What do Ukrainian refugees make of Israel’s war on Gaza?

While some who have fled Russia’s invasion side with Israel, others say the conflict is more complex than they thought.

Olena Hich, right, now in England after fleeing Ukraine, said she empathises with Israel in the Middle East conflict [Courtesy of Olena Hich]

Glasgow, United Kingdom – Civilians have been bombed, killed and injured in their thousands. Infrastructure has been shelled – and millions displaced.

Today, these images of conflict evoke Gaza, but 120 days ago were more associated with Ukraine following the Russian invasion of the former Soviet republic in February 2022.

For months, the millions of Ukrainians forced to flee their homes for countries across Europe have championed the cause of their besieged nation-state from afar.

However, after the deadly Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7 last year, and the brutal campaign of Israeli air strikes that followed and has killed 27,000 Palestinians, some Ukrainian refugees fear that Kyiv’s struggle against Vladimir Putin’s Russia – once the Western world’s primary focus – has been overshadowed.

“The support for Ukraine and the attention from the media and people regarding the war in Ukraine is losing momentum, which saddens me and all Ukrainian citizens,” said Ukrainian refugee Maria Pankova, who lives in Scotland.

“For instance, my Scottish friends, who never shared fundraisers or news on social media to support Ukraine, are now actively doing so to support Gaza.”

More than 250,000 UK visas have been issued to Ukrainian refugees since the start of the conflict in Eastern Europe. Scattered across Britain’s four constituent nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, most have taken solace in their host country’s political support for Ukraine.

But despite Thursday’s agreement by the European Union to supply Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with a 50-billion-euro ($54bn) aid package, many refugees share Pankova’s fear that, with another major conflict vying for global attention, Ukraine’s push to repel and ultimately defeat Russia has got much harder.

“As a Ukrainian, I think a lot about the amount of [international] resources and attention which are now divided in two directions,” said Yana, who withheld her surname.

Yana’s greatest fear is that more global instability could lead to the eruption of another world war.

She lives in southeast England having fled in May 2022 with her son, who she said suffers from mental anguish following the Russian invasion.

‘We fight for attention’

The idea that Israel’s onslaught on Gaza has muddied Western efforts to support Ukraine has also been raised by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who relies heavily on military aid from the West, most notably from the United States.

Quick to condemn the Hamas attack on Israel in October, he has said competing with a fresh war in the Middle East for international attention was detrimental to his cause.

In December, he lamented the distracting nature of the Israeli offensive: “You see, attention equals help. No attention will mean no help. We fight for every bit of attention.”

At the end of last year, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) published a poll on Israel’s war on Gaza, which indicated that 69 percent of Ukrainians sided with Israel over the Palestinians.

Iliya Kusa, a Kyiv-based author and analyst of international relations with the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, wrote last year that for most Ukrainians, the Arab world is seen as “something distant and foreign” while there are many sociocultural and business ties between Ukraine and Israel.

“Israel is broadly seen as a good example of a state that has successfully repelled attacks from aggressors for decades and at the same time is prosperous and technologically advanced: everything that Ukrainians would like their own country to be,” he wrote.

Olena Hich, now in England after fleeing Ukraine with her daughter nearly two years ago, told Al Jazeera that her sympathy lay with Israel.

“War is always bad for both sides. Most civilians are innocent, but Hamas is a terrorist [group] that needs to be destroyed and Israel has the right to defend its territory and its people,” said Hich, who is from Zaporizhzhia, southeastern Ukraine.

Yana explained that she also feels more affinity with Israel and said that, growing up in Ukraine, she was not exposed to any information about Palestine.

Other Ukrainian refugees in the United Kingdom have, however, taken time to examine Israel’s war on Gaza in more detail.

Masters graduates
Master’s graduates Anastasiia, right, and Vadym, who live in Scotland, empathise with innocent civilians as war rages in the Middle East [Courtesy of Anastasiia and Vadym]

Masters graduates Anastasiia and Vadym live in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh.

The couple, from the port city of Odesa, spoke of their shock after learning of the Hamas attack on Israel, during which 1,139 people were killed – but later explored the context of the assault.

“In less than a month, and when we saw what was happening in Gaza, we thought, ‘Okay, this is not black and white at all’,” Anastasiia said.

Vadym said “it was crucial to highlight the deaths of civilians” in the Palestinian enclave, despite his main focus being on the fortunes of his own native land.

Despite the International Court of Justice in The Hague last month ordering Israel to take “all measures within its power” to prevent genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, the devastation wreaked on the enclave by the US-supplied Israeli military continues unabated.

“We Ukrainians were not ready for [our war], although our hidden conflict with Russia has lasted for centuries,” Irina Tyazhkorob, another Ukrainian refugee living in England, told Al Jazeera.

“Our only difference is that the people of Gaza lived with the expectation of open confrontation, and probably could have foreseen it.  Although, to be honest, no one can be mentally prepared for war.”

Irina said ‘no one can be mentally prepared for war’ [Courtesy of Irina Tyazhkorob]
Source: Al Jazeera