With the focus on Ukraine, it is easy to forget that Russian President Vladimir Putin supports his Syrian counterpart Bashar Al-Assad's continuing destruction of his country, and the maiming of women and children, including thousands of Palestinian refugees in Syria. Since March 2011, pro-government forces have killed 3,196 Palestinian refugees, including 491 under torture, and 2,663 others are still missing since disappearing into intelligence prisons, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a UK-based group of activists.
The latest pictures from Mariupol in Ukraine resemble another Syria in the making. Thousands of civilians, including women and children, have been killed in a war that only started on 24 February. Putin's culpability in Syria has created mayhem and worsened the plight of the people. Palestinian refugees in places such as Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria joined their neighbours in 2011 to demand political inclusion and the extension of human rights. Since then, Yarmouk has been bombed and the Palestinian refugees face a bleak future.
Whilst the world was witnessing the annihilation of political dissenters in Syria, Russia supplied weapons to pro-regime fighters and vetoed almost all UN resolutions intended to stop Assad in his tracks. In 2019, Russia was joined by China when it vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that called for a truce in the region of Idlib, the last rebel-held stronghold in north-west Syria. That was the thirteenth time that Russia had vetoed a resolution on the Syrian conflict, and the seventh that China had done so. Russian support for Syria increased dramatically when the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East began in 2011. Fearing a possible domino effect of events into Russia, Putin hastened to support Assad to thwart a national uprising in Syria.
Western sceptics have enough reasons to excuse Putin's invasion of Ukraine. In the middle of Russia's destruction of property and the killing and displacement of millions of people, they argue against Europe's double standards in its treatment of refugees. Such treatment has attracted widespread criticism, exposing disturbingly racist fault lines, particularly when compared with the way that refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan have been treated. Poland's extraordinary mobilisation to help Ukrainian refugees raises some uncomfortable questions about the country's tough stance against asylum seekers and migrants from elsewhere.
Such blatant double standards have, unfortunately, driven many people to take strong positions on the Russian invasion. Many have used the Palestinian struggle for freedom as proof of the accusations of hypocrisy and double standards against European and Western nations. Israel has been killing Palestinians almost casually for decades — on average, one Palestinian child has been killed every three days by Israel for the past 20 years and more, for example — and destroying Palestinian homes in an ongoing act of ethnic cleansing. The result is that the occupation state has displaced millions and killed thousands of Palestinians since the creation of the state in 1948 in occupied Palestine.
The global — particularly Western — reaction in Ukraine could not have been more different from the inaction against Israel for its military occupation of Palestine. Having endured bombardment, death and destruction at the hands of an occupying power, Palestinians have expressed their sympathy with the people of Ukraine. If justice and international law had any real importance in global politics, then Israel would have faced the same condemnation and sanctions that have been imposed so rapidly on Russia and Russian individuals. Instead, despite the sanctions imposed upon them, Russian oligarchs are able to find refuge in Israel.
This disgraceful reality means that the plight of the Palestinians and their struggle is likely to be amplified by what is happening in Ukraine. As such, those involved in the struggle should remain focused on ending the Israeli occupation and developing international solidarity.
One anecdote serves to emphasise some of the points highlighted in this article. In 2011, when Bashar Al-Assad started to kill his people in Syria, Hamas was forced to take a principled position on the conflict. In 2012, therefore, senior members of Hamas and their families left their headquarters in Damascus in "quiet protest" because the movement could not support the regime. Hamas decided to do what it felt was best for the Palestinian struggle. We can only imagine what would have become of the movement and, indeed, the Palestinian struggle overall, if it had decided to remain in Syria and continued to get aid from Assad's regime and then Russia.
The invasion of Ukraine by Russia deserves a similar judgement, irrespective of the politics of the warring parties and notwithstanding the obvious double standards. Palestinians and those who support the struggle of Palestine must insist on a just and balanced outcome. The people of occupied Palestine should support the Ukrainians in their predicament, without taking a political position in the conflict.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.