The Russian connection

Karam Said, Tuesday 23 Jan 2024

Karam Said explores the Russian role in the Gaza war

The Russian connection


The absence of a diplomatic off ramp to the escalating Israel war on Gaza, which has entered its fourth month, has led Hamas to strengthen its relations with Moscow. Like China and many other powers, after all, Moscow opposes the West’s absolute and biased support for Israel. On 18 January, a Hamas delegation visited Moscow for the second time since the war began, the first time being on 26 October.

Hamas visit to Moscow coincides with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks on 18 January that the war could last for months. It also comes amidst the spectre of widening war. Earlier his month, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant indicated that Israel was considering a major military operation against Hizbullah in Lebanon.

On the eve of the visit, on 17 January, the EU added Yahya Sinwar, the head of the Hamas political bureau, to its terrorist blacklist, which imposes sanctions on individuals and organisations that have committed what the EU classes “terrorist acts.” Mohamed Al-Deif, the commander of the Hamas military wing, the Qassam Brigades, and his deputy, Marwan Issa, had been added to the blacklist in December. Then on 19 January, while the delegation was in Moscow, the EU unveiled a new sanctions regime against Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), or what it described as a “dedicated framework of restrictive measures” to target individuals or entities that support or facilitate violent actions by these organisations. In addition, it listed six more individuals on its blacklist for providing financial support to Hamas. Those listed under the sanctions regime are subject to an asset freeze and are banned from travelling to the EU.

Hamas hopes to engage Moscow’s help in mobilising efforts to halt the war on Gaza and build support for Palestinian positions in international forums. Russia has denounced the US-led West’s uncritical embrace of the Israeli narrative and inhumane conduct of the war. In December, President Vladimir Putin, in public remarks and in communications with Israel, expressed his horror at the “catastrophe” unfolding in Gaza and stressed the need to deescalate the crisis and allow in urgent humanitarian aid. Moscow had also proposed a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate and permanent ceasefire.

In a UNSC session on the crisis, the permanent Russian Representative Vasily Nebenzya expressed his government’s scepticism on Israel’s pretext for targeting civilian infrastructure in Gaza. Decrying the bombing of “mosques, churches, refugee camps, UN facilities where the women and children of Gaza seek refuge,” he said, “This is a blatant violation of international humanitarian law. We have heard allegations that Hamas uses them for its command posts and bunkers, but so far we have seen no convincing evidence of this.”

Moscow is also deeply concerned by the prospects of a widening war. In addition to the mounting tensions on the Lebanese-Israeli front, the situation in the Red Sea is escalating dangerously against the backdrop of the threats by the Yemen-based Ansarullah (Houthi) movement to maritime traffic. Soon after the war began, the Houthis vowed to target vessels bound for or coming from Israel until Israel ceases its hostilities against Gaza. Many shipping companies have decided to reroute their ships around the Cape of Good Hope as a result. In January, the US and UK initiated a series of military strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen.

Analysts fear that the longer the war continues in Gaza the greater the risks that the situation in the Red Sea and Levant could spiral and draw in other parties. This, Russian officials stress, makes it all the more urgent to pursue diplomatic instead of military solutions. Putin himself has frequently underscored the need to address the root causes of the conflict and his government’s support for the two-state solution and the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination in a state of their own.

In addition to its clout in the UN as a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia has considerable influence among countries of the Global South and is thus well positioned to help rally support behind Palestine in UN agencies.  Russia also has a long record of support for the Palestinian cause, and it has maintained relations with Palestinian factions of all stripes, and not just Hamas. Thus, as the West notches up travel bans and asset freezes against Hamas, Russia remains an important space where Hamas can move diplomatically abroad and counter the Western sanctions siege. As Moscow also has relations with Tel Aviv, Hamas hopes that by winning it closer to its side, it could be a useful asset in any future talks over arrangements in the post-war period.

In welcoming the Hamas delegation, Moscow seeks to accomplish various strategic objectives. One is to increase pressure on Western powers by embroiling them more deeply in the Gaza crisis which, in turn, will alleviate Western pressures on Russia in the context of the war in Ukraine. Moscow calculates that arms and ammunition that Washington, above all, is sending to support Israel in its war on Gaza reduce the Western military support for Kyiv by that amount. It also understands that the focus on Gaza diverts Western media attention from Russia’s policies in Ukraine.

In developing relations with Hamas at a time of overwhelming support for the Palestinians in the Arab region and Islamic world, Moscow believes it can turn the moral tables against the West and cultivate a climate conducive to increasing Russian influence and countering the US presence in the Middle East. Naturally, supporting Hamas would strengthen Russian relations with the anti-Western axis (Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah) and various resistance groups that support Palestine.

In sum, the Hamas delegation to Moscow is inseparable from the Hamas desire to get Russia to play a diplomatic role in the international arena to stop the war in Gaza and, simultaneously, to break the isolation imposed on it by Washington and Israel with EU help. Hamas, in its online statements, said that the two officials discussed the means to reach a ceasefire and “end the aggression against our Palestinian people.” It added that the delegation clarified Hamas’ position regarding the hostages and praised Russian popular and official humanitarian support for Palestinians in Gaza.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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