Amid passionate accusations of hypocrisy, the U.S. and allies have struggled to persuade the world that they are defending the moral high ground in both conflicts
By Yaroslav Trofimov
December 1, 2023
The Wall Street Journal
Carrying pets and dragging suitcases over blown-up bridges, millions of Ukrainians fled Russian tank columns last year, in scenes similar to the recent exodus of Palestinians from northern Gaza in response to Israel’s military thrust. In the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol, Russian warplanes pounded into rubble hospitals, schools and a theater packed with children.
The wars in Ukraine and the Middle East have become intertwined in the global debate and in American politics. Contrasting reactions to them have widened the chasm between Western democracies and much of the rest of the planet, as mutual accusations of double standards inflame passions.
The two wars, to be sure, have major differences in their roots and dynamics. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was unprovoked, while Israel sent troops into Gaza because of a mass slaughter of Israeli civilians by the Islamist movement Hamas on Oct. 7.
But the two conflicts also have essential similarities. One is the staggering level of civilian suffering, with many tens of thousands of dead and injured in each region. Another is the shared predicament of millions of Ukrainians and Palestinians living under the indignities of military occupation.
Crucially, the polarization over who to blame for each war almost mirrors the global divide over the other war. Outrage and political mobilization have become subordinated to geopolitical allegiances—a selective empathy that often treats ordinary Ukrainians, Palestinians and Israelis as pawns in a larger ideological battle within Western societies and between the West and rivals such as China and Russia. “The idea of humanity has yet to become fundamental to state policy and above all to our thinking,” lamented Oleksandra Matviichuk, a Ukrainian human-rights lawyer who was awarded last year’s Nobel Peace Prize. “When people discuss the war in the Middle East, the first question always is: Which side are you rooting for? But what we must root for is humanity… Each life is valuable, a life in Israel, a life in Palestine—and a life in Ukraine.”
With the body count in the Middle East rising, China, Russia and lesser autocracies like Iran increasingly exploit the tragedy to claim a moral high ground—posing a strategic challenge to the U.S. and its allies, who have framed their support for Ukraine in stark moral terms. It’s a problem acknowledged in Washington. “We have a reputation in the global south that has been suffering. And now there is concern that the U.S. is calling out certain actions by Russia and saying these are unacceptable, these are not allowable, and yet has not been as effective in calling out similar actions in Gaza,” said Sen. Chris Coons, Democrat from Delaware and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I disagree with many of these
characterizations, but what matters is that not just the heads of government, but the average people, believe them.”
The analogies between the two conflicts are fraught. When Russia unleashed the century’s first colonial war of conquest, few of the nations, intellectuals and political groups now protesting on behalf of the Palestinian cause were similarly outraged. Some of the most influential voices on social media, in fact, fiercely supported both Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who presided over a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. Many parts of the developing world, and some on the American far left and far right, accepted Russia’s framing of the 2022 invasion as a move to pre-empt neocolonial encroachment by NATO—thus ignoring the aims and aspirations of Ukrainians themselves.
Iran has provided Moscow with lethal drones and artillery shells, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for standing on the side of international justice days after he annexed four Ukrainian regions last fall, and much of Africa, the Middle East and Asia abstained on U.N. resolutions criticizing the Russian invasion. Progressive luminaries of the American left, such as Noam Chomsky, applauded Putin for waging war in a more “humane” way than the Pentagon and urged Kyiv to capitulate on Russian terms.
Alicia Kearns, chair of the foreign-affairs committee of the British parliament, noted with frustration that few of her current interlocutors who seek condemnations of Israel were reaching out last year over Ukraine. “Let us recognize that we’re not happy with the way things are going, but the global south doesn’t get to now shout in support of Palestine when they were silent on Ukraine,” she said. “That is a double standard that nobody is calling out.”
Meanwhile, as parts of the Democratic Party’s base become more and more enraged by the bloodshed in Gaza, pressure is building in Congress to impose conditions on American military support for Israel. Ukraine and Gaza “are very difficult conflicts, no doubt, but the standards of morality and values must remain the same,” cautioned Rep. Jason Crow, Democrat from Colorado and himself a veteran of U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Though the Biden administration has consistently backed Israel’s military campaign and is rushing weapons to Israel, it has also used its leverage to successfully push for deliveries of humanitarian aid to Gaza. Washington has played a key role in negotiating a temporary cease-fire that, before collapsing Friday, allowed the exchange of dozens of hostages taken by Hamas for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody.
Some European nations, particularly Spain, Ireland and Belgium, have taken a much more critical stance on Israel’s bombing of Gaza. “The killing of civilians needs to stop now…The destruction of Gaza is unacceptable,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said during a recent visit with his Spanish counterpart to Egypt’s border with the Palestinian enclave.
Western military officials accept Israel’s insistence that, unlike Hamas, it isn’t deliberately targeting civilians. But they say that Israel’s targeting practices in Gaza, which have resulted in huge civilian casualties while minimizing Israel’s own military losses, are much looser than what the U.S. and allies had used in their campaign against Islamic State. In its war against Ukraine,
which possesses modern air defenses, Russia employed devastating and unrestricted air power in only one battlefield, Mariupol, after isolating the Ukrainian port city in the first days of the war.
While the overlap between critics of Russia and critics of Israel is limited, some leaders in the developing world have been consistent—and don’t shy away from highlighting the contradictions now. One of them is Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, himself a former political prisoner who has repeatedly denounced Putin’s invasion. “We’ve been asked to condemn the aggression in Ukraine, but some remain muted in front of the atrocities inflicted on the Palestinians, particularly. It doesn’t concern their sense of justice and compassion,” he said at November’s gathering of Asia-Pacific leaders hosted by President Biden in San Francisco.
The surprise Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, in which some 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, were killed and some 200 others kidnapped to Gaza, represented the biggest single loss of Jewish lives since the Holocaust and sent shock waves through Western societies. In the aftermath of that massacre, U.S. and European leaders offered immediate and unconditional support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s military campaign against Hamas. It took weeks of massive bombing, which by then had caused thousands of Palestinian civilian deaths, for Western governments to qualify that backing with reminders to follow international humanitarian law. None of these reminders, however, came with public warnings of consequences should Israel ignore them.
The same Western leaders who described Russian targeting of Ukrainian power plants and water networks as a war crime endorsed, at least at first, the Israeli moves to deprive Gaza’s two million residents of electricity, drinking water and fuel. Few were more vocal in backing the Israeli war effort than Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who proclaimed that Israel and Ukraine were battling “the same evil,” citing Russia’s deepening alliance with Iran, the main sponsor of Hamas.
The White House has adopted a similar narrative, linking funding for Ukraine and for Israel in the defense appropriations bill that’s currently pending in Congress. “Both Putin and Hamas are fighting to wipe a neighboring democracy off the map,” Biden wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “And both Putin and Hamas hope to collapse broader regional stability and integration and take advantage of the ensuing disorder.”
In part, such linkage serves the political purpose of getting the Republican-controlled House to pass military aid for Ukraine, administration officials say. While the Republican Party is strongly pro-Israel, support within it for Ukraine has been fraying in recent months, becoming a political issue ahead of next year’s elections. Leading Republican advocates for Ukraine argue that connecting aid to Israel and aid to Ukraine, as the White House has done, is logical. “We aren’t taking a double standard. We have taken the side of the people who were invaded,” said Sen. James Risch, Republican from Idaho and the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, blaming global criticism of Israel on antisemitic prejudice.
But while it’s true that Hamas seeks to murder or expel nearly all Israeli Jews, and Russia wants to wipe out the Ukrainian state and culture, such parallels are flawed. Ukraine, after all, is trying to regain the roughly 18% of its internationally recognized territory that remains under Russian rule. Israel, by contrast, has maintained military occupation over Palestinian territories since
1967, with Netanyahu pursuing the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and consistently undermining Israel’s only potential negotiating partner, the Palestinian Authority.
Though Israel withdrew troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, it has retained overall control of the enclave’s borders, waters and airspace, prompting the U.N. General Assembly and the International Committee of the Red Cross, among others, to continue considering the strip Israeli-occupied territory even as it was ruled by Hamas. “It was honestly ridiculous that the Biden administration linked Ukraine and the war in Gaza in the opposite direction, ignoring the core connection, which is the occupation of territory—somethingthat has obviously been the principal source of comparison across the international community from the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, who has advised several U.S. administrations on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Zelensky’s unrestrained embrace of Israel, meanwhile, has damaged the Ukrainian cause in much of the global south, increasing the polarization, added Timothy Kaldas, deputy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “Zelensky hitched his post to the Israelis and spoke so highly of the Israelis even when Israel itself refused for an extended period of time to forcefully support Ukraine and condemn Russia’s aggression,” Kaldas said. “That has created a lot of frustration. If you want to be arguing for a rules-based international order, if you want to be pushing back against countries taking territory with the use of force, then Ukraine shouldn’t be seeing itself as aligned with the Israelis.”
Amid the global competition for sympathy and attention, even the scale of the wars has become part of the ideological football, in part because of the strikingly different way in which the U.N. counts casualties. Arab diplomats and some international NGOs have used U.N. numbers, which the world body acknowledges represent only a fraction of the true toll for Ukraine, to argue that the tragedy in Gaza has eclipsed anything Russia has done to Ukraine and requires a fundamentally different response. South Africa, Turkey and several nations in South America withdrew ambassadors, suspended or severed diplomatic relations with Israel—a step that none of them took in Russia.
In Gaza, the U.N. has reported some 14,800 deaths, relaying information collected by the health ministry of the Hamas-controlled enclave, which does not distinguish between fighters and civilians. In Ukraine, the U.N. reported only the 10,000 civilian deaths that it has been able to verify, noting that the true figure is much higher because it has no access to Russian-occupied cities like Mariupol and front-line areas where the worst carnage has occurred. Ukrainian officials estimate that in Mariupol alone at least 25,000 civilians, and perhaps twice as many, were killed during the monthslong Russian siege last year. Some 9.5 million Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes, and tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers have been killed.
Of course, just as the conflict in Ukraine didn’t start in February 2022, the conflict in the Middle East didn’t begin with the Hamas invasion of Oct. 7. Russia, which controlled Ukraine for centuries and views ancient Kyiv as the cradle of its own nationhood, first invaded in 2014,
occupying Crimea and parts of eastern Donbas region and triggering a war that killed 14,000 people at the time, according to U.N. calculations, and displaced millions.
The history of Israeli-Palestinian violence is even more tortured and dates back to the Zionist settlement movement of the 19th century. More than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from what is now Israel as the Jewish state was established in 1948, with most of Gaza’s population made up of descendants of these refugees. Multiple opportunities for peace in recent decades were frustrated by Hamas, which organized suicide bombing campaigns, and by the Israeli far right, one of whose members assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. While the Hamas attack of Oct. 7 was by far the bloodiest in the history of the conflict, thousands of Palestinian and Israeli civilians have died in regular flare-ups in past decades. Neither Hamas nor the current Israeli government supports a two-state solution.
The main difference between the two wars is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with all its complexities, lacks the moral clarity of the Ukrainian resistance to Russia, said British lawmaker Alex Sobel, a Labour co-chair of the U.K. parliament’s all-party group on Ukraine. “There is no moral justification for the Russian invasion. Zero. It’s just about Russian imperialism,” he said. “But in Israel and Palestine, it’s about the fact that there are two peoples on a very small amount of land, and political and military elites on both sides are unwilling to settle for what’s on offer. It’s not black and white at all.”
Yaroslav Trofimov is the chief foreign-affairs correspondent of The Wall Street Journal. He has covered the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 and has been working out of Ukraine since January 2022. He joined the Journal in 1999 and previously served as Rome, Middle East and Singapore-based Asia correspondent, as bureau chief in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and as Dubai-based columnist on the greater Middle East. He is the author of two books, Faith at War (2005) and Siege of Mecca (2007).