The Common Denominator of Gaza and Ukraine: Outsiders Who Make Things Worse

Similar conclusions to be drawn from the two conflicts as to why, despite the intensive coverage and major international interest, they are both proving so intractable.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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People hold signs with the names of Palestinians killed in Gaza during a demonstration against Israel's military operation in Gaza and in support of the Palestinian people in Strasbourg, France.
People hold signs with the names of Palestinians killed in Gaza during a demonstration against Israel's military operation in Gaza and in support of the Palestinian people in Strasbourg, France.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Professional conflict-resolution experts love lecturing Israelis and Palestinians on how they should learn the lessons of such places as Northern Ireland, South Africa and what was once Yugoslavia and get on with making peace in the region. Too often, the comparisons made are so facile that they are only useful for holding track-two conferences in comfortable European hotels, not for achieving actual progress on the ground. There is a danger however in treating our own particular conflict as so special that we can't learn from the experiences of others. And, as misfortune will have it, there is another conflict going right now that offers some intriguing parallels: the ongoing struggle between Russia and Ukraine.

There are, of course, other bloody conflicts taking place right now – Syria, Iraq, and Nigeria to name but three – but the crises in Gaza and eastern Ukraine share some key attributes and not just the fact that the shooting-down two weeks ago of flight MH17 over Ukraine may have played a factor also in the temporary suspension of many airlines' flights to Ben-Gurion International Airport.

For a start, Gaza and Ukraine are the only places where the international media is currently deploying considerable resources and where reporters are relatively free to report from both sides. Other conflicts are both too dangerous for Western reporters on the ground and attract much less attention. These are also the only conflicts where international actors such as the United States, the European Union and the United Nations are constantly engaged in negotiations with both sides, either directly or through intermediaries.

In addition, Israel and Ukraine share many common factors. Both countries deeply desire to belong to the Western world, but keep being pulled back into their region by powerful neighbors and their own internal nationalist forces. Both countries fear their very existence is being delegitimized; Ukraine by Russian nationalists who will always regard it as part of their ancient homeland and Israel by those who will never accept the concept of a homeland for the Jews. Both Ukraine and Israel have widespread diaspora, throughout the West, which advocate volubly on their behalf. Both have been hobbled by the corruption of their political classes and both mishandle large minorities which dispute their countries' very identity.

It's unsurprising therefore that there are a number of similar conclusions to be drawn from the two conflicts as to why, despite the intensive coverage and major international interest, they are both proving so intractable.

Global power-play

This round of violence in Gaza is very different to the previous ones in that it is being played out against the backdrop of the struggle for regional dominance between the Arab coalition – lead by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, of which Israel is a silent ally – and the influential though less interconnected regimes backing Hamas: Qatar, Turkey and Iran. A ceasefire on the ground would probably have been reached weeks ago if it wasn't also a hostage to this rivalry and the ambitions of each side to gain wider recognition, particularly from the Obama Administration, which is proving increasingly inept on choosing its allies. Much the same goes for Ukraine, which to Russian President Vladimir Putin represents so much more than territory to be returned to the old Russian Empire. As long as Ukraine serves as a buffer from what Putin sees as the growing and hostile presence of the European Union and NATO, there will never be peace and stability in the country.

Weakness of U.S. and EU

It would be hard to accuse the leaders and foreign ministers of both the U.S. and the European Union of not spending time and resources on both the Gaza and the Ukraine crises. But it's hard to see what effect, if any, their efforts have achieved. Their lack of influence is a combination of an almost unprecedented weakness of leadership in the White House and the main capitals of Europe, war-weariness in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan and the extent to which financial systems and political establishments in some of these countries have been compromised by Russian and Gulf money. If the Americans and Europeans have proved powerless, international organizations such as United Nations agencies and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have been even less successful; transformed from impartial observers and aid-givers into partisans, for all their honorable intentions, distrusted by one if not both sides.

Ineffectual international law

For all the talk of war crimes being committed by all sides in these conflicts – Russia, separatists, Ukraine, Israel and Hamas – the actual threat of any of them ever being investigated or prosecuted by an international tribunal is negligible. The International Criminal Court in The Hague lacks jurisdiction and is bogged down in its own bureaucracy; the United Nations Human Rights Council is hopelessly biased. An outcome similar to the tribunals that are still taking place following the atrocities in the breakaway nations of 1990s Yugoslavia is unthinkable in both these conflicts. International justice in Ukraine and the Middle East is a total oxymoron.

Non-nation players and proxies

Hamas and the separatists of Donetsk and Lugansk may be locally-based movements (in the case of eastern Ukraine, greatly reinforced by Russian "volunteers") but their funding and weaponry is overwhelmingly provided by foreign actors: Russia and Belarus in Ukraine; Iran and Qatar in Gaza. This division between non-nation players/proxies and nation backers creates multiple addresses for accountability and makes it that much harder to negotiate.

Ambiguous role of media

In most conflicts, the local media will be supporting its side while the international news organizations try and retain a degree of impartiality. These lines have become blurred in Ukraine and Gaza by the coverage of Russia Today (RT) on Ukraine and Qatar's Al Jazeera in Gaza. Both networks attempt to portray themselves as international and professional and they employ large numbers of professionals, but their role in cheerleading the separatists and Hamas has created a much more difficult environment for all journalists in the war-zones. While RT is being steadily ridiculed in the West for its craven attitudes, promotion of conspiracy theorists, demonization of any Ukrainian politicians who won't toe Moscow's line as a fascist and clownish depiction of life in the United States, Al Jazeera has largely got a free ride. This is due to the horrendous treatment of the network's journalists in Egypt and the fact that the tone of Al Jazeera English is radically different to that of the Arabic-language channel, which few westerners are even aware of. Support for journalists in prison is totally justified, but the lack of scrutiny to the role played by Al Jazeera in stoking the fires and trumpeting Hamas' objections to a ceasefire is not.

Indifference to global opinion

All the sides in both conflicts seem to care a great deal about what the world thinks of them. They invest heavily in public relations, both official and unofficial, and encourage the masses to use social media on their behalf to both try and sway the public and cajole journalists into following their version of events. But, at the end of the day, despite the hundreds of hours of air time, thousands of column inches in newspapers and literally millions of tweets and Facebook statuses, all of this has remarkably little influence on the people on the ground, who may have read or seen some of this coverage but remain resolutely convinced that their narrative is the only one with any factual or moral validity. Whatever CNN or BBC or trolls on the Twitter say, it's only proof that the world doesn’t understand, except for a small valiant band of our diaspora and an even smaller group of righteous gentiles egging on either side to continue fighting for what they know is right.

From Kiev to Jerusalem, Gaza to Donetsk, diplomats try to negotiate, NGO workers to alleviate suffering and journalists to bear witness, but for all their efforts in these two conflicts, they have singularly failed to deliver solutions or shorten the warfare – and often ended up making things worse.

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