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India's 'balancing act' on Gaza crisis

India's policy of equidistance between Israel and Palestine faces criticism amid mounting death toll in Gaza.

Last updated: 27 Jul 2014 14:03
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The death toll in Gaza has topped 1,000 and the majority of those killed are civilians [EPA]

India's opposition parties walked out of the upper house of parliament last week after the government refused to pass a resolution condemning Israel for its invasion of the Gaza Strip.

The government, led by nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), came in for criticism for acting as a "spectator" even as hundreds of Palestinians are being killed in Israeli air, naval, and ground attacks.

But Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said that India's policy on Palestine was a legacy of the past governments.

"There is absolutely no change in India's policy towards Palestine, which is that we fully support the Palestinian cause while maintaining good relations with Israel," the minister said.

My sense is that even if the UPA [the last Congress-led government] had been in power, India would not have hastily 'condemned' Israel.

C Uday Bhaskar, Analyst

The foreign minister has said that India has diplomatic ties with both nations and "any discourteous reference can impact our relations with them". Instead, the government has backed the Egyptian ceasefire offer.

C Uday Bhaskar, a foreign policy expert, said India was "seeking to find a balance between Israel and Palestine" adding that to "condemn would not be the appropriate choice of word".

He said that there was no "major policy shift in not using the word 'condemn'".

"My sense is that even if the UPA [the last Congress-led government] had been in power, India would not have hastily 'condemned' Israel," he told Al Jazeera.

Diluted stand?

But others feel India's stand on Palestine has diluted.

"The current government has diluted its stand on Palestine by maintaining equidistance," said Dr Harsh Dobhal, editor of Combat Law journal.

"The government's policy of maintain equidistance in my opinion is not proper because Israel and Palestine cannot be treated at par. Israel is an occupier and Palestine is occupied."

Unlike other parts of the world, there were no demonstrations in India against the Israeli invasion of Gaza, barring some small protests led by students outside the Israeli embassy in New Delhi.

"We believe that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is completely illegal and its Gaza offensive tantamount to war crimes which needs to be condemned,” Om, a student and one of the New Delhi protest organisers, told Al Jazeera.

"India had always taken up the anti-colonial struggles, if we look back to history, but unfortunately today, India is betraying that history. Our protests outside the Israel embassy were broken by the police. 

We had already informed the police, yet we were dragged, beaten up. Even women protesters were not spared."

Ever since India's first official reaction came out, officials from both Palestine and Israel have visited the external affairs ministry in New Delhi.

A few days ago, Israel's new ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon, met officials of India's foreign ministry. This was preceded by the visit of a top Palestinian official, which the consular sources confirm, was meant for lobbying purposes and to seek India's backing on the current crisis.

But what has caused a shift in India's policy from what was once uncompromising support for the Palestinians' cause, to strong ties with Israel?

"BJP wants a closer relationship with Israel. First of all, ideologically they are closer to each other. Secondly on terrorism issues, both countries are learning from each other and Israel has been forthcoming in giving advice to India.

Thirdly, the new government feels the Arabs have not been forthcoming to India’s concern on some major issues,” Professor AK Pasha, an author and expert on Middle East, told Al Jazeera.

But Tarun Vijay, a top BJP leader, said that India was "keeping the spirit of friendship between both Israel and Palestine intact".

"We have raised a voice against any kind of violence and we want both sides to talk to each other," Vijay told Al Jazeera by phone.

He said that "terrorism on the Israeli border and attacks on Palestinians should stop".


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The death toll in Gaza has topped 1,000 and the majority of those killed are civilians, including women and children. Another 6,000 have been wounded in the Israeli offensive that began on July 8 after three Israeli teenage settlers were kidnapped and later found dead.

"Are we punishing all the Palestinians for what Hamas, which is being termed a terrorist organisation by Israel and maybe by some other countries? Are we saying that people who voted for Hamas in 2006 are also Hamas members?" asked Dobhal.

On social media, however, India's predicament over which side to support was further enhanced by the trending #IndiaWithIsrael hashtag, used by thousands that voiced their support for Israel.

The government's policy of maintain equidistance in my opinion is not proper because Israel and Palestine cannot be treated at par. Israel is an occupier and Palestine is occupied.

Dr Harsh Dobhal, Editor, Combat Law

Reportedly initiated by the group Hindus United for Israel, it called for Indians not to forget that "it was Israel and not Palestine that stood with us in 1971 and 1999 war against Pakistan".

Indian author Chetan Bhagat created another fury among netizens after his post, "What is happening to Gaza isn't fair but sadly that is the only way sometimes terrorist organisations and their supporters learn to behave (sic)" targeted Hamas.

Others posted a 1981 mail stamp that said "India supports inalienable rights of the Palestinians people," and three decades later New Delhi has become "one of the most pro-Israel nations."

Pro-Palestine to Pro-Israel

India's support to Palestine has a history.

India was one of the first nations to recognise Palestine's cause and it was the first non-Arab state to recognise the Palestinian Liberation Organisation as the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in 1974.

Mahatma Gandhi, freedom fighter and father of the nation, backed the Palestinians in a piece he wrote in 1938 insisting that "It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs". Eleven years later in 1949, India voted against Israel's induction into the United Nations.

After decades of pro-Arab policy, the formal beginning of the diplomatic ties, however, came in 1992, immediately after armed rebellion in disputed Kashmir, backed by Pakistan, picked up pace.

But the war in the mountains of Kargil between Pakistan and India in 1999 was the final period that sowed the seeds of trust between New Delhi and Tel Aviv.

In a 2003 interview to India Abroad, Jason F Isaacson, International Affairs Director of the American Jewish Committee said the "Israeli involvement, the help that Israel was really able to give to India at the time of the Kargil crisis as a friend and ally, had not taken place before."

Tel Aviv had offered unmanned reconnaissance in the battle zone high up in the Kashmir peaks to help India - its undeclared war ally - boost war efforts which a top Indian air force official in 2007 maintained was "one force multiplication Pakistan had not reckoned with".

Military interests

In the last two decades, defence and economic interests has transformed Indo-Israel ties. The bilateral arms trade in the past decade was estimated at $10bn, with India becoming the largest buyer of Israeli defence equipment

"India has a right to have a position on the Israeli-Palestinian subject, which is not the only one, but just one of the many bilateral subjects between us," Israeli's Indian embassy spokesperson, Ohad Horsandi, told Al Jazeera.

India should have realised that we get the bulk of our energy from the Arab world, millions of Indians work in Middle East and they send billions in remittances. All these things should have been kept in mind.

Professor A K Pasha, Expert on Middle East issues

"India and Israel share a lot of challenges particularly the threat of terror. Both countries are facing threats from organisations like Hamas, ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Lashkar-e-Toiba."

But experts have warned against defining interests in purely military terms.

"India should have realised that we get the bulk of our energy from the Arab world, millions of Indians work in Middle East and they send billions in remittances. All these things should have been kept in mind," said professor A K Pasha, the former chairman and director of the Gulf Studies Programme, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

"The deviation of India's policy is going to have adverse effects both domestically and overseas."

New Delhi has not tried to equate Hamas, the democratically elected Palestinian faction in Gaza, with other rebel groups in the region. In fact, New Delhi has been supportive of the unity government between Hamas and Fatah factions in Palestine.

On Wednesday, India, voted against Israel at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva citing the "steep escalation of violence" in another aspect of its relations with Israel, which Bhaskar believes "has necessitated a nuancing of India's policy towards Palestine."

"And let us not forget that Hamas is seen as an organisation that supports terrorism as a means and that it is committed to the destruction of Israel - let alone not even recognising the Jewish state. So from the Indian perspective, there is no black and white choice."

Saif Khalid contributed to this report.

Follow Baba Umar on Twitter @BabaUmarr

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Al Jazeera
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