March 25, 2022
Over the past month, Israel has taken step after step to demonstrate its solidarity with Ukraine and the people of Ukraine. At the same time, Israeli citizens and residents have poured into the streets to show their support for Ukraine, including a rally of religious leaders in Jerusalem.
But as pressure builds on Moscow to halt the war in Ukraine, the Israeli government is also under pressure to preserve the safety and security of its own citizens – and that means ensuring it can keep Russia’s troops on its northern border at bay. Here are five things you should know about Israel’s support for Ukraine.
Caught between Syria and a hard place
Did you know that Russian soldiers have been stationed on Israel’s northern border with Syria for seven years? Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising against dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2011, Russia has supported the al-Assad regime with military aid and, since 2015, with military intervention.
Meanwhile, Iranian troops and proxy militias, bent on Israel’s destruction, also have supported al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War. This influence in Syria has boosted Iran’s economic influence and expand its military footprint in the region. It has also helped Iranian convoys who must cross Syria to deliver weapons into the hands of Hezbollah, Iran’s terror proxy in southern Lebanon, also bent on eradicating the Jewish state.
For this reason, the Israeli Air Force has struck a deal with Russian forces. As long as Israel gives Russia enough time to get its troops out of the way before attacking Iranian bases and weapons convoys, Russia looks the other way, enabling Israel to fly over Syrian airspace. Russians have already hinted they could end that arrangement.
Why are there still flights between Moscow and Tel Aviv?
Britain, Canada, the European Union, and the U.S. have suspended flights to Russia and closed their airspace to Russian aircraft as part of Western sanctions. But flights between Moscow and Tel Aviv are still taking off.
Even Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow in an attempt to mediate the conflict. His trip on a Saturday, which broke the Sabbath observance, illustrated that he considered it a mission of life or death. Bennett has also been on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv to welcome newcomers from Ukraine.
Israel is home to a core Russian-Jewish population of 900,000, and thousands of Jews and their descendants in Ukraine and Russia qualify for Israeli citizenship. In fact, Israel has already prepared a plan for up to 100,000 of them, in anticipation of them fleeing the invasion in Ukraine or the situation in Russia and making Aliyah. That’s why flight routes remain open.
Will Iron Dome help Ukraine?
Providing Iron Dome’s technology to Ukraine would be as senseless as the war itself. Not only would it stoke immediate retaliation from Russia, it also wouldn’t do much good. Israel is a land mass of only 8,550 square miles. Ukraine’s square mileage is twenty-seven times that. The air defense missile system has three components: a radar that detects incoming rockets; a command-and-control system that determines the threat level; and an interceptor that, if the system determines human lives or infrastructure are at risk, seeks to destroy the incoming rocket before it strikes. To defend a region the size of Ukraine would require far more radars and interceptors than Israel could realistically provide right away.
As The Jerusalem Post's senior diplomatic correspondent Lahav Harkov explained on AJC's podcast, parting with its current fleet of Iron Dome defense systems would immediately put millions of Israel’s own citizens in direct terrorist threat. "If Israel gave Iron Dome to Ukraine, wouldn't Hamas not know about it and not take the opportunity to shoot at Israelis?"
Not to mention, the Iron Dome system developed by two Israeli firms with support from the U.S., has been depleted since fighting off the barrage of more than 4,000 rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad last May. Efforts to replenish it were blocked by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) until only recently. Israel must make sure it can defend its own territory.
Still, Russia is resorting to the same kind of brutal warfare and indiscriminate shelling that it has unleashed on Syria’s civilians and aid workers over the last seven years. Defense experts say the ballistic and hypersonic missiles in Russia’s arsenal are designed to evade missile defenses by flying low for long distances. They cannot be stopped by a short-range system like Iron Dome.
Is Israel accepting refugees and banning Russian oligarchs?
Just because Israel has not imposed sanctions like other countries does not mean it backs Russia. Throughout the crisis, Israel’s foreign ministry has been vocal about its pro-Ukrainian position. The Jewish state co-sponsored and voted in favor of a resolution in the UN General Assembly condemning Russia for the attacks. As of late March 2022, the government has also green-lighted visa-free travel from Ukraine to Israel, allowing 14,000 Ukrainian refugees to enter the country. Of these, only 4,000 are Jewish.
Meanwhile, Israel has refused to become a sanctions-busting destination, telling Russia’s influential billionaires that the Jewish state will not serve as a parking lot for their private jets. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum suspended its ties with Russian-Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich, a generous donor to Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, after the United Kingdom imposed additional sanctions for his past connections to the Kremlin.
While there are no laws on the books in Israel for the types of sanctions that other nations are employing against oligarchs, Israel is addressing each case individually, going through the timely and arduous process of putting new laws in place.
Compared to other nations
Every nation could likely do more, though, once again, Israel appears to have been singled out for criticism. In fact, Israeli diplomats assisted Arab citizens from Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt as they evacuated from Ukraine alongside Israelis.
Over the past month, Israel has focused on humanitarian relief. This week, Israel opened a field hospital in Ukraine, the first of its kind, with dozens of doctors and nurses and multiple wards on the grounds of an elementary school in Mostyska, outside Lviv.
In late February, the Israeli government sent an airplane with 100 tons of humanitarian aid via Warsaw, delivered in truckloads to Ukraine. This was followed by the donation of four bullet-proof ambulances. The Medical Association in Israel is conducting live Zoom sessions in the Russian language to guide Ukrainian doctors who are treating wounded patients.
Municipalities throughout Israel have campaigned for Ukrainian refugees and donated needed blankets, coats, and other winter gear. Not to mention, United Hatzalah, IsraAid, and countless other Israeli NGOs are currently on Ukraine’s border helping refugees.
IsraAid arrived in Moldova two days after the war began and set up operations in Palanca, on the border with Ukraine, and in the capital city of Chișinău to assist many of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have entered from Ukraine. The organization received the first grant from AJC’s #StandwithUkraine emergency fund to establish safe spaces for children, provide medical supplies, and offer trauma counseling.