The wars in Gaza and Ukraine are different

Published by The i paper (20th November, 2023)

From the moment Hamas terrorists went on their murderous rampage in Israel, Joe Biden sought to tie together two seismic conflicts that erupted during his presidency by claiming the struggles are comparable. “The assault on Israel echoes nearly 20 months of war, tragedy, and brutality inflicted on the people of Ukraine,” he declared after returning last month from Jerusalem.

This message was driven home at the weekend with a forceful article in The Washington Post insisting the United States would keep on defending two nations under attack. “We rally allies and partners to stand up to aggressors and make progress toward a brighter, more peaceful future.”

His words are largely directed at his lawmakers and voters. Some conservatives strongly back Israel but oppose continuing support for Ukraine, while on the left a significant rump backs Kyiv but is alarmed by Palestinian suffering.

This makes for tricky politics, especially for a president seeking re-election while slipping in the polls and aware he could be replaced by a blinkered Republican administration that will sever support for the Ukrainians. Such a move would be shameful betrayal of a country fighting so bravely, successfully and at such cost over 19 months to repel Russia’s full-scale onslaught – as well as a terrible disaster for the ideal of liberty.

Rishi Sunak has made similar comparisons in the House of Commons. Certainly there are similarities between the two conflicts. Both involved barbaric attack on liberal democracies – if flawed and stained with corruption – by forces intent on their destruction. Both invaders carried out atrocities, including the murder and kidnap of children. Both intended to disrupt efforts to forge alliances focused on peace and prosperity. Both incursions involved enemies of our most sacred values. And both perpetrators remain committed to their cause, underlining their continuing danger.

Yet, binding these two wars into a single narrative is disingenuous. For a start, do not forget that while most democracies rushed to support Kyiv with arms, Israel refused to supply military equipment for more than a year – let alone to impose sanctions on Russia or share the protective Iron Dome technology that would have saved Ukrainian lives. This led to huge frustration. There was fierce debate inside Volodmyr Zelensky’s team whether to publicly savage Israel’s stance with reference to the fight against the Nazis. Instead, the Jewish president simply urged its leaders to “choose sides” last autumn as he confronted an alliance between Russia and Iran that saw drones sowing terror and devastating energy systems ahead of winter.

The fight to save Ukraine is almost unique in the annals of modern warfare since it is so unambiguously a justified struggle against evil. Ukraine was attacked since it sought to live in freedom and share our democratic values, but a paranoid Kremlin dictator saw this as a challenge on his doorstep to his repressive and thieving rule. Having launched his invasion in 2014, Vladimir Putin already occupied chunks of the country.

Israel has some fine qualities and internal freedoms. But it is also an occupying force in the West Bank – which even the UK recognised by voting at the United Nations against the expansion of settlements in a rare breach with the US – while it turned Gaza into a prison for two million people after the election of Hamas.

This does not justify Hamas’s crimes against humanity. But it does intensify the complexities in the conflict, especially when Israel is run by a self-serving prime minister who saw Hamas as a tool to thwart Palestinian statehood in tandem with far-right ministers who use inflammatory and dehumanising rhetoric.

Collective punishment of Gazans by depriving them of food, power and water, followed by a military barrage that includes bombing residential areas, attacking evacuation corridors, striking mosques and even targeting hospitals, feels uncomfortably close to Russia’s war crimes I witnessed in Ukraine. “Human animals must be treated as such,” said one top army chief. “There will be only destruction.”

Anyone who has visited Gaza – as I have done – knows it is ludicrous to paint all those living there as Hamas sympathisers. It has one of the planet’s youngest populations, so almost half its citizens were not even alive in 2006 when Hamas won an election in reaction to corruption in the Palestinian Authority. Now Israeli forces are reported to have killed twice as many children in the strip than the total number killed in occupied Palestinian territories since 1967. “Gaza has become a graveyard for thousands of children,” said one UN official. “It’s a living hell for everyone else.”

The comparison between these conflicts sounds more jarring with each passing day. It is sad to see Israel, a country I have known since working on a kibbutz more than four decades ago, dissipate worldwide sympathy for its suffering and ignore warnings made by Biden and others to avoid the sort of mistakes made after 9/11.

Even if Hamas is destroyed and all hostages returned – something desired by any humane observer – it is hard to believe such bloodstained actions and slaughter of so many children as “collateral damage” assists even the current shrivelled hopes of peace. Meanwhile, there are growing fears the West Bank may explode.

Ukraine is defending its territory, while only attacking military targets over its border. Now there is real danger that attention, funds and military support slide away from Kyiv while Putin exploits the fast-evolving international order. Yet Western leaders look hypocritical around the world if they condemn Russian attacks on Ukraine’s energy supplies and hospitals but then stay silent over similar deeds carried out by Israel.

Bear in mind Washington took such a tough line last year that it even accused Iran of participating in war crimes for supplying drones used against civilians and energy infrastructure. Ultimately, if the West is to win this global struggle for supremacy against autocracy and terror, our morality cannot be flexible and our support for the rule of law cannot be selective.

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