Modi visits Ramallah, backs independent Palestine state

Narendra Modi backs independent Palestinian state during first trip by an Indian prime minister to occupied territories.

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    Modi visits Ramallah, backs independent Palestine state
    Palestinian leaders have hailed the Indian Prime Minister's arrival to Ramallah as 'historic' [Mohamad Torokman/Reuters]

    Narendra Modi has arrived in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah on a landmark visit - the first ever by an Indian prime minister - that Palestinian leaders have hailed as "historic".

    After holding talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Modi said India hoped to see an "independent Palestinian state living in an environment of peace".

    Earlier he met Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and visited the Yasser Arafat Museum where he laid a wreath.

    In a Twitter post on Friday, Modi noted looking forward to "reaffirming our support for the Palestinian people and the development of Palestine".

    The official Palestinian news agency WAFA reported that the two leaders will discuss means of enhancing "bilateral relations", and are set to sign a memorandum of understanding.

    Experts say the visit is part of balancing Indian foreign policy in the Middle East.

    Prior to arriving at the occupied Palestinian territories, Modi met Jordan's King Abdullah II in Amman. He is scheduled to head to the UAE and Oman on Sunday, as part of his regional tour.

    According to Vijay Prashad, a US-based professor of International Studies, India's ties to Palestine remain contested.

    "There are external pressures on the government - especially from Arab states, which provide energy and jobs for India and Indians," Prashad told Al Jazeera.

    "India provides millions of dollars of project aid. Modi is in Palestine to inaugurate one such project," Prashad noted.

    "The visit shows that it will not be easy for an Indian government to ignore Palestine," he added.

    India-Israel ties

    The visit comes weeks after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concluded a six-day trip to India, vowing to "further cement the close friendship" between Israel and India. In July 2017, Modi and Netanyahu reignited their relationship when the former visited Tel Aviv to discuss issues related to economic development and defence.

    But the relationship between India and Palestine stems from deep-rooted ties, which date back to the 1970s, when India established relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) - now an umbrella of major Palestinian political parties.

    India had voted along with other Arab nations against the UN partition plan to divide Palestine into two states.

    According to Mazen Shamiyeh, a Palestinian foreign ministry official, India will likely assert its policy when it comes to the Middle East, particularly regarding the Palestinian cause.

    "[India] will stress its support for the two-state solution and a return to negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians," Shamiyeh told Al Jazeera.

    "India will present economic contributions to the Palestinian Authority that will be more than what it has offered in the previous years," he added.

    The approach is due to several reasons, says Shamiyeh, particularly India's ambition in becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

    "It is seeking the need to reform the international system and protecting international law," he explained, and for preserving its interests in the Arab world as well.

    'Striking a balance'

    While Israel and India established diplomatic relations in 1992, the warmer ties have become more visible since India's ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), came to power in 2014.

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    India is currently the biggest buyer of Israeli weaponry, spending an average $1bn annually on military equipment in recent years.

    Modi's right-wing government has been working to boost its relations with Israel giving rise to fears that it might abandon its support to the Palestinian cause.

    In December, however, India voted against the United States' decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel at the UN General Assembly, in a step that was in line with New Delhi's traditional support to Palestine.

    Shamiyeh views India's ties with Israel as a purely tactical one.

    "It [India] must strike a balance when it comes to dealing with both sides," he said.

    Historically, Palestine has been a major recipient of Indian aid since the 1990s.

    "Official statistics on this figure are difficult to trace, though the contribution is not likely to be very significant," journalist Sukumar Muralidharan, who has written extensively on India-Palestine relations, told Al Jazeera.

    "Aid for Palestine probably comes out of the residual category of 'other countries', which involves a total amount of about $25 million," Muralidharan explained.

    "The volume of the contribution is minuscule when assessed against India's purchase of Israeli military hardware," he added.

    In 2016, India established an IT hub in Ramallah by providing a $12m grant. And today, Modi's visit is expected to end with a deal enhancing the Palestinian health sector.

    'Symbolic' visit

    Muralidharan noted the last two meetings between Modi and Netanyahu have overturned precedent dating back to 1992, and may have shifted the balance "too far" in Israel's favour.

    "Foreign policy has its own institutional momentum in India and Modi's visit to the Palestinian territories may be an effort to restore older principles before they are seen as irreparably damaged," he said, describing the visit as one that is "mostly symbolic".

    Apoorva Gautam, South Asia Coordinator at the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), says the real support for Palestine lies with the Indian people.

    "India under Modi has become Israel's best friend. The current Indian and Israeli governments share a common political vision of repression, exclusion and a blatant disregard of human rights," Gautam told Al Jazeera.

    "The real support for Palestine lies with the Indian people, which is now taking the form of steadily growing BDS initiatives," she said.

    Established in 2005, BDS is a grassroots movement calling for a boycott of Israeli goods, divestment from Israeli firms operating in occupied territories and imposition of sanctions in order to pressure the Israelis to prevent human rights abuses against Palestinians.

    The movement accuses Israel of imposing apartheid-like conditions on Palestinians and building illegal settlements on private Palestinian land in contravention of international laws.

    "Relations with the occupier and occupied, the coloniser and colonised, cannot be neutral," Gautam from BDS said.

    "And India, under Modi, has become Israel's best friend."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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