It seems resistance to foreign invasion and occupation, along with sanctions and other measures targeting countries guilty of mounting such invasions, are good after all. Only the target must be an enemy of the West like Russia, and not a Western client and ally like Israel.
The terrifying images of death and destruction inflicted on Ukraine by the Russian invasion have rightly aroused widespread horror, and accompanying sympathy and solidarity with the Ukrainian people. This sentiment is encouraged by Western media and politicians. Every horror story is splashed across our newspapers and television screens. And Ukrainians preparing Molotov cocktails to hurl at Russian troops has been reported as part of a heroic popular resistance.
Meanwhile—as we’ve seen again and again in the past decades—when exactly the same kind of death and destruction is inflicted on the Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank, the world’s media turns a blind eye at best, and at worst acts as a mouthpiece for Israeli government propaganda. And when we see footage of Palestinian boys throwing stones at Israeli troops occupying their country, it’s certainly never reported in the Western media as being part of a “heroic” resistance movement.
The Ukrainians, as the Western powers see it, are the “right” kind of victims of invasion and occupation. The Palestinians are not.
A majority of people in most countries in the world today are consistent. There is widespread sympathy with and support for the people of Ukraine in their struggle against the Russian invasion. And, similarly, polls have shown increasing support for the Palestinian struggle against the violent occupation of their land by the apartheid state of Israel.
The hypocrisy is on the level of Western political leaders and media. For them, showing solidarity with the Ukrainians, and backing that up with measures like sanctions is one thing, while showing solidarity with the Palestinians is quite another.
Compare the attitude to sanctions targeting Russia, and the kind of (much less severe) measures called for by the global Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) campaign—a grassroots Palestinian initiative launched in 2005—in the case of Israel.
The EU began imposing sanctions on Russia on 23 February, before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine had even begun. A week into the invasion, the EU had already implemented wide ranging economic sanctions, including a ban on international transactions with seven Russian banks. All Russian airlines have been banned from EU airspace and EU airports. The EU has even suspended broadcasts of the Russian state-owned media outlets Sputnik and Russia Today.
If this kind of thing is right when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it should also be right when it comes to Israel’s ongoing violent occupation of Palestinian land and oppression of its people shouldn’t it? Wrong. Sanctions that could bring Russian citizens to the brink of starvation are not an act of war, but an act of “peace”, claims the EU. But slapping a trade ban on imports of goods from Israel’s colonial settlements in the West Bank is a step too far—a breach of European trade law.
The BDS campaign’s call for boycotts of Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions, and divestment from international and Israeli companies that are complicit in Israel’s regime of apartheid and settler colonialism, hasn’t just been rejected by Western governments—in some cases it has actually been criminalised.
Since 2010, French authorities have used anti-discrimination laws to prosecute numerous BDS campaigners. In 2019, the German parliament voted to declare BDS “antisemitic”. Last month, the UK parliament passed a bill to prevent local government pension funds from divesting from UK companies that do business with apartheid Israel.
A central demand of the BDS movement is a comprehensive international arms embargo on Israel. This demand has recently been taken up by human rights organisations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which have both concluded that Israel is an apartheid state.
Over the past five years, the US has supplied Israel with nearly US$20 billion in military aid. In the last decade, EU states have licensed €2 billion of military contracts to Israel, including over €600 million in 2012 alone. This has included ammunition, weapon firing equipment and components for military aircrafts and vehicles. This weaponry has been used to bomb besieged Gaza repeatedly during Israel’s 14 year long blockade and shoot hundreds of unarmed protesters in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
This double-standard isn’t limited, of course, to the question of sanctions. The hypocrisy runs much deeper than that. It’s evident in the blatant racism which has served to differentiate Ukrainians as deserving of our solidarity, in contrast with Afghans and Iraqis, smeared as “terrorists” or simply dismissed as “collateral damage”.
On 27 February, CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata stated that Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully, too—city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen”. The message is clear: Ukraine is “relatively civilised” and “relatively European”. Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Palestine are uncivilised places, inhabited by Arabs, Muslims and people with brown skin.
D’Agata wasn’t alone. On the same day, a former deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine told the BBC: “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair … being killed every day”. The BBC host concurred, telling viewers, “I understand and respect the emotion”.
Al Jazeera English presenter Peter Dobbie described Ukrainians fleeing the war as “prosperous, middle-class people” who “are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war; these are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa, they look like any European family that you would live next door to”.
This cognitive dissonance does not simply reflect racism by the Western media, though the racism is obviously deeply entrenched. Such racist stereotypes serve the interests of the rulers of the imperialist Western countries. The people of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and those fleeing wars, instability and poverty in North Africa and elsewhere are dehumanised and presented as unworthy of our sympathy for the simple reason that they are the victims of the West’s imperial domination of those regions. Their victimhood must, at all costs, be concealed—lest it bring into question the capacity of the US and its allies to dominate and control (often with the most brutal and naked military force) those parts of the world.
For victims of Russian aggression it’s a different story. In cases where Russian actions are seen as posing a threat to US and Western hegemony over global markets and resources, its victims are presented as worthy of our sympathy and support. And such sympathy isn’t limited to white Europeans like the Ukrainians. Recall the attitude of Western governments to the “heroic” struggle of Osama bin Laden and the mujahideen that fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The Ukrainians would be unwise to rely on the current “heroic” status of their resistance in the eyes of Western media and political leaders continuing indefinitely. The US, the EU and other Western powers have shown themselves more than willing to throw once “sympathy worthy” victims of rival powers under the bus when their imperialist interests demand it.
When Russia bombed Chechnya and Syria, the Western media looked the other way. In Syria, victims of Assad’s chemical weapons attacks were initially worthy of our sympathy. But once Syria’s revolution had developed into a civil war, involving parties over which Washington had little control, the Obama administration was happy to reach an agreement with Putin: he could bomb Aleppo indiscriminately while the US focused its efforts on destroying ISIS.
Both Russia and the US had a shared interest in keeping Assad in power, even when his regime’s repression cost 350,000 lives and created millions of refugees. While Obama may have had a different strategy for achieving this objective, he shared Putin’s contempt for Syria’s democratic opposition.
Similarly, when Hilary Clinton needed to justify the extension and escalation of Washington’s two-decade long occupation of Afghanistan, Afghan women and girls became sympathetic victims needing rescuing from the Taliban. Once US troops evacuated Kabul last October, Afghan women had served their purpose—they have been erased from our TV screens, while their country lies in ruins.
For socialists the approach is very simple. The victims of imperialist aggression and invasion deserve our solidarity and support, whoever they are, and wherever they happen to be. The Ukrainians who are bravely fighting against Russian invasion deserve it. But so too do the Palestinians, Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis and all the those who have been, and continue to be, the victims of the imperial ambitions of the US and other Western powers.
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