Espreso. Global

Recognition effect: how this new wave of Palestinian-Israeli conflict is perceived in Ukraine

12 November, 2023 Sunday

There was a certain recognition effect in Ukrainian society. Israel's October 7th evoked the memory of February 24th among Ukrainians


For several weeks now, the world's attention has been focused on the Middle East. The inhumane, unprecedented terrorist attack by Hamas against Israelis on October 7 and the military operation that followed in the Gaza Strip made the international community forget about the inactive front of the Russian-Ukrainian war for a while. Television news and social media brought to every European the horrific scenes that left no one indifferent.

However, as expected, depending on personal connections, political orientation and previously formed beliefs, the most acute emotional experience of sympathy for an external observer is associated with a certain side of the conflict. Although the same degree of sympathy is often declared for both Jewish children killed by terrorists in a kibbutz and their Palestinian peers killed by Israeli bombs, on an emotional level, in most cases, the observer still has a "side" whose suffering causes a more painful reaction and whose cruel actions are, on the contrary, justified. As is often the case in such cases, discussions around the conflict unfolding before our eyes are reduced to an endless list of mutual grievances and examples of past violence.

Of course, the public reaction to the Middle East conflict in each European country is unique. However, while in the generalized European society, the articulation of sympathy for both sides of the conflict in different proportions is found almost everywhere, from Madrid to Warsaw and from Athens to Stockholm, the Ukrainian public space is practically dominated by a position that would be defined as "pro-Israeli" in the West.

An emotional statement by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on October 7 can be a typical example. According to the Ukrainian leader, "Israel's right to self-defense is indisputable." Volodymyr Zelenskyy also postulated confidence that "terrorists will be destroyed." The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, in somewhat more restrained tones, also expressed unconditional support for Israel and postulated the right of the Jewish state to defend itself. A few days later, the head of the Office of the Ukrainian President, Andriy Yermak, published a column in the leading Israeli newspaper HaAretz with the eloquent title "Here's Why Ukraine Stands with Israel."

Of course, this was not just a formal position of the country's leadership. Ukrainian society was simply overwhelmed by a wave of sincere solidarity. Hundreds of advertising screens in Kyiv displayed flying Israeli flags; Magen David was added to the profile pictures of many Ukrainians on social media. The Israeli flag even appeared on the facade of the district library near my home. Even the ongoing bombing of the Gaza Strip after the terrorist attack did not lead to any noticeable manifestations of solidarity with Palestine.

Anti-Israeli remarks in Ukraine could be found only on the part of either completely marginal political groups of left-wing radical orientation or they came from radical circles of the Muslim community. In general, this is expected, but it should be emphasized that such statements are unusual for Europe. If I had not been looking for them on purpose, they would hardly have caught my eye by accident.

It is worth recalling that the left-wing movement does not play any significant role in the political life of the country. Ukrainians associate the left idea not with progressive university intellectuals and the struggle to improve social conditions, but with the Soviet past. The left-wing political forces were discredited in the eyes of Ukrainians by the support that communists and some of their sympathizers gave to the Russian aggression in 2014. In fact, "anti-Zionist" rhetoric, which in practice is often just a hypocritical cover for anti-Semitism, is associated with official propaganda from the Soviet Union and is rejected by society. Ukraine's Muslim community is relatively small, and most of the Crimean Tatars who practice Islam live on the Russian-occupied peninsula. In addition, for a number of reasons, traditionally radical Islamist views are not popular among Ukrainian Muslims.

However, I think that the issue is not so much the absence of serious pro-Palestinian sentiments in Ukraine as it is a conscious sympathy for Israel.

Pro-Israeli sentiment has been gaining popularity in Ukraine before, due to the numerous parallels between the situations of the two countries. Of course, Israel's image as a democratic state with an effective army capable of defending itself was the main attraction. Ukrainians wanted to see Israel as an example of successful economic, cultural, and social development in the face of an existential struggle for existence with an enemy that was many times larger in territory, population, and resources.

Sympathy for Israel in some manifestations reached an absolutely uncritical exalted delight. Ukraine would like to associate itself with this partially fictionalized miracle, which was made possible by courageous struggle, titanic work, and a fanatical desire to create decent living conditions for future generations.

Over the past year and a half, however, in response to the Israeli government's more than restrained, to put it mildly, position on the Ukrainian-Russian war, a certain frustration has gradually been brewing in Ukrainian society. The reluctance to spoil relations with Russia kept the leaders of the Jewish state from supporting Ukraine, despite the fact that Israeli society as a whole took a fairly clear pro-Ukrainian position. However, when Israel suffered a terrorist attack, all grievances against Ukrainians and political claims receded into the background, and were simply washed away by a powerful wave of solidarity and sympathy.

It should be added that a significant number of Ukrainians receive information about Israel not from the media, but directly from acquaintances, friends, and relatives. Ukrainian society has a significant number of personal ties with Israeli society. This, of course, turns ideological or geopolitical support into an emotional experience, essentially making the position part of the identity.

There is a certain effect of recognizing the situation in Ukrainian society. Israel's October 7 brought to mind February 24 in Ukraine. Ukrainians know very well what it is like to wake up to explosions and the whistle of missiles flying overhead. Photos of cars being shot up on the road and civilians being killed in Israeli kibbutzim literally recreated in the minds of Ukrainians the visual images from the Zhytomyr highway near Kyiv and Bucha that were embedded in their memories last spring.

Consequently, the Kremlin and Hamas were easily identified in the mass consciousness. In fact, the phrase "terrorist state" has long been a norm in Ukraine in relation to today's Russia. When the actions of the Russian army purposefully and deliberately have no other meaning than to kill as many Ukrainians as possible, whether military or civilian, it is indeed difficult to call it anything other than terrorism.

In addition, Islamist fundamentalists and Russian imperialists have similar ultimate goals. They challenge the current system of international law and rule-based order. The "collective West," of which Israel is certainly a part, and of which Ukraine aspires to be a part, is their rival on a global scale.

No wonder both Russia and the terrorists in Gaza are part of a very real alliance of aggressive rogue regimes, from Iran to North Korea (and behind this alliance, which undermines the world order, looms China, interested for its own reasons in destabilizing the situation in the Middle East and weakening the "collective West" in numerous medium-intensity conflicts). In the end, the Kremlin and Hamas equally sincerely hate modern liberal democracy. Scenes of public executions of gays in Gaza are clearly more pleasing to the Kremlin elite than scenes of pride in Tel Aviv. Russia became the only country to receive a Hamas delegation after October 7, a situation that looks simply phantasmagorical. Even Recep Erdogan, who does not shy away from exploiting the wave of pro-Palestinian solidarity for his own purposes, expelled Hamas representatives who had previously been in Turkey.

In short, Ukrainians are not unreasonably inclined to share the global picture painted by US President Joe Biden in his October 20 address: Hamas and Russian leader Vladimir Putin "pose different threats, but they are united in that they both want to completely destroy a neighboring democracy."

Of course, in their hearts, Ukrainians hope that after the terrible shock of the terrorist attack, the Israeli government will stop flirting with Moscow and finally take the right side in the increasingly globalized confrontation between democracy and terrorism. It is also clear that in the short term, not only Israel, but also most of Ukraine's Western partners will be forced to pay more attention to the Middle East. Even if this does not lead to a reduction in assistance to Ukraine in the near future, in the medium term, destabilization of the situation in the region is likely to have a negative impact on the balance of power in this global confrontation.


About the author. Vyacheslav Likhachov, researcher of far-right movements, human rights activist.

The editors do not always share the opinions expressed by the blog authors.

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