Where do Palestinians stand on the war in Ukraine?

Palestinians have been accused of being pro-Russia. But they are just tired of never-ending Western hypocrisy.

Palestinians evacuate a boy following an Israeli air strike on a house, amid Israel-Gaza fighting, in the northern Gaza Strip August 7, 2022. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Palestinians evacuate a child amid an Israeli assault on Gaza which killed 49 people, including 17 children, on August 7, 2022. [File: Reuters/Mohammed Salem]

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, many Palestinians felt this war concerns them directly. Over the past nine months, they have seen direct parallels between their own experience of occupation and military violence and the Ukrainians’.

Whether it is the targeting of civilian housing, schools, religious buildings, etc; the destruction of the electrical grid as a form of collective punishment; accusations of using civilians as “live shields” when the death toll climbs; or the occupation power denying the nationhood and statehood of the occupied, the similarities are apparent.

But not for the Ukrainian government. In fact, shortly after the start of the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made it clear that he identified the plight of Ukraine with that of Israel. “The threat is the same: for both us and you – the total destruction of the people, state, culture,” he said.

Kyiv’s Western allies, media and international organisations have also taken the same position. They have backed Ukraine full-heartedly and have pretended that there is no equivalence with Palestine’s situation.

The Palestinians have publicly expressed their outrage at these double standards and their reactions have been interpreted as support for Russia. But Palestinians are not really taking a stance here. They are just tired of Western hypocrisy that knows no limits.

Russia ‘brutalises’, Israel ‘defends’

When Russia invaded Ukraine, there was hardly any hesitation in the West about what it needed to do. It immediately condemned Moscow as the aggressor and accepted Ukraine as the victim. The haste and the declared moral clarity with which this judgement was passed surprised Palestinians, who for decades have been listening to the same Western refrain about Israeli aggression: “Israel has the right to defend itself”.

The West has unequivocally supported Ukrainian resistance and has not hesitated to call it that. Yet, it is difficult to ignore the fact that people resisting the Russian occupation of Eastern Ukraine have been called “partisans”, while Palestinians doing the same in Palestine – armed or unarmed – have always been framed as “terrorists”.

Western politicians seem to have been on alert around the clock, ready to condemn immediately any Russian bombardment that causes civilian casualties. Indeed, such condemnations are justified and must be made, but they have been conspicuously absent when Israel engages in its routine wars on Gaza and massacres Palestinian children, women and men.

Western leaders, like French President Emmanuel Macron, have declared that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine, not even waiting for UN or other official investigations to conclude. The EU has called for a special tribunal to prosecute war crimes in Ukraine and has supported an ICC investigation into the matter. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has condemned “Russia’s brutality against Ukraine” and said it should not be “normalised”.

But the US government does not seem to mind violence committed against Palestinian civilians, whether through bombardment or extrajudicial killings by the Israeli army. These crimes have neither been named nor condemned. Worse yet, Blinken and his predecessors have openly objected to an ICC investigation of Israeli war crimes in Palestine and even threatened the court.

The US, along with other Western powers, have also routinely ignored Palestinian calls to implement the hundreds of resolutions the UN has passed in favour of their rights. What is more, Israel’s violation of international law, in general, has not been sanctioned by the West. On the contrary, it seems to be rewarded with ever-closer ties, military aid and extensive trade.

For decades, Western powers have also covered up for Israel’s illegal annexation of Palestinian land. Yet in September, they were quick to reject Moscow’s annexation of four regions in Eastern Ukraine. Most ridiculously, Israel joined them in condemning the move, despite its own illegal annexation practices.

Washington then thought it necessary to publicly reject any comparisons between Israel and Russia, when a UN report claiming “de facto” annexation of the West Bank was released.

One side in Ukraine, both sides in Palestine

The Western double standards on Ukraine and Palestine have, of course, extended to Western media. Major outlets have readily adopted the language their politicians have chosen to use for the war in Ukraine, just as they have for Palestine.

All these years, Western TV channels and newspapers have hidden behind the ideas of “balance” and “objectivity”, to avoid calling things as they are in Palestine: occupation, intentional targeting of civilians, collective punishment, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, etc.

They have talked about “both sides” even when Israel has massacred Palestinian civilians or gone into passive voice to hide the perpetrator – as if Palestinians die violent deaths by themselves. The Western media coverage of Ukraine has not suffered from the same vocabulary challenges.

Palestinians have also rarely appeared on Western TV screens (if at all) to explain what is happening on the ground; airtime has been almost exclusively reserved for Israeli spokespeople and pro-Israel analysts. And even on social media, which purports to offer platforms for free expression, Palestinian voices have been silenced by tech giants like Facebook and Twitter.

On the other hand, Ukrainian politicians, analysts, and civilians have been a regular feature of Western broadcasts; absent, of course, are Russian government or pro-government voices. Russian state media has also been blocked on major social media platforms.

Western media has not dropped its double standards even when the safety and life of fellow journalists in Palestine have been at risk. One just has to look at how the assassination of Palestinian journalist Shereen Abu Akleh was reported on. Shereen was “killed while covering a raid”, one report says and follows with a quote from an Israeli spokesperson, saying that she and her colleagues “were armed with cameras”.

The killings of journalists in Ukraine have rightfully been condemned by Western media. However, there have been no quotes attached from Russian officials claiming they deserved their deaths.

Boycott Russia, embrace Israel

In the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine, Russia faced an unprecedented campaign of sanctions and boycotts led by the West. Russian companies and individuals were put on sanctions lists, various financial services for Russians were blocked, and even Russian oil and gas imports were curbed.

Many multinationals pulled out of the Russian market and divested from its economy, while governments sought to minimise trade with Moscow.

For years, Palestinians have dreamed of this type of action in defence of their rights. They have been calling for sanctions to be imposed on Israel as a response to its occupation of Palestinian lands and its regime of apartheid, but to no avail. The most the EU, for example, has done is impose mandatory labelling for products coming from illegal Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land.

The boycott campaign against Russia has also been remarkably wide-ranging and quick. Russian citizens, whether or not they support the war in Ukraine, have been barred from international events and engagement in the fields of education, culture and sports. The Russian football team, which qualified for the World Cup play-offs and could have made it to Qatar 2022, was even barred from playing in FIFA’s tournament.

By contrast, not only have Palestinian calls for a boycott of their Israeli aggressor fallen on deaf ears but also athletes who have decided to engage in individual acts of boycott of Israel have been threatened and sanctioned.

In the rare moments where solidarity with the Palestinians has had a sizable and visible presence at an international sporting event, it has been attacked. Most recently, the Moroccan team, which celebrated its victories in the World Cup by raising the Palestinian flag, faced accusations of anti-Semitism in German media. Of course, raising the Ukrainian flag has never been a cause of concern for German or other Western media outlets.

Boycotting Russia has also been sanction-free. Palestinians and their supporters, on the other hand, have had to pay a heavy price for building and leading the international Boycott, Divestment, Sanction (BDS) movement, as they have faced not only smear campaigns and slander, but also outright government hostility in places like Germany, France the US, and the UK.

Indeed, over the past nine months, Western hypocrisy has been on endless display. Palestinians did not need the Ukrainian war to know that they are treated differently, that their lives do not matter, and that international law does not apply to them. But this conflict was perhaps the final act that pulled down the façade the West used to cover its duplicity.

The Palestinians do not blame Ukrainians for this state of affairs, although their government should know better than to seek favour with Israel. Already that has proven fruitless, diplomatically and militarily.

The Palestinians, who have long suffered from Israeli wars and occupation, wish for the war in Ukraine to end, for Ukraine to be free. They stand in solidarity with the victims.

Yet, they cannot hide their resentment at the unfair treatment they have received. Palestinian lives must matter to the rest of the world as much as Ukrainian lives do. War crimes and occupation must be condemned in Ukraine, but also in Palestine.

The West must understand that biased, selective application of international law and anti-war action only further encourage aggressors to commit violations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.