Russia may currently be fighting its own war in Ukraine, but all eyes in Moscow are on Israel’s impending ground offensive into the Gaza Strip following Hamas’ coordinated surprise offensive on October 7.
Hamas' recent attack, widely condemned by much of the world as an act of terrorism, has generated a nuanced response from the Kremlin, which has maintained close ties with leaders from both Palestine and Israel. During a meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States on October 11, President Vladimir Putin refused to take sides, stating that “Israel.. has the right to defend itself,” while expressing support for the United Nations' plan for a two-state solution, which entails the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Putin also indicated the potential for Moscow to play a role in mediating a resolution to the ongoing conflict.
For ordinary Russians, the escalated conflict between Israel and Palestine has seen the country split, with many supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, while others view backing Palestine as essential in the struggle against what they perceive as "settler colonialism" and for the protection of human life.
On Bolshaya Ordynka Street in Central Moscow hundreds of locals adorned the barrier outside the Embassy of Israel with bouquets of flowers. Moscow, with its population of approximately 100,000 Jews, is home to a significant number of people who hold dual nationality with Israel or have close relatives in the country. This connection has grown even stronger in the wake of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, which has seen many of those with Israeli passports take the opportunity to leave Russia.
Israel has historically garnered substantial support from the Russian public, despite a deep history of anti-semitism. Between 1989 and 2006, approximately 1mn Jews emigrated from the former Soviet Union to Israel, facilitated by the country's Law of Return. As a result, many non-Jewish residents of Russia today have acquaintances in Israel, which, in turn, shapes their perspectives on Middle Eastern politics and fosters a heightened anti-Arab sentiment. This sentiment is further exacerbated by the prevalent Islamophobia within Russia, and the widespread association of Palestine with terrorism and Israel as the vanguard against radicalism.
"I am not religious. I don't believe in a higher power. I never go to the synagogue. But my entire family is ethnically Jewish," a woman in her mid-40s, examining the flowers outside the Israeli embassy, told bne IntelliNews. She continued, “I have been to Israel just once, I loved it. My heart aches for the innocent children and their grieving families. In addition to all the death in Ukraine, this is yet another tragedy."
When asked about Israel's impending ground offensive in Gaza, she didn't express an opinion. In contrast, another mourner, the only other person present when bne IntelliNews arrived, was more forthcoming.
“How many more lives must be lost before the world acknowledges the evil of Hamas?” Andrey, a Moscow local, said. “The Israelis know this. They have always known it. I'm not Jewish; I'm a proud Russian, and even I have seen it. But how can so many remain so blind?”
Andrey expressed his strong support for Israel's decision to enter Gaza.
“I want them to wipe them all out. There should be no Hamas left ever again,” he continued. “Of course, I hope that innocent Palestinians will be fine. But the safety of Israel is of the highest importance.”
A 45-minute stroll from the Embassy of Israel, across Gorky Park and the Moskva River, the Embassy of Palestine sits on a street hosting several other foreign missions, such as those of Finland, Australia and Egypt. Officially, unlike in much of the West, Palestine has maintained an embassy in Russia since 1990.
In the immediate days following the attack on Israel, the area in front of the Israeli Embassy was full of flowers. In contrast, the Embassy of Palestine bore just two, tethered to its railings. Now, a week later, in the wake of numerous air strikes on the Gaza Strip, the embassy gates are covered in hundreds of red flowers, accompanied by teddy bears and scarves. Videos circulating on social media have shown members of Moscow's Muslim community gathering to grieve the loss of Palestinian lives. During a visit by bne IntelliNews' Moscow correspondent on a weekend afternoon, the sight of these flowers caused many passers-by to stop and take photos, while some read information about the blockade of the Gaza Strip posted on an official embassy notice board.
“The Israelis want to wipe Gaza off the face of the earth,” one passer-by explained. “I came to check the flowers after seeing photos on Telegram. I think it is terrible that 2mn people could die just to avenge Hamas. I know Putin is good friends with Netanyahu. I hope he can convince him to do the right thing.”
Another man, Marat, who was reading a piece of paper on the Embassy fence reading “Gaza in our hearts,” squarely pointed the finger at the Israeli government for the recent attack on Israel. This view, rarely expressed by individuals interviewed by bne IntelliNews, is the most common opinion echoed on Russian television, particularly during prime-time debate programs on the nation's most popular channels. Propagandists like Vladimir Solovyov have cast Israel and the USA as the antagonists in the ongoing conflict, levelling accusations of "brutality" at the Israeli military. Others, like political scientist and media personality Sergei Mikheev, have accused Israel of dehumanising Palestinians, asserting that the failure to provide medical aid and the bombing of residential areas amounts to a situation “approaching genocide.”
“In Russia we are not completely free. But compared to Gaza our freedom is incredible,” Marat told bne IntelliNews. “Palestinians have been living under blockade for decades and it is our moral obligation to stand by them as they resist. The responsibility for the situation in Gaza falls on Israel for effectively turning it into a prison."