By Andrew Roth
Guardian graphic of Dagestan. Credit: Guardian News & Media Limited
A mob in Russia’s mostly Muslim region of Dagestan has stormed the airport in Makhachkala in search of Jewish passengers arriving from Israel.
In the past day, local people have besieged a hotel in search of Jewish guests and stormed the airport after reports emerged that a flight from Tel Aviv was arriving in the city. Passengers were forced to take refuge in planes or hide in the airport for fear of being attacked.
Local health authorities said that 20 people had been injured, including two who were critical. The RIA news agency said nine police officers had received injuries in the incident, two of whom were being treated in hospital. The passengers on the plane were safe, security forces told Reuters.
Sixty people were later detained, RIA reported on Monday, adding that 150 of the protesters had been identified.
Video posted to social media showed hundreds of young men, some carrying Palestinian flags or placards denouncing Israel, storming on to the tarmac of the Makhachkala international airport and climbing on to idling planes, attempting to break through the windows.
Airline employees were shown hustling passengers back inside planes as the crowds approached the aircraft. Russia closed Makhachkala airport on Sunday evening due to “intruders” at the airport.
“This is your captain,” one announcement said. “There’s an angry mob outside that doesn’t know where we’ve come from and why [we are here]. It’s possible we’ll also come under attack.”
The riots appear to have been inspired by a number of posts on the social media platform Telegram, where followers were told that a flight from Tel Aviv would be arriving that evening with refugees from Israel.
Some of the signs held by the rioters read, “We are against Jewish refugees”. Police stood by as hundreds of protesters surged into the airport’s main terminal, entering restricted areas and demanding that customs officials direct them toward the arriving passengers.
Followers of Utro Dagestan, one of the Telegram accounts that regularly carries news mixed with conspiracy theories, were told to besiege the local airport, interrogate arriving passengers and demand that they denounce the Israeli government.
The account also called on local people to follow any arriving Israelis, take pictures of their vehicles and write down the addresses where they were staying.
Other video from the airport showed people accosting airline passengers, including those who appeared to have just arrived on the flight from Israel. They said they were also locals who had travelled abroad for medical help.
The Dagestani government said early on Monday that it was strengthening security measures across the republic, which is home to about 3 million people.
Sergei Melikov, the head of Dagestan, said the incident was a gross violation of the law, even as Dagestanis “empathize with the suffering of victims of the actions of unrighteous people and politicians, and pray for peace in Palestine”.
“There is no courage in waiting as a mob for unarmed people who have not done anything forbidden,” Melikov said on the Telegram messaging app, while elsewhere blaming external actors for the riots, saying they occurred “because of fakes spread by our enemies”.
Russia’s aviation authority said late on Sunday that all “unauthorised citizens” had been removed from the airport, while video clips circulating online appeared to show police arresting some protesters.
Local religious authorities have suggested that they may need to evacuate an estimated 800 Jewish families from across Dagestan, many of them in the southern city of Derbent.
“The situation is very difficult in Dagestan. People from the community are afraid, they call, and I do not know what to advise,” Ovadya Isakov, a government representative of the local Jewish community, told the Podyom news outlet. “Is it worth leaving? Because Russia is not our salvation. There were pogroms in Russia too. It is unclear where to run.”
Prominent figures in Dagestan have spoken in support of Palestine and against the Israeli state since 7 October, when a Hamas raid sowed terror in southern Israel, killing more than 1,400. In response, the Israeli government has unleashed a bombing campaign against Gaza, killing an estimated 8,000 as of Sunday, according to local officials.
Khabib Nurmagomedov, a former mixed-martial arts champion and possibly the most famous figure in Dagestan, posted to more than 35 million followers on Instagram earlier this month that Israel was engaged in “genocide” in Gaza.
Reports of anti-Jewish acts were not confined to Makhachkala. In Nalchik, another city in the neighbouring Kabardino-Balkaria region, a planned Jewish centre was set on fire earlier on Sunday. Earlier on Sunday, protesters also besieged a hotel in the Dagestani city of Khasavyurt, searching rooms for “Jewish refugees”.
“We are receiving reports from 4 different cities in Dagestan … of mobs demanding to kill the Jews,” tweeted Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, a former chief rabbi of Moscow who left in 2022 after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “A direct result of the Russian government’s siding with Hamas in this conflict and lack of condemnation of the massacre of 7/10.”
A delegation from Hamas, the Palestinian organisation’s first high-profile international trip since the 7 October attacks, arrived in Moscow earlier this week for meetings with the Russian foreign ministry.
Commenting on the airport storming, Israel in a statement urged the Russian authorities to protect Israelis and Jews in their jurisdictions.
“The state of Israel views gravely attempts to harm Israeli citizens and Jews anywhere,” the foreign ministry in Jerusalem said. “Israel expects the Russian law enforcement authorities to safeguard all Israeli citizens and Jews.”
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