The problem of narrative: Ukraine vs. Palestine

The ongoing conflict has exposed double standards in how the West covers war

click to enlarge A residential building damaged by Russian aircraft in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. - Shutterstock
A residential building damaged by Russian aircraft in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

It has been just over two months since Russia invaded Ukraine, which triggered harsh responses from the West — as well as accusations of hypocrisy and double standards.

As airstrikes continue causing carnage, civilians are being targeted, buildings are being shelled, and an emerging refugee crisis is looming over Europe. If this sounds all too familiar, it’s because it has happened for a very long time — only not in Europe, but notably in Palestine and other countries in the Middle East and Africa.

It was less than a year ago when Palestine faced one of its biggest aerial bombardments in recent times, which claimed the lives of at least 255 Palestinians. It seemed that the Palestinian narrative had finally gained momentum in the international arena, yet little was done in comparison to the efforts made for Ukraine.

Sanctions on Russian oligarchs and asset freezes have been imposed, but now Facebook and Instagram will temporarily allow posts calling for violence against Russians or Putin’s death, according to a Reuters report. This unprecedented move is a curious decision considering so many pro-Palestine posts were removed last year by the same platforms. 7amleh, a nonprofit organization focused on enabling Palestinian society to effectively use social media, had received more than 200 complaints about deleted posts and suspended accounts related to Sheikh Jarrah, the Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem which faced forced evictions and home demolitions, leading to the onset of last year’s violence between Israel and Hamas.

The conflict in Ukraine revived such double standards, as social media users were quick to highlight the contrast between Palestine and Ukraine in the media and western governments’ responses.

CJ Werlemen, a journalist and activist against Islamophobia, tweeted that those who offer support for Palestinian resistance are often alluded to terrorism — something that seems to not be applicable for those who support Ukraine’s right to self-defense.

As the horrific scenes of hundreds of missiles targeting Ukrainian cities unfolded, another tweeted how Israel fired the same amount of missiles in one hour in Gaza.

An old picture of Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi was also making rounds on TikTok and Twitter — mistaken for a Ukrainian girl standing up to a Russian soldier, until the false claim was quickly debunked. Many expressed anger based on the double standards of resisting when one is mistaken as "white."

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy echoed this sentiment in a televised interview with the BBC when he said, “This is very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed, children being killed every day.”

The footage went viral on social media among other news coverage. One journalist posted a thread of such news coverage being “inaccurate and dangerous.”

Another resemblance emerged between the two countries when Russian airstrikes destroyed a children’s hospital and a maternity ward in Mariupol. A couple of days before, a maternity hospital was also shelled in the city of Zhytomyr, where new mothers and their babies had to be evacuated. Amnesty International and the Ukrainian president equated the indiscriminate attacks on civilians as war crimes.

This plea from Ukraine reverberated with its western allies, as sympathy poured in along with sanctions to block Moscow from the global economy.

But where were these sanctions when schools, mosques, media towers, and hospitals were targeted by Israel last year?

On a much smaller scale, the international BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement against Israeli goods did just that.

Last year was a turning point for Palestine, as it was apparent that the Palestinians won the narrative through social media and public pressure which triggered well-known companies like Ben & Jerry’s to halt production in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory.

Considering the actions that are taken against Russia, it is obvious to see why many will agree that BDS is the legitimate action to take against an occupying force.

However, it has angered many that while pressing action against Russia, the U.S. and other governments have resisted similar measures against Israel.

In March, U.S. secretary of state Anthony Blinken condemned Russia during a U.N. human rights council session.

In the same speech, Blinken made it a point to highlight Israel. “We will continue to counter anti-Israel bias and the unfair and disproportionate focus on Israel on the Council” he said, adding that the council’s investigation into Israel’s crimes “are a stain on the Council’s credibility.”

Palestinian or not, such grievances seem to have fallen on deaf ears as the U.S. has presented an exceptional rule for Israel and another for the rest of the world. The danger trickles down in stifling such arguments and reinforcing these double standards that either people of color or religion can only be confined in.

Such rhetoric from the U.S. government have repercussions closer to home, here in Detroit.

In June 2021, Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson was accused of censoring the WSU student senate from using the school’s email listerv to pass a statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a statement to Metro Times, Wilson said he supports the freedom of speech of students.

“By making available the use of a university listserv, a university resource, it could be construed that the Student Senate statement represented the views of the university, which it did not,” he said. “However, we strongly support their free expression.”

Like academic institutions, students were forced to remain impartial to the conflict.

Kay Moussaoui, 24, a law student at WSU, observed that law students “are afraid to speak up because if they are looking for a corporate job, they don’t want to be caught in the Canary Mission”.

The Canary Mission documents individuals caught in Palestine protests or promote pro-Palestinian sentiment. It contains students, professors, activists, and organizations like BDS, Al Jazeera, and Jewish Voice for Peace.

Student activist Husam Kaid, 23, from New York is one of many youths blacklisted for protesting and being associated with organizations like Student for Justice in Palestine and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

He argues that many students who are documented on the Canary Mission become “unemployable” when they graduate, especially when the funding is linked to wealthy zionist organisations such as WSU.

Another law student from Georgetown University shared a post. “When Palestinian students asked the Dean at Georgetown Law why our school was staying silent about Israel bombing & killing over 250 ppl Gaza & desecrating Al-Aqsa during Eid & Ramadan of 2021, we were told ‘Georgetown doesn’t comment on international issues.’ The University put out a statement to offer prayers for the victims of the Russian invasion,” the post read.

The general census of the current narrative is that the international response to the crisis in Ukraine has taught a number of lessons to the international community: Calling for any forms of boycott or sanctions of a foreign nation is not necessarily inappropriate or racist, social media giants will censor posts when it is in their interest to do so, and apparently, sympathy is capped if you’re a brown refugee who happens to also be Muslim.

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