Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine denounced the killing of civilians in a Kyiv suburb as a “war crime” on Sunday, in a break from the more restrained rhetoric exhibited by Israeli officials since Russia invaded the former Soviet republic just over a month ago.
“Deeply shocked by the photos from #Bucha. Killing of civilians is a war crime and cannot be justified,” Ambassador Michael Brodsky tweeted on Sunday morning, using the hashtag #UkraineRussiaWar.
Brodsky’s comment came after Ukrainian forces recaptured the city, where Reuters saw bodies lying in the streets, and the hands and feet of multiple corpses poking out of a still open grave at a church ground.
Brodsky’s comments are different from those coming from higher echelon officials in Jerusalem, and it is very unusual for an official Israeli representative to actively post such a message on his Twitter account.
Asked if the Foreign Ministry’s official position was that Russia had committed war crimes in Ukraine, a spokesman replied: “No. It’s a tweet by the ambassador regarding the photos. He didn’t blame Russia.”
A report issued Sunday by Human Rights Watch documents several cases of summary execution by Russian forces in Bucha and other localities in the Irpin area.
On March 4 in Bucha, "soldiers forced five men to kneel on the side of the road, pulled their T-shirts over their heads, and shot one of the men in the back of the head," the report states.
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Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that "the cases we documented amount to unspeakable, deliberate cruelty and violence against Ukrainian civilians. Rape, murder, and other violent acts against people in the Russian forces’ custody should be investigated as war crimes."
While Moscow denies targeting civilians and rejects war crimes allegations, locals said the dead in Bucha were civilians killed by departing Russian soldiers without provocation. According to Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk, more than 300 residents had been killed.
A video uploaded to Twitter by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, which termed the city the “new Srebrenica,” showed bodies strewn across Bucha’s streets.
“The Ukrainian city of Bucha was in the hands of Russian animals for several weeks,” the ministry tweeted. “Local civilians were being executed arbitrarily, some with hands tied behind their backs, their bodies scattered in the streets of the city.”
Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv pointed Haaretz to a Telegram post by the Russian Defense Ministry denouncing “fake" reports of civilian casualties in Bucha and claiming bodies in one video —which it deemed "staged footage”— "seem to have been deliberately laid out to create a more dramatic picture.”
"To our regret, some officials, hopefully unintentionally, become hostages to such fakes and unverified information, the obvious purpose of which is to present a distorted picture of what is happening in Ukraine and around it, and to discredit Russia by all means,” the spokesperson told Haaretz.
Responding to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s claim that Bucha is the “new Srebrenica,” where ethnic Serb forces murdered some 8,000 Bosnian-Muslim men and boys in 1995, Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic told Haaretz that her government was “horrified by the graphic images of civilian deaths in Irpin and Bucha.”
“Europe said ‘Never again’ after the Holocaust, yet genocide occurred in Srebrenica and Bosnia and Herzegovina,” she said. “Evidence of grave atrocities in Ukraine is unraveling every day. All strikes on innocent people committed during the invasion of Ukraine should be investigated and prosecuted as war crimes.”
Israel walks a tight rope
Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Israel has been walking a tightrope in an attempt to comply with American demands to speak out against Russia’s actions while not alienating Moscow, which allows the Israeli Air Force to carry out strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. As the war progressed, Israel saw a need to remain neutral even in light of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's mediation efforts between the parties.
Speaking on CNN, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday said that images of large numbers of dead Ukrainians in the town of Bucha "punch in the gut."
Bennett has never condemned Russia and left the job to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who has been stronger in his condemnations than the prime minister. And while Israel supported a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Russia, but declined to add its backing to a similar motion placed before the Security Council.
Sunday’s revelations of possible war crimes in Bucha come just over a month after the Kremlin invited representatives of Israel’s Yad Vashem to examine purported mass graves after the fighting with Ukraine ends, maintaining its widely debunked stance that Kyiv is committing genocide against Russian-speakers in two separatist regions backed by Moscow.
Ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both sides of the conflict have compared their opponents to Nazis and accused them of committing genocide.
This led to Israeli pushback, with Bennett panning Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s statement, during a recent remote Knesset address, that Moscow was using the “language of the final solution.”
Israeli leaders have declined to expressly comment on Russian strikes against Jewish targets in Ukraine, including attacks on a Hillel House, Ultra-Orthodox elementary school and the Drobitsky Yar Holocaust Memorial.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.