Indo-Palestine Relations – An Appraisal

“Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs.” This statement, written by Mahatma Gandhi in 1938, captures the essence of India’s policy towards Israel and Palestine over the next five decades. In India’s perspective, Zionism was seen as a settler-colonialist movement and the Arabs as the hapless indigenous people resisting European colonisation of their homeland. This view was heavily influenced by India’s own status as a colony of Great Britain and the popular movement for independence that was raging in full swing. Their dislike for imperialism made the national leaders instinctively averse to any form of colonisation in any part of the world. This anti-colonialist stance led them to identify themselves with the plight of Palestinian Arabs and see the Jews as the aggressor.

This way of thinking continued to shape Indian policies towards the Arab-Israeli conflict even after the country became independent. India voted against the Partition Plan proposed by the UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) in November 1947. Even though India recognised Israel in 1950, it was not until 1992 that formal diplomatic relations were established. While New Delhi stopped short of condemning Russia’s brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, it denounced the invasion of the Suez Canal by the UK, France and Israel.

On the other hand, India was the first non-Arab country to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the legitimate and sole representative of the Palestininan people in 1974. It maintained cordial relations with the Palestinian leadership and continued its unwavering support for their struggle.

However, with the end of the cold war and the collapse of the USSR, India assessed its relations with states and injected a measure of pragmatism to its foreign policy. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao established formal diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. That move set in motion the process of decoupling of India’s relations with Israel and Palestine. It was believed until then in New Delhi that one could not adequately champion the Palestinian cause while maintaining formal relations with Tel Aviv. This idea was upended and India started to deal with Israel and Palestine as two separate entities. In fact when Yasser Arafat was questioned during his visit to India in 1992 regarding Delhi’s exchange of Ambassadors with Tel Aviv, he said ‘Exchange of Ambassadors and recognition (of Israel) are acts of sovereignty in which I cannot interfere. I respect any choice of the Indian government.’

Over time, espousal of Palestinian self-determination slipped from an article of faith for India to a mere relic of the past. As relations improved with Israel, India’s support for Palestine in platforms such as the United Nations began to ring hollow. India increasingly resembled the Gulf States who maintain amiable relations with Tel Aviv but also pay lip service to the Palestinian cause. The only difference was that India’s relationship was open, whereas the UAE and Saudi Arabia had to keep their ties with the ‘Zionist entity’ away from public attention.

The camaraderie between India and Israel was furthered in the late 1990s in the wake of the Kargil War between India and Pakistan. Relations were expanded especially in the realm of defence and security. Currently, Israel is the second largest source of defence equipment for India, after Delhi’s long-standing friend Russia.

Bilateral Relations in the New Millennium

It is at this background that India’s ties with Palestine since 2006 must be situated. Given the greater cooperation between India and Israel over the past three decades, how has Delhi fared in balancing its relations between Tel Aviv and Ramallah? Has India wavered in its support for a ‘sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine living within secure and recognized borders, side by side and at peace with Israel?’

The answer is yes and no. India’s strategy has been to endorse the rights of Palestinians in international fora while not letting it affect its ties with Tel Aviv. This attempt by India to conceal its preference for pragmatism over faith in the cause of self-determination for Palestinians might seem disingenuous at first. However, why should India truly care about Ramallah while the Arab states that went to war with Israel over Palestine cosy up to their former nemesis?

Nevertheless, India has found its own means and ways to demonstrate that it has left the Palestinians in the lurch. Delhi opened its representative office in Gaza in 1996 following the declaration of principles (Dop) between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in 1993. This office was shifted to Ramallah in 2003. India also built the Palestinian embassy in New Delhi as a gesture of goodwill. Economic largesse has also been deployed to secure India’s long-standing ties with Palestine. The Ministry of External Affairs states that, ‘over the years, India has also provided US $ 30 million as budgetary support for Palestine.’

A combination of favourable votes in the UN, official bilateral visits, meetings of heads of states in the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and a measure of economic generosity has defined India’s endeavour to preserve its relations with Palestine. This equilibrium is under strain now due to the division in the Palestinian leadership. With Hamas’s control of Gaza and Fatah’s domination of the West Bank complete by 2007, India finds itself in a quandary.

India welcomed the results of the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 by noting that: ‘The wide and enthusiastic participation of the Palestinian people in these elections and the peaceful nature of the polling are most encouraging.’ The statement continued, ‘We hope that the new Government representing the will of the Palestinian people will continue to pursue the path of peaceful negotiations, leading to the establishment of a viable, united and sovereign State of Palestine living in peaceful coexistence with the State of Israel.’

These hopes were dashed due to the irreconcilable rivalry between Hamas and Fatah and India’s dream of a ‘united’ Palestine at peace with Israel is more elusive than ever.

Due to its own difficulty in grappling with the turmoil in Kashmir, India has always been wary of militant-Islamist groups. This attitude was reflected in Afghanistan where Delhi lent its support to Hamid Karzai’s government and had not even established links to confer directly with the Taliban. For good measure, for all its pro-Palestinian stance for the past seven decades, India has never questioned the right of the state of Israel to exist. It has consistently voiced its support for a negotiated peace deal. However, the founding ideal of Hamas is to wipe Israel off the map. All these factors make it seem as though it would be anathema for India to choose Hamas’s side in the intra-Palestinian conflict.

To an extent, that is true. India does not have formal relations with Hamas and all its aid to the Palestinians go to the West Bank, ruled by the PNA. As David Malone writes in his book Does the Elephant Dance?, ‘…to the extent that Hamas casts itself as opposed to peace negotiations with Israel, Delhi will inevitably prefer the more flexible leadership of the Palestinian authority in Ramallah, led by Mahmoud Abbas.’ An American foreign policy document leaked by Wikileaks noted that ‘…while India opposes Hamas’ radical ideology, the GOI puts a high value on being seen to support the legitimately elected Palestinian government.’

Having said that, it must be noted that India has not been hostile to Hamas over the years. The paper Indian responses to Israel’s Gaza operations shows how India reacted to military exchanges between Israel and Hamas from 2008 to 2014. When Israel launched Operation Cast Lead to counter Hamas’s bombardment of Israel in 2008, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs called for ‘an immediate end to the use of force against Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip that has resulted in large numbers of casualties.’ Whereas the statement only acknowledged Hamas’s aggression by noting that India was ‘aware of the immediate cross-border provocations resulting from rocket attacks particularly against targets in southern Israel.’ As the Wikileaks document put it, ‘We should not expect any public courage from India anytime soon when it comes to condemning Hamas or reacting on Olmert’s recent victory. Pragmatism trumps moral clarity in Delhi’s Middle East policy.’

In the meantime, India has expressed its interest in a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. In the wake of the formation of a unity government in Palestine, India’s official spokesperson put out the following statement, ‘India supports the formation of the Unity Government of Fatah and Hamas, led by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. This is in keeping with India’s stance of supporting the reconciliation efforts between the West Bank and Gaza, key to a sustainable Palestinian State.’

Repeated failures in the reconciliation efforts between the two Palestinian factions would only lead to a closer bond between India and Israel. The current dispensation in India aims to take its relationship with Israel beyond military and security ties.

India Warming Up with Israel?

The current BJP-led government has a history of clamouring for adopting a line in the Arab-Israeli conflict favourable to Israel. The party has long admired the history of Zionism, and the current Israeli Prime Minister’s reputation as a hardliner is probably bringing ideological affinity between the two nations, which might prompt India to jettison its support for Palestinian rights. Strikingly, the American-Indian organisation that celebrated the construction of the Ram Temple earlier this month is named American Indian Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), taking its cues after the popular Israeli lobbying group in Washington, American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). With the BJP having won a huge mandate in the general elections of 2019, it can be expected that Indo-Israeli relations will improve as Indo-Palestinian ties wither on the vine.

This shift in policy is already underway and can be witnessed in the notable change in India’s stance in the UN. In March 2019, India abstained from a vote in the UN Human Rights Commission condemning Israel for violence in Gaza. The shift in India’s Israel policy might end up ultimately favouring Israel leaving the Palestinians to fend for themselves. However, the BJP-led government would not go so far as to withdraw support entirely from Palestinians as it has the burden of history on its shoulders. Instead, India has decoupled its relations with Israel and Palestine. ‘Decoupling’ essentially means warming up to Israel and leaving Palestine to fend for itself in its dispute with Israel. This policy would take shape and attain a clear form in the next few years. Given the pathetic predicament of the opposition in India, this policy is likely to continue for several years into the future.

-Prasanna Aditya (Freelancer)

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