like you.”
The same newspaper reported that Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of the Ukrainian capital Kiev, “says his models for how to win against all odds are Israel – a country he has visited and admires – and the IDF [Israeli army].”
“We have to learn from Israel how to defend our country, with every citizen,” Klitschko said.
Wherever one falls on these matters, there are deeper connections with the question of Palestine, according to Columbia University professor Joseph Massad.
“Russia and Ukraine both have relations and histories that are very much part of the history of the region which the West came to call the Middle East,” Massad told Rania Khalek on her BreakThrough News show Dispatches this week.
Massad noted that southern Ukraine and the Crimea were former Ottoman regions conquered by Russia’s tsars in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
“Ukraine’s settler-colonial city of Odessa on the Black Sea, formerly the Ottoman city of Haci Bey, was the place where Greek anti-Muslim nationalism was born at the beginning of the 19th century and where colonial Jewish Zionism was born at the end of the 19th century,” Massad said.
“In fact, the first Jewish colonists who came to colonize Palestine in the 1880s were Ukrainian Jews from the settler-colony of Odessa.”
Crimea was even identified during the Soviet period as a potential site for an autonomous Jewish republic – a plan that was abandoned due to strong resistance from the Crimean Tatar population.
More recently, “Both Ukraine and Russia have policies that are entangled with the Middle East,” Massad observed.
Ukraine, for instance, provided the third largest military contingent to take part in the illegal US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003.
“As far as Russia is concerned, of course [President Vladimir] Putin has also had excellent relations with Israel, at the same time he did intervene in Syria against the regime’s jihadist and American and Gulf-supported enemies,” Massad said.
“However his intervention in Syria continued to allow the Israelis to bomb Syria, but not the jihadists.”
Massad also raised the issue of Ukrainian Jews, which Israel is calling upon “to emigrate to Israel so that it can transform them into colonists of the land of the Palestinians.”
Massad’s discussion with Khalek provides a great deal of context and insight on the situation in Ukraine and Western responses, including an intense surge of Russophobia that mirrors the previous bouts of xenophobia that regularly accompany American wars and interventions abroad.
They also touch on conformity of thought and censorship in Western liberal democracies – and other themes that Massad recently addressed in an article for Middle East Eye.
It’s a fascinating discussion that you can watch in the video at the top of this page.
Ali Abunimah is executive director of The Electronic Intifada