Israel has faced global condemnation for its actions in occupied East Jerusalem and continued bombing of the Gaza Strip, but it has found support in India where pro-government activists have thrown their weight behind Israel, with some defending its policy against Palestinians.
Hashtags such as #ISupportIsrael, #IndiaWithIsrael, #IndiaStandsWithIsrael and #IsrealUnderFire have trended on Indian social media over the past week, many calling Palestinians “terrorists” – a term used by Israel for Palestinian resistance groups. On Saturday night, #PalestineTerrorists was one of the top trends on Twitter in the South Asian nation.
At least 212 Palestinians, including 61 children, have been killed and more than 1,000 others wounded in one week of intense Israeli air attacks in besieged Gaza – home to 2 million people. In the occupied West Bank, Israeli forces have killed at least 19 Palestinians protesting against the forced expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes.
At least 10 Israelis have also been killed in rockets fired by Hamas fighters from Gaza.
Thank you for this show of solidarity. Even more powerful in light of Hindutva enthusiasts cheering on Israel’s genocidal campaign bc they see a model for Hindu supremacist sovereignty in it. #Solidarity #GazaUnderAttack #SaveSheikhJarrrah #Haifa #Lydd #Palestinians #Freedom https://t.co/Bxv3yAZXNe
— Noura Erakat (@4noura) May 17, 2021
Support for Israel has been amplified on social media, particularly Twitter and Instagram, by top members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), lawyers and journalists among others.
On May 12, BJP Member of Parliament Tejasvi Surya, known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric, wrote on twitter: “We are with you. Stay strong, Israel.”
His tweet, in response to a post by Israel’s foreign ministry, was liked nearly 50,000 times and retweeted nearly 13,000 times.
‘Visceral hatred for Muslims’
BJP spokesman from the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, Gaurav Goel, has been regularly tweeting in support of Israel. On Friday he tweeted a picture of Israeli forces, writing: “Dear Israelis, you are not alone, we Indians stand strongly with you.” It was liked 3,600 times.
Hardik Bhavsar, a Twitter user followed by 134,000 people including Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Shah, on Saturday shared a video of a high-rise tower that hosted media offices, including Al Jazeera and Associated Press, destroyed in Israeli bombardment.
“Happy Dipawali liberals. #IndiaStandWithIsrael,” he tweeted mocking liberal Indians who oppose Israeli militarism, referring to Dipawali, the Hindu festival of lights. It was liked nearly 3,000 times.
I reiterate India’s strong support to the just Palestinian cause and its unwavering commitment to the two-state solution.
Indian journalist and writer Rana Ayyub on Sunday wrote that while checking most of the #IndiaStandWithIsrael tweet handles, a common thread that runs through is a “visceral hatred for Muslims and a bloodlust to see Muslims massacred and shown their place”.
“Most handles [are] followed by one or more BJP minister[s] or the PM himself,” she added.
Srinivas Kodali, a writer and researcher working on data, governance and internet, told Al Jazeera there is a section of polarised Hindutva (Hindu-ness) groups who support Israel’s actions against Palestine purely because Muslims are being persecuted.
“It is their hate towards Muslims that is making them cheer Israel’s actions,” he said.
India’s historic support of Palestine
India has historically supported Palestinian self-determination as part of its anti-colonial solidarity following its independence from British rule in 1947.
The country was the first non-Arab country to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”. A PLO office was set up in New Delhi in 1975.
India issued a commemorative postage stamp on November 29, 1981, to mark the international day of solidarity with the Palestinian people.
The evolution of India’s Palestine policy goes back to pre-independence days when Indian nationalists looked upon Palestinians as fellow “brothers-in-bondage”.
India’s freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi famously said in 1938, “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French.”
This is a call out:
More Indians, both in India & the diaspora, must speak out in support of Palestine.
This is a liberation struggle that you must support, especially as the connections Modi & Netanyahu and Hindutva nationalism & Zionism, continue to deepen.
— Arjun Sethi (@arjunsethi81) May 17, 2021
The South Asian nation recognised Israel in 1950 but established diplomatic relations only in 1992. Since then, ties have grown by leaps and bounds, with defence becoming their main pillar. India is currently Israel’s biggest defence buyer, accounting for 46 percent of Israel’s arms exports.
India and Israel’s ties have strengthened significantly in recent decades, especially under Prime Minister Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu. In July 2017, Modi, who counts Netanyahu among his “friends”, became the first-ever Indian prime minister to visit Israel.
“India’s policy [towards Israel] shifted in 1991. It had to do with the eagerness to be a subordinate ally of the US,” said Vijay Parshad, editor of Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation.
Parshad said while the Indian ruling class – wider than the BJP – supports Israel, the general sentiment is not so clear. “India’s close ties with the Gulf prevent a Brazil-style pivot. However, as the UAE normalised [ties with Israel], that restraint will be removed.”
Betrayal of India’s freedom struggle
Githa Hariharan, author of several books, including In Times of Siege and The Thousand Faces Of Night, told Al Jazeera that this kind of support for Israel has been building up over time with a common world view and agenda of both Zionism and Hindutva – the Hindu first.
“While the relations with Israel opened up before the BJP came to power, but it has become closer since then. Brand Israel seems to suit the powers that be in India at the moment,” said Hariharan, who is associated with the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) – 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 Israel to stop human rights abuses against Palestinians.
Hariharan sees it as a betrayal of how India’s freedom fighters of the past envisioned India would take its place in the world, maintaining an anti-colonial stance.
“India has somehow got into this matrix of Israel and the United States. There is a problem with the foreign policy. You cannot have a post-colonial country with a history of a freedom struggle like ours creating a foreign policy which actually works with occupiers, those who broke international law, those who commit crimes against humanity,” she said.
On Monday, academics, activists and writers, including Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy, issued a statement in solidarity with Palestine.
“We stand with the Palestinians, stand with the right to a homeland, their right to return to their home, and their right to resist the occupation.
“Our reaction to the terrible violence against the Palestinians is shaped by our reading of the United Nations General Assembly resolution 1514 (1960), ‘The process of liberation is irresistible and irreversible and,… in order to avoid serious crises, an end must be put to colonialism and all practices of segregation and discrimination associated therewith.'”
India still backs the Palestinian cause at the UN
At the UN, New Delhi has largely continued with its decades-old policy on Palestine, backing the two-state solution and the maintenance of the status quo in occupied East Jerusalem.
On Sunday, India called for an immediate de-escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian situation and spoke against a unilateral change of the status quo, including in occupied East Jerusalem. The current protests started after Israel wanted to forcefully expel Palestinians from East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.
— India at UN, NY (@IndiaUNNewYork) May 16, 2021
“I reiterate India’s strong support to the just Palestinian cause and its unwavering commitment to the two-state solution,” India’s permanent representative to the United Nations TS Tirumurti told a virtual United Nations Security Council meeting.
But the Indian stand at the UNSC came in for criticism from many government supporters with a Twitter user calling it “shameful diplomacy. Spineless act by our govt.”
Many others backed India’s position, saying diplomacy was the only option to solve the Israel-Palestine issue.
Senior Communist leader Sitaram Yechury said India’s official policy continues to support a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and strict implementation of the UN resolutions on the occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel.
“This remains our official policy to date. This is the traditional time-tested, accepted foreign policy position of India. This cuts across all political parties in the past,” Yechury, General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told Al Jazeera.
Yechury however, accused the Indian government of “favouring the Israelis and not taking a balanced position”.
Despite repeated attempts, a BJP spokesperson could not be reached for comment.