On October 7, 2023, militants led by the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) within the Palestinian territory of Gaza launched a series of coordinated attacks on southern Israel, resulting in the deaths and abductions of hundreds of Israeli civilians. Israel has responded to these attacks by declaring a state of war, marking the latest major engagement between Israel and Hamas since the May 2021 crisis and the largest military escalation since the 1967 Yom Kippur War. The Israeli military’s intensive aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip has led to over 10,000 Palestinians killed, as well as a shortage of electricity, food, drinking water, fuel and medical services across the territory. Around the globe, there has been heavy condemnation of perceived war crimes committed by both Hamas and the Israeli military, as well as calls for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. Government response has been mixed, with Western countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Australia declaring support for Israel, and many Islamic and Arab nations such as Iran, Qatar, Turkey and Lebanon sympathizing with the Palestinian people. 

When it comes to foreign relationships, China finds itself in a uniquely delicate position as a nation actively seeking ties and trade relations with Western countries while also attempting to maintain the image of an ally to the Global South. These two goals have come head to head in this ongoing conflict; on one hand, China and Israel have sought closer diplomatic and economic ties since the 1990s, but on the other, China has vocally supported Palestinian freedom since the Maoist era. China also remains on friendly terms with Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran, nations that historically have had fraught relations with Israel. China has reconciled these conflicting interests by supporting a two-state solution that advocates for an independent Palestinian state alongside an independent Israeli state. 

These recent weeks of unprecedented violence between the Israeli and Palestinian people have once again forced China to walk this diplomatic tightrope. Straying away from statements of explicit support for either side, China has adopted the role as a conflict mediator seeking peace above all else. While universally condemning civilian casualties after October 7, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning criticized “moves that escalate the conflict and destabilize the region” and urged the international community to “to restart the peace talks, implement the two-state solution and at an early date so as to take care of each party’s legitimate concerns.”

While China maintained a sympathetic attitude towards both Israeli and Palestinian civilians, some pro-Israel officials remained unsatisfied. “When people are being murdered, slaughtered in the streets, this is not the time to call for a two-state solution,” Yuval Waks, senior official at the Israeli Embassy in Beijing, said in a Reuters report. China also has yet to directly condemn Hamas, despite three Chinese nationals having been confirmed killed in the attacks of October 7. When asked about the militant group, the foreign minister spokesperson stated that China wished for peace and reconciliation among Palestinians, but “the pressing priority now is to end the fighting as soon as possible, and all parties should abide by international humanitarian law and protect civilians.” 

Although China’s remarks on the hostilities between Israeli and Palestinian forces remained inoffensive and vague, it has been firm in its disapproval of the United States’ response to the worsening situation. Chinese media has frequently condemned President Joe Biden’s outpouring of military aid to Israel, seeing it as gratuitous and a barrier to establishing stability in the land. “Israel already outweighs Palestine in terms of military might; if the US wants peace, it should take actions to calm down the situation, instead of giving one-sided support to Israel,” said Tian Wenlin, a research fellow at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, in a statement to Chinese news outlet Global Times. This action is also indicative of the United States’ failed Middle East policy according to Chinese observers, being labeled as a flimsy effort to “assert influence in the Middle East to maintain its hegemony” despite its “wrong-footed status” in the region.

The NYU Shanghai community has made efforts to foster dialogue on this difficult topic. The Diversity, Equity and Education department and Student Government jointly hosted opportunities for the student body to engage in healthy civil discourse over the past couple weeks. These conversations provided student attendees a space to unpack the wider historical and cultural context of the situation while also allowing us to express our various thoughts and opinions. As a Sino-American research institution, we remain an integral space for discussing complex geopolitical issues and their relationship to China. While the decisions of the Chinese, American, Israeli, and Palestinian governments are all beyond the scope of what NYU Shanghai students and faculty are capable of influencing, our ongoing discussions can hopefully encourage cross-cultural dialogue and communication in these times of crisis.