Israel’s recent incursion into Gaza could not go unnoticed in Muslim Azerbaijan. The images of women and children dying in the military attacks produced a high level of anger and frustration among the ordinary people. Although the majority of the population strongly condemns the Israeli operation in Gaza, the government finds it difficult to turn the public sentiments into policy statements, because Azerbaijan has excellent and, in a way, unique relations with both Israel and the Muslim world.
On January 5 the residents of the village of Nardaran, some 40 km (25 miles) from downtown Baku, organized a protest rally against the Israeli military operation. Residents of Nardaran burned Israeli and U.S. flags and shouted anti-war slogans. Protesters blamed the current situation on both the West and the Arab countries and called for the immediate closure of the Israeli embassy in Baku (APA, January 5). Novosti-Azerbaijan reported on the same day that close to 1,000 people participated in the rally. On January 2 a group of young people attempted to picket in front of the Israeli embassy but were stopped in time by the local police (ANS TV, January 5). Protests in Nardaran, known for its radical religious orientation and close ties to the Iranian clergy, continued on the following days.
Pressure from protesters and the general public prompted Azerbaijan’s chief cleric, Allahshukur Pashazade to issue a harsh statement against the war in Gaza. In the statement, the Spiritual Board of the Caucasus accused Israel of inhumane actions and demanded an immediate cease-fire. Pashazade was cautious, however, in calling the conflict a political and not a religious one (www.day.az January 6).
A much more careful statement came from the government. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan issued a press release, expressing concern about the situation in Gaza and showing “support for the efforts of the Palestinian people to achieve peace and stability in the region and establish an independent Palestinian state” (January 6). This statement shows the Azerbaijani government’s careful position on this sensitive issue. Although in private conversations, most government officials show deep concern about the humanitarian catastrophe in Palestine, the country nevertheless prefers to take a neutral official position on the conflict.
Israel is a close ally and economic partner of Azerbaijan. Jews have been living in Azerbaijan for several centuries, and there are more than 8,000 of them. Most feel very comfortable living next to the Shia population. Azerbaijan is proud of its centuries of religious and ethnic tolerance and can perhaps be called one of the world’s most secular and moderate Muslim nations. There are also a significant number of Azerbaijanis and Azerbaijani Jews who have migrated to Israel since the collapse of the Soviet Union and thus form a “human bridge” between the two countries. Israel and Azerbaijan enjoy good relations in the economic, military, and political spheres.
At the same time, Azerbaijan has moved closer to the Muslim world in the past three years, chairing the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in 2006, hosting the summit of Foreign Ministers of OIC member countries, and organizing a number of high-level conferences within the framework of this organization. As a result, on March 14, 2008, it was mainly the Muslim nations that supported Azerbaijan’s resolution on the Karabakh conflict at the UN General Assembly. The resolution passed, giving Azerbaijan one more legal basis for pursuing the issue of territorial integrity and its sovereignty over the occupied territories.
Thus, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Azerbaijan finds itself in a tough position, not wanting to endanger friendly relations with either Israel or its increasingly important Muslim allies. Nevertheless, the government has decided to send an official delegation to the OIC Parliamentary Assembly dedicated to the crisis in Gaza (www.day.az, January 11).
Meanwhile, the country’s media have become the battleground between the supporters of Israel and the Palestinians. Oktay Atakhan, the head of the little-known Humanistic Party of Azerbaijan, blamed the Palestinians, and more specifically Hamas, for the current situation; and the diaspora organization “Azerbaijan-Israel,” in an attempt to win the favor of the Azerbaijani public, spread the information that Azerbaijani immigrants in Israel were suffering from attacks by Hamas (www.day.az, January 3). Most of the opposition political parties, however, took an anti-Israeli position in the ongoing debates in the media.