Throughout the cold war, Moscow backed the Palestinian cause. The Soviet Government has not maintained an embassy in Israel since 1967. Diplomatic relations between Moscow and Tel-Aviv were restored at the level of general consulates on 3 January 1991. The latter ones were transformed into embassies on 18 October 1991, i.e. merely months before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
More recently, the Russian leadership has sought to balance closer ties with Israel with its broader diplomatic efforts to preserve the historically good connections with the Arabic world.
Another question – how successful Moscow is with it? Here, it is pertinent to recall that Russia today is not the Soviet Union, although the Kremlin occasionally still falls back into Soviet-style rhetoric.
Thus, last Friday, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, expressed concerns that an intensified siege of Gaza by Israel may resemble that of Leningrad by German armies during the Second World War. It would seem, that the Kremlin master thus made a big move in support of Palestinians who found themselves under a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt on the movement of goods and people in and out of the Gaza Strip, and up until now are being subjected to Israeli airstrikes. Yet those his words have had no effect. He seemingly initially had no calculation for it. Those words seem to have been merely said for the sake of red words or situational needs.
Now, after a deadly blast at a Gaza hospital on Tuesday and a rather careful and vague reaction on the side of the Russian diplomats and the Russian state media outlets to it and its consequences, it appears increasingly clear that in conditions of growing international tension over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Moscow prefers taking the position of a third-party observer – on the principle of passing by and not looking for trouble. According to Gaza’s health ministry, that explosion at the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza City killed hundreds of people. Palestinians say an Israeli strike caused the blast, while the Israelis say it was caused by a failed rocket launch by the Islamic Jihad militant group.
European officials’ reaction to that tragedy proved to be angry, but addressless. EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday there is ‘no excuse for hitting a hospital full of civilians’ in Gaza but did not apportion blame for the blast. Russia’s Foreign Ministry took a similar detached position in this case, with the only difference being that its official pointed out who should be blamed for that murderous attack. “Regarding our assessment, we certainly qualify such an act as a crime, as an act of dehumanization”, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Wednesday on her Radio Sputnik program.
She then expressed confidence that this military conflict in the Middle East ‘is being orchestrated from Washington and London’.
Russian diplomat thus kind of hinted that the US and UK had made this happen. It all seems like an attempt to take the opportunity to get back at the Americans and the British for the support that is being given by Washington and London to Ukraine in its current defensive war against Russia.
At the same time, Maria Zakharova behaved extremely moderately and quite correctly towards Israel.
She said that Israel should prove its claims that it was not behind the attack that killed at least 500 people, mostly women and children, by providing unedited satellite images. “We are now seeing a desire [from Israel] to absolve responsibility”, Maria Zakharova continued. “If there are serious intentions … to prove it was not involved and is innocent, then it needs not only to comment in the media and on social networks but to provide facts”, she added.
President Putin reacted to what had happened at the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital, saying that it was a terrible catastrophe. “As for the strike on the hospital, the tragedy that happened there is a terrible event, hundreds of dead, hundreds of wounded. This is, of course, a catastrophe”, he told a news conference in Beijing, where he was attending the third Belt and Road forum. “I really hope this will be a signal that we need to end this conflict as soon as possible. In any case, we need to focus on the possibility of starting some contacts and negotiations”, he added.
While not blaming anyone for the deadly strike that claimed hundreds of lives, the Russian leader said he has an impression that no one from those top political figures in the region [leaders of Egypt, Israel, Iran, Palestine, and Syria], he previously held phone talks with, wants to escalate and aggravate the situation. He then – in accordance with a tradition going back to the Soviet times – reiterated Moscow’s stance concerning the establishment of the Palestinian state: “Our position is principled … we have always been in favor of the establishment of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state with the capital in East Jerusalem”.
In other words, official Moscow, by and large, didn’t go beyond the position of an outside observer in the present case. In this sense, Putin’s Moscow not only does not look like Soviet Moscow, but it also appears to be quite unlike present-day Ankara and Beijing, seemingly largely sharing the Kremlin’s approach regarding the international agenda.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly blamed Israel for Tuesday’s deadly hospital attack in the Gaza Strip and harshly criticized the country. He said striking a hospital where there are women, children, and innocent civilians is the latest example of Israel’s attacks devoid of fundamental human values. The President also condemned the U.N. Security Council for its ‘perceived ineffectiveness’ and accused Western countries of ‘exacerbating the conflict with biased and hypocritical reporting’.
Beijing has lately leaned towards supporting Palestinians over Israelis. Here is what CNN says about that: “Beijing’s refusal to condemn Hamas has prompted anger and a deep sense of disappointment from Israel… As Israel’s war escalates, Beijing has come out more strongly in support for the Palestinians. Last weekend, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused Israel’s actions of going “beyond the scope of self-defence”.
Regarding this conflict situation, the media in Russia, Turkey, and China behave just as the top politicians do in those countries.
In Russian television news programs, there have been video reports from Israel and neighboring countries, representing Israeli and Palestinian versions of what happened at the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital. As a result, the viewing public has often reduced to guesswork, trying to understand how the tragedy occurred, and what is Russia’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict considering recent developments.
What brings even more confusion is that some reports, say, by Sergey Pashkov (from Israel) and Evgeniy Poddubny (from Lebanon) for the Vesti program, on the state-controlled TV channel Rossiya 1, may be perceived as if they have been made by journalists representing two countries waging war on one another. And that is understandable: on social networks, Evgeniy Poddubny often speaks very negatively of Israel’s policy and actions, and he plainly talks about ‘an Israeli air strike on [Al Ahli] hospital’ in Gaza; while Sergey Pashkov, who has been in Israel for more than 20 years and calls that period the happiest in his life, seems to tend to cover the events in the region the way people in Israel see them.
For comparison: there does not appear to be such an eclecticism in the coverage of the latest events in Israel and Gaza by the Western TV channels’ coverage.
The reaction of the Turkish media to the last conflict between Israel and Hamas is permeated with sympathy for the tragic fate of Palestinians trapped in the Gaza Strip, amid a massive bombing campaign by Israel. Unlike the USA and the EU, Turkey doesn’t recognize Hamas as a terror outfit and maintains direct contact with the group. So, it is hardly astonishing that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to condemn the deadly attacks in Israel carried out by Hamas on October 7, instead commenting on October 8, “It’s our responsibility to stand with the oppressed”, and that Turkish media are referring to ‘an Israeli air strike on a hospital in Gaza enclave’.
As for the relevant media coverage in China, it can be characterized by the following quotation from a Chinaproject.com article by Jordyn Haime: “In Chinese media, reports have generally presented a one-sided, anti-Israel view of the war, said Tuvia Gering, a researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. State media and commentators have blamed Israel’s treatment of Palestinians for the attack, as well as the United States for fanning tensions in the Middle East”.
Such a degree of accord regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among Russian political leaders, diplomats, and most reputable opinion-makers appears to be hardly realistic at present. The reason for this is that for many Russians, present-day Israel is a country that is linked to Russia by numerous family ties and friendships.
Russian-speaking people from the former Soviet Union account for about 13 percent of Israel’s total population and 18 percent of the Jews of the country. In this sense, Israel isn’t just another foreign country to Russia in general, and for many people from among the Russian economic, administrative, political, media, and intellectual elites, in particular. The Kremlin has to take this fact into account.