India Walks A Tightrope On Gaza Conflict
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India Walks A Tightrope On Gaza Conflict

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An Israeli attack gunship flying over Gaza during a anti-terror operation

At the centre of the latest fighting is the divided city of Jerusalem, which is among the holiest places for all three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Alleged desecration of the Al Aqsa mosque and plans by new Jewish settlers to evict Palestinians from East Jerusalem triggered a rocket barrage towards Israel from Gaza. Hence, the Hamas is describing it as ‘defence of Jerusalem’.

It does not augur well for peace that three days after a ceasefire was brokered to end 11 days of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza, both sides may be said to have achieved victory in the conflict. The short war was inconclusive. In coronavirus terms — which is a marker for most things these days — the fighting destroyed the only facility in Gaza undertaking coronavirus tests for the small coastal territory of two million Palestinians. Thirty health facilities in Gaza were crippled in the fighting, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and testing for Covid-19 has been halted.

But the Hamas, which rules Gaza, is unbowed. Despite losing 243 of its people, at least 100 of them women and children, damage to Gaza’s near non-existent infrastructure and facing a continued blockade from both Israel and Egypt, Gazans quickly returned to what has been their ‘normal’ life as they live from one fight to another.

In their third war with Israel since Hamas broke away in 2007 from the widely recognised “State of Palestine”, now confined to the West Bank, 4,300 rockets rained on Israel since May 10. Some of these reached Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for the first time, but both cities were protected by the “Iron Dome”, Israel’s durable missile shield. It is the increasing capability of Hamas to strike farther and farther into Israel with each conflict that makes Palestinians claim victory in the latest war.

Israel, of course, has such overwhelming strength in entire West Asia that it is capable of overrunning all of Palestine by ground invasion, attempted successfully several times in the past. Its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, praised the Iron Dome and said a ground invasion was not necessary to protect Israel this time. All the same, Israel’s Air Force conducted several hundred bombing raids and claimed that 1,600 military targets in Gaza were destroyed. Israel is also claiming victory as the rationale for a ceasefire.

At the centre of the latest fighting is the divided city of Jerusalem, which is among the holiest places for all three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Alleged desecration of the Al Aqsa mosque and plans by new Jewish settlers to evict Palestinians from East Jerusalem triggered a rocket barrage towards Israel from Gaza this time. Hence, the Hamas is describing the latest war as “defence of Jerusalem”.

India explicitly referred to this root cause in two statements last week — one to the United Nations Security Council and another to the General Assembly + by its Permanent Representative in New York, TS Tirumurti. This is India’s first major West Asian diplomatic challenge since the country became a member of the Security Council on January 1.

However, deluged by the tweets, statements, counter-statements and press conferences through most of last week after Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal invented a Singapore strain of the Coronavirus, India’s foreign policy enthusiasts largely missed a fine balancing act by their country’s diplomats in the national capital, New York and in West Asia.

That India’s stand on the latest round of violence between Israel and Palestinians left neither side entirely happy is proof of its correctness and its impact. For most of the seven decades since India’s independence, New Delhi’s stance on the Arab-Israeli conflicts was one-sided. It inevitably made Israel very unhappy every time such a stand was articulated, while the Palestinians were ecstatic. In transactional terms, India got nothing out of this policy. That has changed in recent years.

What last week saw, however, was a contradiction between bilateralism and multilateralism in India’s West Asia policy. Bilaterally, one of India’s most important relationships is now with Israel. It spans national security, defence purchases, irrigation, high technology, and most recently, jointly fighting Covid-19. But when Tirumurti made his two statements at the UN, this close relationship did not influence those statements. Instead, he commendably inserted a national element into what is at stake in Jerusalem. “Jerusalem has a special place in the hearts of millions of Indians, who visit the city every year. It also houses the Al Zawiyya Al Hindiyya — the Indian Hospice, which is a historic place associated with a great Indian Sufi saint, Baba Farid, and located inside the Old City. India has restored this Indian Hospice. The historic status quo at the holy places of Jerusalem, including the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, must be respected.”

Tirumurti’s harsh criticism was also directed at Hamas. “We condemn the indiscriminate rocket firings from Gaza into Israel, which have caused deaths of a number of civilians.”

National interest was again reiterated. “India has also tragically lost one of its nationals during this rocket fire — a caregiver living in Ashkelon in Israel… We deeply mourn the loss of the lives of innocent civilians, including the Indian national, in the current cycle of violence. We reiterate our strong condemnation of all acts of provocation, violence and destruction.”

Tirumurti’s statements were not off-the-cuff. A fly on the wall in South Block, seat of the Ministry of External Affairs, said several drafts went back and forth between New York and New Delhi. The Prime Minister personally authorised the final statements. It is necessary to underline this, lest an army of trolls, self-styled Indian supporters of Israel, go after the public face of Indian representation at the UN.

Israel, of course, would have preferred India to wholly support it against Hamas. But they will understand India’s compulsions. The Palestinians also know that India has much at stake bilaterally with Israel, although they too would have preferred the pre-Narasimha Rao line of all out support for them. Palestinians also know that when they desperately needed help after the United States under Donald Trump and Canada under Stephen Harper cut all aid, Narendra Modi was there for them. In 2018, one month after Modi visited Palestine, he increased four-fold India’s contribution to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

India’s recent policy of separating its bilateral interests from the multilateral outlook on West Asia deserves praise. Threats to such innovation come not from direct stakeholders Israel or Palestine, but from irrational supporters of Israel within India’s ruling party, who are fortunately not decision-makers, and fail to understand the nuances behind South Block’s considered views on West Asia.

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