MESOP MIDEAST WATCH: Israel needs to get ready for Russia-style sanctions – opinion

Support like that which Israel received from the Biden administration during last year’s war in Gaza cannot be taken for granted anymore.


In 2017, Benjamin Netanyahu visited Bogota. It was part of a larger prime ministerial sweep through Latin America that included stops in Brazil as well as Argentina.

At the Colombian presidential palace, Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, were met by an impressive honor guard. Colombian soldiers – decked out in dress uniform, ribbons and white gloves – stood at attention as the Israeli leader marched toward his host, Juan Manuel Santos, who a year earlier had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Israel has been a friend and ally of Colombia, and lately it has been a great ally in the construction of peace in our country,” Santos said later that day during his meeting with Netanyahu.

It was a warm friendship. Four years earlier, Santos visited Jerusalem and met with Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. During that visit, Santos – who Peres called a “true and dear friend” – signed a free-trade agreement with Israel’s economy minister at the time, a young politician who had just been elected to the Knesset, Naftali Bennett.

That was then. Today, it is doubtful that anyone in Israel would call Santos a true and dear friend. He published an op-ed on Sunday in Spain’s El Pais newspaper calling on the world to apply its aggressive response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to Israel.

“The unprecedented global support for the International Criminal Court’s investigation into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine challenges the inertia shown by the international community to war crimes and crimes against humanity committed elsewhere,” he wrote. “Impunity in Israel and Palestine is as intolerable as it is in Ukraine – or anywhere else.”

Santos is not alone in seeking to impose on Israel the same international sanctions and aggressive diplomatic measures being used against Russia. In March, British Labour MP Julie Elliott called out what she said was a double standard against the Palestinians.

“The Palestinians are looking to us to speak and act in the same terms,” she said in a speech to parliament. “We sanctioned Russia over Crimea, and we are now likely to impose more sanctions, with which I wholeheartedly agree; yet Palestinians ask why we do nothing to end Israel’s occupation.”

This idea has also started to receive support in certain parts of the media. On MSNBC, for example, hosts Mehdi Hasan and Ayman Mohyeldin regularly push the idea that Israel needs to be sanctioned like Russia.

This is just the beginning. If war breaks out between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the calls to sanction Israel are expected to dramatically increase, and will be heard not just on MSNBC or in the Palace of Westminster, but also on the floor of the House of Representatives in the US Capitol.

And that is something for which Israel needs to prepare.

Support like that which Israel received from the Biden administration during last year’s war in Gaza cannot be taken for granted anymore. The country needs to begin getting used to comparisons like the one made by Santos.

A taste of this was received on Wednesday, after Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed during clashes between IDF soldiers and Palestinian gunmen in Jenin. Israel is patting itself on the back for getting some international media outlets to report that the shooter of the bullet that killed her – IDF or Palestinian – remains unknown, but that is not the main issue.

For most of the world, Israeli soldiers should not be stepping foot inside Jenin to begin with. For these people, Israel is the “occupier” entering an oppressed people’s city. Whether it was an Israeli bullet or a Palestinian bullet that killed Abu Akleh is less important. Why Israel was there is the issue.

The answer – for those who care – is obvious. Israel has seen 18 people killed since March in terrorist attacks, many of which originated from in and around Jenin. The two suspected terrorists who murdered three Israeli men last week in Elad came from a nearby village; and on Wednesday, an elite IDF force entered Jenin to apprehend a suspected Islamic Jihad operative who the military claimed was in the midst of planning an attack.

When the troops entered the city, gunmen started firing indiscriminately in numerous directions. The IDF counted over 1,000 bullets fired at its soldiers. In most cases, Israeli snipers returned accurate fire, but in three incidents there were street battles. Two were ruled out as having anything to do with Abu Akleh’s death since they involved IDF soldiers shooting at gunmen on roofs. The third incident was on the same street where Abu Akleh was taking cover, and it is definitely possible that an Israeli bullet struck her there accidentally.

Despite the continued uncertainty, Israel made two smart moves. First was refusing to take immediate responsibility. This was a break from past cases, the most famous being Mohammad al-Durrah in 2000. At the time, the IDF took responsibility and apologized, a decision that was later viewed as a strategic mistake after it turned out it was possible that the whole incident had been staged, and that it was highly unlikely that the Palestinian boy had been hit by Israeli fire.

The second right move was the massive effort that Israel made to set an alternative narrative to what the world believed happened in Jenin. This was done partly due to Yair Lapid’s quick request – submitted to Ramallah – that the Palestinians agree to a joint autopsy (which they refused), as well as the IDF’s release of video footage showing Palestinians firing indiscriminately into alleys and yelling that they hit an IDF soldier. Since no soldiers were hit, the IDF raised the likelihood that the gunmen were referring to Abu Akleh.

None of this clears Israel, but it did help raise questions and prevent the immediate conclusion that Abu Akleh had been killed by Israel. If this can even be called a win, it is merely tactical.

The details can help convince officials in the Pentagon and the White House as well as foreign military officers, but they will not sway public opinion – and that is where Israel is going to get hit hard in a future war against Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Does anyone really believe that when Israel does to Beirut what looks like what Russia did to Mariupol, the world will stand by and applaud?

If that bombing were to happen, it would of course be different. Russia has indiscriminately targeted Ukrainian civilians and civilian infrastructure. If Israel were to bomb Beirut, it would only be after thousands of rockets were fired into the Jewish state, and only against targets that are being used for military purposes.

But that is merely the “details,” like the question of whose bullet killed Abu Akleh. Most people don’t bother to learn the details since their minds are already made up by the Santoses and Hasans of the world, who never pass up an opportunity to put a picture of bombed-out Gaza or Beirut next to a picture of Mariupol and ask why the world isn’t sanctioning Jerusalem like it did Moscow.

This is going to be one of the greatest challenges for Israel in the coming years.

While the IDF has proven an amazing ability to accurately strike targets in Gaza with minimum casualties – as shown in last year’s operation in giving people an hour to vacate their buildings before attacking – that will not be possible in a future war with Hezbollah.

When that war erupts, Israel will be under unprecedented rocket fire across the country. There won’t be time to call buildings or “knock on roofs,” as the non-lethal tactic is called. The IDF will naturally need to retaliate, and though it will be justified, legitimate and purely out of self-defense, will Israel’s “good friend” Santos stand by Jerusalem’s side? Will companies like Apple, Google, Visa and Netflix not come under pressure to stop operations in Israel like some have done in Russia?

We know the answer. Israel needs to get ready.