Russian and Chinese support for Palestine

Karam Said, Tuesday 17 Oct 2023

Moscow and Beijing are taking a more even-handed position on the Israel-Hamas war in contrast to the strong support of the Western countries for Israel, writes Karam Said

Russian and Chinese support for Palestine


In contrast to the unreserved and unlimited support for Israel announced by Washington and its Western allies in response to the Al-Aqsa Flood Operation carried out by Hamas against Israeli settlements in the vicinity of Gaza on 7 October, leaving hundreds of Israelis dead and over a hundred taken hostage, Moscow and Beijing have adopted a more balanced approach.

Both have condemned the violence and the targeting of civilians, but they have also emphasised the broader context and the urgency of the two-state solution in Palestine. In a press conference on 9 October, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that her government was “deeply saddened by the civilian casualties and that it opposes and condemns acts that harm civilians”.

She stressed that “China has always been on the side of equity and justice.”

Russia also rejected the Israeli justifications for a siege against Gaza and reiterated its support for Palestinian rights. In remarks to the press during a summit in Kyrgyzstan, Russian President Vladimir Putin likened the Israeli occupation’s blockade of Gaza to Nazi Germany’s siege of Leningrad during World War II.

Describing the siege against Gaza as “unacceptable,” he said that “more than two million people live there. Far from all of them support Hamas, by the way. But all of them are suffering, including women and children. Of course, it’s hard for anyone to agree with this.”

He further cautioned against an Israeli ground attack, which he warned would lead to “serious consequences for all sides… And most importantly, the civilian casualties will be absolutely unacceptable.” He called for a halt to the bloodshed and, reiterating his support for the two-state solution, he urged a return to the negotiating process and offered to mediate.

China has also criticised the Israeli offensive against Gaza. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said that Israel’s actions have “gone beyond the scope of self-defence.” In a telephone call with his Saudi counterpart on 15 October, he said that China “condemns all acts that harm civilians, as they violate the basic human conscience and the fundamental principles of international law.”

Chinese Middle East Envoy Zhai Jun, in statements to the press on the same day, expressed his government’s concern that “the spill-over effects on the regional and international community are spreading.”

He appealed to the international community to “remain highly vigilant and collectively manage and control the situation to prevent it from spiralling out of control.” He added that he planned to visit the Middle East next week to further strengthen coordination with all the parties.

On 13 October, Russia proposed a draft UN Security Council Resolution that would seek to curb the spiralling violence in Gaza. It condemns all violence against civilians and all acts of terrorism, and it calls for the de-escalation of tensions, the resumption of negotiations, a humanitarian ceasefire, the release of hostages, and access for humanitarian aid.

Israel and its Western allies have denounced the Chinese and Russian stances, with harsher criticism reserved for the latter. China’s neutral and even-handed position has rankled with them, especially since Beijing did not explicitly condemn the Palestinian attack and call Hamas a “terrorist” faction.

But Moscow crossed the line for them, holding Israel and the US as primarily responsible for the eruption of violence in the Middle East. Speaking to the press during the Russian Energy Week Forum on 11 October, Putin blamed the US for ignoring existing mechanisms to resolve the Palestinian question and, instead, trying “to replace solutions to fundamental political issues with handouts of one kind or another.”

One of the core issues is the Occupied Palestinian Territories, he said. “Part of the land that Palestinians have always considered as originally belonging to them has been occupied by Israel at different times and in different ways, but for the most part, obviously, through military force,” Putin said.

He blamed the Israeli settlement policy and other aspects of Israeli behaviour for fuelling the conditions that had led to the current explosion of violence, which he described as “horrible.”

Russia and China are not only fully committed to the two-state solution, but they have also both officially recognised Palestine as a state. This helps to contextualise the Chinese foreign minister’s remarks on 14 October following a meeting with EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell, in which he spoke of the need to address the historic injustice that lay at the root of Hamas’ actions.

“The two-state solution must be fully implemented for the Middle East region to achieve true peace and for Israel to attain lasting security,” Wang Yi said, “in this world, there are various injustices, and the injustice towards Palestine has been prolonged for half a century, carrying the pain of several generations. This cannot continue any longer.”

In 2012, Moscow and Beijing supported Palestine’s application to join the UN as an observer, and they helped to lobby for its approval among other UN members. Both countries understand the centrality of the Palestinian cause among the Arab and Islamic peoples, despite the emergence of other crises in these regions, but their positions are also informed by their extensive economic ties and interests.

China has been developing relations across the Middle East and Africa in the framework of its Belt and Road Initiative, a measure of which is that the volume of Chinese-Arab trade surpassed $431 billion by the end of 2022.

Moscow also has close and developing relations in the region, as is reflected by a volume of trade that stood at $20 billion by the end of last year. In addition to this, however, it also values the neutral positions many Arab and Islamic nations have taken with respect to the Russian intervention in Ukraine and their opposition to the Western sanctions against Russia.

The Russian and Chinese stances on the current situation in Gaza are obviously informed by mounting tensions with Washington over Ukraine, on the one hand, and Taiwan, on the other. Both have an interest in using the current crisis in the Middle East to tarnish the US’ international image and to foster international opposition to US policies.

This was the aim of Putin’s remarks on 11 October, criticising the US’ insistence on ignoring the need to implement the UN Resolutions on Palestine and, instead, pushing its own mechanisms that have failed to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because they circumvent the core issues.

In his remarks at the Russian Energy Forum, Putin said that “I do not understand why the US is sending aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean. It has sent one group and has announced the intention of sending another. I do not see any sense in it. What are they planning to bomb there? Lebanon?... Or are they doing this for intimidation? There are people there who are no longer afraid of anything. The problem should not be addressed this way. Instead, we should look for compromise solutions.”

The Russian and Chinese stances critical of Israel and their warnings against the dangers of letting the situation spiral out of control could help efforts to restrain Israel’s impulse to launch a ground invasion of Gaza. The two countries could also mobilise a large portion of the international community into opposing Western actions in support of Israel in the UN and other international bodies.

There is a possibility that Beijing could play an even more direct role in resolving the conflict following US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s appeal to China on 14 October to use its influence to push for calm in the region. The Chinese foreign minister responded favourably and called for “the convening of an international peace meeting as soon as possible to promote the reaching of a broad consensus.”

China could act as a key mediator in such a forum or in other multi- or bilateral meetings. Moscow could act as a strong supporter of China’s peace-making efforts in the UN and elsewhere.

In favour of the Chinese and Russian roles is the fact that both countries have good relations with Israel. Despite Tel Aviv’s resentment at their current positions on the situation in Gaza and their refusal to condemn Hamas as a terrorist entity, it has strong economic ties with both.

The volume of Russian-Israeli trade stood at $3.8 billion by the end of 2022, while the volume of Israeli trade with China stood at $22.1 billion in 2022. Tel Aviv and Moscow also have close security/military ties, while Tel Aviv’s political and military/security relations with Beijing are developing steadily.

Both Beijing and Moscow can draw on their influence in Israel together with their influence with relevant regional powers opposed to Israel such as Iran.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 19 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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