Myths and facts: The “Ukraine = Palestine” absurdity
Mar 31, 2022 | Ahron Shapiro
Social media can be a useful tool for sharing stories, ideas, commentary and breaking news, though it can just as easily be misused to spread disinformation, fake news and false narratives. In the days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a talking point took shape among many anti-Israel activists – drawing false parallels between Ukrainians and Palestinians in an effort to recruit new activists to their own cause. Here is a look at some of the myths about Israel and the Palestinians vis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine being promoted on Twitter in recent weeks:
Myth: Russia’s occupation of parts of Ukraine is illegal. Israel’s occupation of Palestine is similar, and similarly illegal.
Fact: The crime in the Russian occupation of Crimea, and its current war in Ukraine, is the naked aggression of invading and seizing control of internationally-recognised territory of a neighbouring sovereign state without provocation. However, military occupation as such is not a crime under international law, and Israel’s occupation of the territories it captured in the defensive war of 1967 – a war which threatened Israel’s very existence – is absolutely legal. The West Bank, unlike Ukraine, is not recognised sovereign territory of any country – certainly not of “Palestine”, a country that has to date never existed. It is instead disputed land, and Israel and the Palestinians assert two conflicting claims of right there. The fact that negotiation between these parties has not yet reached an agreement to end the occupation does not affect the legal status of the occupation.
As international law scholar Ariel Zemach has persuasively argued, “the notion of illegal occupation in international law does not extend to occupation resulting from the lawful use of force by a state in self-defense… [but is] restricted to occupations created as a result of unlawful use of force.” (Zemach, Ariel, “Can Occupation Resulting from a War of Self-Defense Become Illegal?” (2015) Minnesota Journal of International Law, 316.)
Israel is under no legal obligation to endanger itself by withdrawing from territory, in the absence of a secure peace agreement, that would then be used as a staging area for renewed war. This was the wisdom behind UN Security Council Resolution 242, passed after the 1967 war. Nevertheless, Israel has repeatedly taken risks for peace and ceded control of Palestinian population centres in the Oslo Accords of the 1990s while the Palestinians rejected Israeli offers for statehood in Gaza and the vast majority of the West Bank in 2000, 2001 and 2008. The Palestinian Authority completely abandoned negotiations with Israel in 2014 and has not agreed to resume them since.
Myth: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is no different to Israel’s previous military operations against Palestinian militants in Gaza and the West Bank. If anything, Russia has fought less brutally.
Fact: Russia’s invasion of the sovereign state of Ukraine was an unprovoked act of naked aggression, with no serious pretence of being a response to prior Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory. By contrast, Israel’s military engagements with Palestinian forces in Gaza and the West Bank have been purely defensive and legitimate military responses in order to neutralise threats or restore deterrence after attacks. Often, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) takes these measures only after exercising great restraint following numerous prior attacks.
Just looking at the past 20 years or so – while then-Palestinian President Yasser Arafat launched the Second Intifada in September 2000, it took until March 2002 and many Israelis killed in bombings, shootings and other terror attacks, before the IDF launched Operation Defensive Shield to recapture the Palestinian Authority-controlled areas, only to withdraw from them in subsequent years.
The several wars and escalations between Israel and Hamas in Gaza since 2008 have each followed insufferably intense, indiscriminate, and increasingly sophisticated rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli towns, villages and eventually, its largest city, Tel Aviv and capital Jerusalem.
Israel takes every conceivable precaution to protect Palestinian civilians caught up in these Hamas-instigated military escalations – including stringent humanitarian ceasefires, phone calls, texts, leaflets and the “knock on the roof” attacks with dummy weapons to warn civilians of upcoming airstrikes on military targets in their vicinity. From all accounts, Russia has taken no precautionary steps to protect innocent Ukrainians, while there are increasing reports of deliberate bombings of residential areas with no military target in the vicinity.
The difference between Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine and Israel’s defensive ones in Gaza is also illustrated by the fact that Russia is openly trying to gain control of Ukrainian cities, whereas Israel has deliberately refrained from retaking Gaza, even though it has the capabilities to do so.
The illustrative Tweet above also disingenuously makes a murky reference to an Israeli artillery barrage to defend hundreds of Israeli troops trapped in a Hamas ambush in the Gazan neighbourhood of Shejaia. First of all, artillery is not at all comparable to missiles, and by all accounts, Russia has fired many thousands of artillery shells at Ukrainian cities and towns. Moreover, at the time of the Shejaia battle, Gazan civilians had already left the area in question thanks to advance IDF warnings, given despite the fact that the laws governing war do not require such warnings.
Myth: Supporting sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine but not against Israel for military actions in the Palestinian territories is hypocritical.
Fact: While the decision to slam Russia with crippling sanctions is both justifiable and sensible from a diplomatic and geopolitical standpoint, there is nothing Israel has ever done to Palestinians to remotely warrant sanctions being placed on it.
First, let’s look at why sanctions were clamped on Russia in the first place, at an unprecedented speed and scale. The process was eased by the urgency of Europe’s fear that Putin’s military campaign would expand beyond Ukraine and pessimism that diplomacy would have any meaningful effect at slowing or stopping the Russian military offensive. Moreover, given the risk that direct confrontation between NATO and Russia could descend into a nuclear war that could wipe out all of humanity, it was the strongest measure available.
In contrast, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, on a basic level, a long-standing dispute over the status and division of a territory a third of the size of Tasmania. Moreover, the stated willingness by some Palestinian leaders to consider accepting a state alongside Israel is something of an obfuscation, since at the same time no Palestinian leader has ever relinquished their demand of the legally baseless “right of return” that would require Israel to open its borders to millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees, thereby snuffing out Jewish self-determination demographically.
From where, then, comes the Palestinian fixation on sanctioning Israel? In the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement’s toolbox, there is only a hammer. They see one nail – Israel (despite other countries having far worse records). In service of the zero-sum, Palestinian rejectionist narrative they embrace, it suits them (and key BDS leaders admit their goal is to end Israel’s existence, not change its policies). This is because the push for sanctions on Israel is a long-standing form of warfare that traces its roots back to the Arab boycott of Jewish commerce in the land of Israel that predates Israel’s establishment in 1948.
Meanwhile, out in the real world, a diplomatic toolbox is full of all sorts of policy tools besides the sanction hammer – in fact, a broad range of both deterrents and incentives. This is for good reason. In 1998, Richard N. Haass, later Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department, explained why sanctions must be used sparingly in a policy paper for the Brookings Institute.
While Haass makes many points, two are particularly germane. Firstly, that “Economic sanctions are a serious instrument of foreign policy and should be employed only after consideration no less rigorous than what would precede military intervention,”; and secondly, in other words, “Sanctions should not be used to hold major or complex bilateral relationships hostage to a single issue or set of concerns.” While it’s easy to see how Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs, and Russia’s invasion westward, would pass the sanctions test, even if every unproven Palestinian claim against Israel were actually true, there is no aspect of Israel’s complex conflict with the Palestinians that even comes close to meeting both of these common-sense foreign policy benchmarks.
Furthermore, the IDF, as an occupying force, is legally bound to secure the territory under its control while its political status remains unresolved. There are, of course, rules and limitations to occupation that must be stringently followed (and accountability is required for incidents where, for whatever reason, they aren’t). However, the vast majority of IDF activity in the West Bank described by Israel’s extreme critics as “illegal” isn’t, but rather is necessary and legitimate to maintain order, fight terrorism, and to allow peaceful life to continue.
Myth: Israel is cynically exploiting the war in Ukraine to recruit “illegal settlers” who will “uproot” Palestinians.
Fact: Established just three years after the end of the Holocaust – a period where millions of Jews perished because they had no place that would take them in – Israel has always proudly ensured that “never again” will Jews be left without a safe haven. To that end – and at great expense – Israel maintains a flexible budget and civil service infrastructure for accepting and absorbing Jewish refugees from around the world on short notice. Beneficiaries have included distressed Jews from Ethiopia, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Europe, South America and today, Ukraine.
Revealingly, many rabid social media critics of Israel’s offer to take in distressed Ukrainian Jewry don’t even bother trying to falsely claim that the Ukrainians will be sent to Israel’s West Bank settlements (Israel’s absorption plan, released by its Cabinet on March 13, announced 12 cities that would house Ukrainian refugees – none are in the West Bank.) Perhaps they saw no need for such distinctions, since such extremists see all of Israel as one big illegal settlement that needs to be removed, and all Jews who live there as settlers “displacing” the rightful Palestinian owners.
Separately, Israel is opening its borders to what are potentially tens of thousands of temporary refugees, including non-Jewish ones, starting with any Ukrainians with a family member in Israel.