ArticlesRussian Propaganda during the Israel-Hamas War: Anti-Ukrainian and Israelophobic...

Russian Propaganda during the Israel-Hamas War: Anti-Ukrainian and Israelophobic Narratives

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Two months have passed since Hamas attacked Israel, an exceptionally tragic event that took innocent lives, but at the same time an event with a high potential of becoming a game changer in the arena of international relations. Israel’s war against Hamas bears an international importance, with consequences that exceed the Middle East and influence the course of the war between Ukraine and Russia. Moreover, there are relevant similarities between the two wars: both Ukraine and Israel are fighting a just, defensive battle, against an enemy that denies their right to exist.

Against the backdrop of the war between Israel and Hamas, Russia has rediscovered its propaganda pace, which it uses to weaken the unity of Euro-Atlantic societies and to find new narratives that underline Moscow’s “supreme metanarrative”: anti-Americanism (the Israelophobia that accompanies some of the Russian propaganda is so virulent because the US is an ally of Israel).

(…) as we say of him who puts out a lamp in the night that he has brought about darkness, we say of one who has destroyed sight that he has made blindness (…)

M. Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed (The University of Chicago Press, 1963, p. 438)

Since the beginning of the aggression against Ukraine, Russia has relied on a war of attrition and on the fatigue of Kyiv’s Western partners, in terms of money, resources, and – above all – attention and interest. Russian narratives, carefully tailored to induce and/or rekindle fears and divisions, have also contributed to the weakening of the Western public’s attention and interest for the war in Ukraine. It takes only a small glimpse into the public space of the Republic of Moldova to see how various pro-Russian vectors have accused the pro-European government in Chișinău of the fact that the aid given to Ukraine will attract a Russian military response, and that the material support for Ukrainian refugees is a waste of public funds.

In reference to the above subtitle, it must be said that what Russian propaganda is doing in the context of the war between Israel and Hamas is the creation of darkness. That is, stirring up potential dangers with the aim of blinding the Western and Russian public by inducing fear and weakening their determination (in the case of the Western public – the determination to support politicians who help Ukraine, and in the case of Russians – the determination, to the extent that it still exists, to question official narratives and to doubt the fairness of the decisions of political leaders). From the first days following the Hamas attack, the Russian Foreign Minister repeated the message that a good part of the Western weaponry offered to Ukraine was sold in various corners of the world, including in the Middle East, and that Hamas was one of the beneficiaries (this information was denied by the Israeli ambassador in Moscow). TASS, Izvestia and Rossisskaia Gazeta amplified such messages by citing so-called warnings issued as far back as 2022 by the Russian Defence Minister or by selectively citing third-party sources that confirmed their allegations.

At the same time, Russian Telegram channels known for their pro-Kremlin rhetoric induce the perception of security risks for European states. In this case also, third-party sources are used to create the perception that Moscow is not the primary source of the alarmist narratives. For example, the Rybar Telegram channel picked up on November 25, 2023 a story published by another Telegram source, Africa Intel, that 700 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa had forced their way into Spain. At first glance, there is no direct connection between the war against Hamas and migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, but the timing of the news – in the midst of the Israel-Hamas conflict – serves the scope of rekindling European fears of a new migrant crisis. In addition, Africa Intel’s pro-Russianism can be traced in the published news – e.g.: The Malian Armed Forces and the Wagner Group have re-established control over Kidal (November 19, 2023).

Examples of anti-Israel messages can also be found on other clearly pro-Russian channels. In a post dated October 31, 2023, the Telegram channel Novosti Khersonscinî (t.me/kherson_news_info: which, among other things, amplifies rumours that the Ukrainian Army is recruiting women for the frontlines because it faces an acute shortage of soldiers) commented on the decision of the Israeli delegation at the UN to wear the Star of David. According to Novosti Khersonscinî, Israel is a supporter of the fascists in Ukraine and is killing innocent civilians in Gaza Strip, which is why it does not deserve the support/sympathy of the international community.

On TikTok, the Israel-Hamas war and American support for Tel-Aviv revived alarmist-conspiracy messages that were also circulating at the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine. For example, some users share videos with columns of military equipment and tanks along with hashtags such as “ww3”, “armageddon”, while parts of the interviews of some apologists of Russia’s victory in Ukraine are circulated to support aberrant theories of some occult connections between Zionists, Russophobes and “Banderists”.

A possible role of Russia in the Israel-Hamas war is also artificially amplified by messages/users who either demand a direct involvement of Moscow in the war, or claim that the Wagner Group was/is involved in training Hamas militants.

Such messages are useful to Moscow because: 1. they maintain the perception that Russia is all-powerful and that despite the “fight against NATO in Ukraine” still has the necessary resources to project its power in other areas of the world; 2. they maintain the image of Russia’s monolithic unity, the references to Wagner being meant to overshadow the fact that Prigozhin and his group openly challenged Putin this summer. By recasting Wagner in the role of a faithful tool of Moscow’s interests, Russian propaganda seeks to certify the theory, especially favorable to Putin personally, that Prigozhin was just a buffoon who forgot his place, but his mercenaries are still loyal to Russia and Putin; 3. perpetuates the Russia’s idea of the clash between the Global South and the Collective West (many of the pro-Russian and Israelophobic videos on TikTok emphasize the fact that, apart from the Euro-Atlantic states, no other country supports Israel; they go even further claiming that only the Euro-Atlantic political leaders support Israel, while simple citizens do not).

Jews are stereotyped, by the racists, in all the same ways that other minorities are – as lying, thieving, dirty, vile, stinking – but also as moneyed, privileged, powerful and secretly in control of the world.

D. Baddiel, Jews don’t count

(TLS Books, 2021, p. 123)

The Israelophobic messages promoted by some Russian propaganda outlets are not rooted solely in the current war between Israel and Hamas, nor are they intended exclusively to increase Russia’s visibility or help maintain its propaganda regarding Ukraine. After all, the fake called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion did not appear in 2023…

The explanations for images that made the headlines all over the world, like those in Dagestan where an angry mob searched for Jews in order to take revenge for Israel’s intervention in the Gaza Strip, do not have their roots exclusively in state or Telegram-run propaganda. In fact, the events in Dagestan were exploited by the governor of Dagestan in a propagandistic and anti-Ukrainian key, by referring to the fact that the mood in the region was inflamed, via Telegram (Utro channel), by Kyiv – led, in the classical logic of all Russian propagandists, by fascists.

We will not discuss the roots and peculiarities of Russia’s anti-Jewish discourse, starting from the pogroms in the Russian Empire, but it is enough to point out anti-Israelian reflexes that are present in some radicalized areas of the Russian society (or in the narratives disseminated by Kremlin’s supporters in other states), which have been present in the online public space even before the onset of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2022.

What the Dagestani governor isn’t saying we can find out from a report published in 2021 by the think tank/ NGO HOPE not hate. Anti-Semitism and Israelophobia saw a relevant growth not only on mainstream social media, but also on networks where there is no moderation of posts and comments such as Telegram, Bitchute or 4chan. Also, a case study by HOPE not nate on TikTok revealed the use of emojis as coded language to convey anti-Semitic messages.

Such tendencies are not the exclusive work of Russia (anti-Semitism being a characteristic of many groups from various societies), but Moscow takes advantage of the divide regarding Israel that nowadays characterizes the Euro-Atlantic societies.

The current war between Israel and Hamas is undoubtedly an opportunity for Russian propagandists. It is also an opportunity to distract the international community from the conflict in Ukraine and to instil fears in Euro-Atlantic societies (see Telegram’s veiled propaganda on a new migrant crisis).

However, the Israel-Hamas war is also an element with an ideological role for Russia. A recent article in Foreign Affairs points out very clearly the pragmatic way in which Vladimir Putin constructs the internal ideology of his regime (tsarist and Soviet accents intended to emphasize the greatness of Russia and its civilizational exceptionalism).

Externally, authors Maria Snegovaya, Michael Kimmage, and Jade McGlynn point out that Putin’s Russia promotes anti-Americanism and the liberation of world’s societies from US’s domination. The Israel-Hamas war is most likely seen by Moscow as a new step in this direction: a new episode in the confrontation between the West and Everyone Else, a conflict that will give rise to new ones, a perpetual international chaos and volatility, until the demise of the Euro-Atlantic civilization and its acceptance of a non-Western form of multilateralism. That is, an international society of perfectly delimited spheres of influence.

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