A Russian Journalist Believed Ukraine Had Taught Her About War and Suffering — Then She Moved to Israel

The author reflects on the intractable, hatred-filled Gaza conflict from her new home in Jerusalem

A Russian Journalist Believed Ukraine Had Taught Her About War and Suffering — Then She Moved to Israel
Israelis march in Jerusalem in November in support of hostages taken by Hamas. (Photo by Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

On Oct. 7, I was up for an early start when I got the phone call that shattered any illusion I had about taking a break from a genocidal war. Two days earlier, I had signed a lease on an apartment in a leafy neighborhood in West Jerusalem, a few blocks away from Gaza Street. I was excited about my move to Israel: After covering my native Russia from exile in Turkey for 18 months, I had been posted to a place where I was free to report.

That fateful Saturday, I had planned to drive to Tel Aviv for an exhibition of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, groundbreaking conceptual artists who were pushed into exile from the Soviet Union in the 1980s. I felt my new posting was a place where I could tap into the local Russian-speaking community and the art scene that in many ways shares roots with my home country.

I never made it to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which entered wartime mode for the first time since the Gulf War, moving its most valuable artworks, including the Kabakovs’ exhibition, to its reinforced underground vaults.

Instead, I lurched forward into the war, spending the first week on the road reporting near the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, where I met survivors of the Oct. 7 massacre, counted the bodies of Hamas fighters strewn on the roadside and worked on my sprinting skills by dashing to the nearby shelter whenever the air raid went off. I had assumed that the loss of my own country to a budding military dictatorship — one that unleashed a war on Ukraine, killing the families of my friends — had prepared me for dealing with suffering in a foreign land. I was wrong. The unbridled thirst for mutual destruction on both sides, espoused by the dozens of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians I have interviewed and spoken to since Oct. 7, is unlike the marginal war bloggers and Kremlin-paid television hosts we have in Russia. What I saw here eclipsed my imagination.

This is not about merely comparing atrocities. I don’t wish to place the ransacked kibbutz of Beeri beside the image of a desperate father looking for the remains of his teenage son in Donetsk after a Russian rocket attack on his school’s football field. But I do find myself comparing each country’s reactions to violence. In Ukraine, when Russian massacres are uncovered, pro-war Russians will insist that the army never targets civilians and that photos and videos of carnage — such as the maternity hospital in Mariupol, whose destruction made headlines around the globe — are fake. Once in a while, a pro-Kremlin pundit or pro-war blogger would appear on TV, essentially saying, “Yes, we need to kill the Ukrainians who resist Russian occupation,” but even two years into the war, this is a marginal take.

Those in Israeli officialdom appear to have no such qualms. David Azoulai, the mayor of Metula, an Israeli town perched on a hill overlooking Lebanon, told a radio show that “the whole Gaza Strip needs to be empty. Flattened.” Not a single high-ranking Israeli official or politician has suggested investigating Azoulai for hate speech or even publicly reacted to his remarks. Likewise, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Aryeh King was not censured after commending settlers in the West Bank for shooting dead an unarmed olive farmer. Kremlin officials would be clever enough to mask their genocidal ambitions behind a well-oiled propaganda machine of lies.

It took me a while to realize that Russians and Ukrainians were just “learning” to hate each other. Both countries, in a way, were caught by surprise when Vladimir Putin decided to launch the full-scale invasion in 2022.

But in Israel and Palestine, calling for your opponent’s blood seems to be fair game, causing little or no pushback from broader society. There is a sustained narrative of hatred, passed down from generation to generation.

You can say that my journey to Jerusalem began on March 4, 2022, the ninth day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when I boarded a plane to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. I left both my home and country, and haven’t seen them again since. While I was sitting in the Moscow airport lounge, the Russian Parliament passed a law that would make it a crime to call the invasion of Ukraine a “war,” or even cite anyone other than the Russian military in their reporting. For me, a Russian journalist reporting for a British newspaper, I had two options: stay and accept censorship, or flee and continue working from abroad. The choice was crystal clear; I chose the latter.

I knew firsthand how Russia could treat Ukrainians. In 2014, I spent months in Ukraine, first covering the unfolding revolution in Kyiv, then a Russia-backed insurgency in the east that soon spilled into full-blown hostilities. But unlike then, I cannot report in the field for either side today. I cannot report from Russia, where Russian journalists working for foreign media have been labeled traitors and spies, and I am barred from entering Ukraine as a Russian passport holder (it is my sole nationality). For the first year and a half of Russia’s devastating invasion, I covered the story, first from my hotel room in London and later from my living room in Istanbul, where I and many other Russian journalists had relocated. Reporting on Moscow’s brutal war to the world seemed like the only thing, as a Russian, that I could do in the face of the damage my country had inflicted on its neighbor. I interviewed Ukrainians fleeing a suburb of Kyiv a few days before the world learned the name of this place, Bucha. I spoke to a secretive group of partisans in Belarus who were derailing Russian military trains bound for Ukraine. I tracked down the family of an alleged Ukrainian orphan adopted by a Russian official from the ruins of Mariupol and got a rare glimpse of Turkey’s Bayraktar factory, which was producing drones that gave Ukraine a rare battlefield advantage. When I took my first break after 18 months, I felt incredibly guilty. I struggled to understand how my fellow Russians, the men and women with whom I had probably shared metro seats, or waited in the checkout line at grocery stores, were either silent or cheering a war that each week produced stories of brutality I never thought I’d see in my part of the world. I was torn between what I thought was my duty to cover the Russian side of the war and an urge to be back in the field, reporting on the ground without constraints.

At the end of September, I packed up my belongings and the stray cat I had adopted in Istanbul, and boarded the plane to Israel. In Jerusalem, I experienced 12 days of relative peace, in which I went to Ikea and bought an ironing board and some pillows. Every corner is soothingly identical to its sister shops in Moscow and Istanbul, and I enjoyed the familiarity of navigating the store. During Shabbat, I went to the beach in Tel Aviv, where I swam in warm autumn water without giving any thought to the sealed-off, crowded Palestinian enclave about 40 miles to the south. My new apartment in a green residential neighborhood in West Jerusalem is 150 yards from the main drag, Gaza Street, which was built on part of the previous thoroughfare connecting the Old City’s Jaffa Gate to the Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean coast. Even before the war, its name made anyone familiar with the world’s largest open-air prison of Gaza somewhat uncomfortable. By contrast, Gaza Street, full of hipster crowds, was complete with an artisan bakery, a wine bar, a sourdough pizza place and a sushi restaurant owned by my landlord.

Two days before Oct. 7, I had a long, relaxed lunch with an Israeli fixer who told me to take my time before rushing into work. I should spend the coming weeks, he said, meeting people, getting to know the place and finding my bearings. My hopes for easing into the new beat were quickly dashed when he called me on the morning of the attack on Israel. As I sat in my rental home in Jerusalem, the Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted eight consecutive rocket attacks. One was nearby, and the nearby thud made the building shake a little. I sat on the floor in the corridor — the only safe place I could think of at that moment — typing up a news story.

The following day, I jumped into my car, which was still full of Ikea bags, and hit the road. I stayed in the south of Israel for five days straight. At first, the war felt familiar to my experience in Ukraine almost a decade prior: having to run for shelter at the sound of air raid sirens, jumping at every loud bang you would hear and frantically looking for a place to grab a bite when everything was shut down. But soon I started noticing small things that would trump anything I witnessed in Ukraine or was exposed to while covering the ongoing Russian invasion.

Four days after the Hamas attack, I was chatting with the Jewish owner of a seaside hotel in Ashkelon where my car, filled with toilet paper and detergent ahead of my apartment move, narrowly escaped a Hamas rocket the night before in the car park. Denis Leshchinsky, who left Russia for Israel in 2000, said that during previous outbreaks of fighting in Gaza, he felt sorry for the children. But now, he said, he sees how adults in Gaza teach their kids to hate Jews — and eventually sent them in on Oct. 7 to kill. These are “non-people,” he told me in Russian, using an expression that is not dissimilar to “Untermensch” in German, widely used by the Nazis when referring to Jews.

Leshchinsky had seemed like a kind man, someone who cared for his family and war-damaged business. But hearing that language from him made me feel totally hopeless about any prospect of peace for Gaza.

When I was back in Jerusalem after a week on the road with no time to check my phone for anything other than emailing my editors, I went online. I began doomscrolling and reading Israeli news sites. I felt that the horrors I had seen in the south — the decomposing dead bodies and survivors rattled by a massacre on their doorstep — paled in comparison with the hair-raising hate speech I was now seeing online. Sadly, this was coming not from bots or strangers but people I knew. A former teacher — a funny and kind young man who taught Arabic, grammar, poetry and songs — filled his Facebook feed with photos of dead and injured Gazan children. One day I opened Facebook only to see a photoshopped image of piglets, their faces smeared in soot to form the phrase “Death to Israel.”

The all-permeating hate would catch me in the most unexpected of places.

About three weeks into the war, I finally found time for a spot of self-care and visited a friendly manicurist who had emigrated from Ukraine. She did an excellent job of my nails at her tiny salon on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

After the visit, I started following her on Instagram and inevitably stumbled upon her posts that mocked reports of mass civilian casualties in Gaza. One video she posted showed a person dressed in a white body bag — the type that the dead are placed into — sitting around, looking at their phone. Underneath, she called the images casualties of “Pallywood.” I was flabbergasted to discover how endemic this phenomenon was. The portmanteau of “Palestine” and “Hollywood” is widespread in Israel, used to describe what many believe are fake theatrics by Palestinians in order to win sympathy around the world. The term was first coined in 2005 by the American historian Richard Landes, when he alleged that Palestinians had exaggerated interactions with Israeli troops in order to produce propaganda. Most recently, the accusations some Israelis leveled at Gazans included everything from doctoring footage to hiring actors using face paint and fake blood. One of the videos making the rounds early in the war showed Palestianians daubing fake blood on their faces. It turned out to be a training video produced by Doctors Without Borders — and one not even connected to the current war. Prominent Israelis have been caught spreading “Pallywood” videos that were also proven to be fake: Benjamin Netanyahu’s son, Yair, posted a video several years ago showing bodies wiggling inside white body bags with inscriptions in Arabic. The clip was quickly identified as a video of a protest staged by students in Cairo in 2013.

I love a good manicure, but I haven’t been able to sign up for another appointment with a Pallywood aficionado.

I’ve also been taken by surprise by the skill with which both parties try to “spin” what I would think is an irrefutable fact. When I first saw the images of several old Israeli ladies and a frightened bespectacled teenager walking out of Hamas captivity, I was sure anyone seeing this would be outraged at Hamas for abducting such vulnerable civilians. But what many Palestinian commentators on TV and online saw in those photos was “gentleness and kindness” on the part of the masked gunmen.

I also struggled to grasp why Ali Abunimah, a prominent Palestinian-American journalist, would spend any time trying to find excuses for the murderous group of men who crossed into Israel on Oct. 7 as he spread unsubstantiated claims that it was “enemy police” and Israeli tanks that killed their own civilians in the Beeri kibbutz.

In the Holy Land, the Hamas attack and the ensuing war in Gaza set fire to a haystack that, metaphorically speaking, had not seen rainfall for years. With or without an active war, Israeli society has been militarized to a degree I could not imagine until moving here.

After a few visits to my local hipster coffee shop on Gaza Street, I began to play a mental game with myself: Will I ever manage to go there without seeing a person with an automatic rifle, ordering a cappuccino at the counter and agonizing over the choice of a pistachio croissant or a cinnamon bun? I had seen plenty of people with guns in Jerusalem before the war began, but by now most of my neighbors hoisting the Tavor assault rifles appeared to be reservists — over 360,000 have been called up, and they must wear their weapons even if off duty. Each day, I see someone new with an automatic rifle. These have included young women in flattering IDF-issued pants, bearded men kissing their girlfriends, older men pushing a stroller, young men in pink shorts and flip flops. One miserable rainy morning there were so few people at the cafe that I was soon overjoyed with the thought that I had not laid eyes on a single person with a gun! But a moment later, a young woman introduced her new husband to her girlfriends. He had a rifle slung over his shoulders.

Throughout years of simmering conflict, people on both sides are either breathtakingly resilient or perhaps just oblivious to the events around them. At my favorite supermarket in East Jerusalem (a lifesaver when you want to do grocery shopping on a Saturday), Palestinians stuff their carts with kilos of lean beef, Italian pasta and excellent English cheddar to the recordings of Quranic surahs playing on repeat. It’s hard to miss the shop — up ahead is the tall concrete wall and a watchtower separating Jerusalem from the West Bank. This is where the desolation begins.

When I met my landlord and his agent in the second week of the war to pick up the keys, the two had trouble grasping why I was skeptical about their list of local eateries and bars on Gaza Street. With the devastating war next door and all the hate speech I was exposed to, I felt like I would never be in a mental state in this city to enjoy the wonders of an ordinary life, like exploring the local wine bar or visiting a gallery. It would take a month and “we will crush them,” the two men, athletic drivers of luxury cars, told me in mid-October. Outside, lamp posts were plastered with smiling photos of Israelis taken hostage by Hamas, and someone covered the street sign “Gaza Street” with a sheet of paper saying “Nova Street,” in memory of at least 364 people killed at the Nova rave party on Oct. 7, who were just a fraction of some 1,200 Israelis killed that day. Three months into the war, municipal workers have largely given up on peeling off the news sheets and stickers that kept popping up, and at least two road signs on the street still have “Nova” written over them.

Little by little, Gaza Street has come back to life after the initial shock of being at war. Curbside tables teem with young crowds, while people in the other, much more famous Gaza have been running out of food, insulin and patience. Not long ago, I sat down for a late lunch on a Friday night and started watching a political talk show hosted by a Russian exile, on YouTube. It was soon interrupted by air raid sirens going off in the street. Two thuds of the Iron Dome intercepting Hamas rockets rang out overhead. I used to feel that watching endless Russian talk shows debating how and when the Putin regime would fall got me down. Now that I was living in the land of an unresolved conflict going back lifetimes without a glimmer of hope in sight, I feel Russia has a better chance of turning around while I’m alive: It was only the matter of a 71-year-old aspiring dictator and his circle of same-age associates who were personally vested in the invasion of Ukraine.

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