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Unambiguous on terror, principled on Palestine

Within hours of the Hamas terror attack on Israel, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “Deeply shocked by the news of terrorist attacks in Israel. Our thoughts and prayers are with the innocent victims and their families. We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour.” This was even as Israel itself was coming to terms with the attack, and before it began its retaliation. However, this statement was construed as ashiftin India’s policy towards Israel and Palestine.

There is no evidence of change in India’s position on Palestine. It has made a distinction between Hamas and the Palestinian people. It has conveyed clarity on one of its core security issues of terrorism. Also, it points to Delhi’s strategic assessment of the fallout of the conflict.

As a result, India has taken a firm and unambiguous stand on terrorism.India rightly expressed solidarity with Israel in its gravest moment in recent history. As a victim of Pakistani terrorism for decades, India can feel Israel’s pain. The memories of 26/11 are unforgettable. This attack on Israel was far bigger in magnitude and cruelty.

Four days after PM Modi tweeted, the Ministry of External AffairsreiteratedIndia’s stand on terrorism and also said, “There is also a global responsibility to fight the menace of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.” Subsequently, following a phone call with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, PM Modi once again tweeted India’s solidarity with Israel, condemningterrorism in all forms and manifestations.India uses this line in all its bilateral and multilateral statements, including in the Quad. India repeatedly raises the issue of terrorism at the UN and other multilateral forums and calls for a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.

With the unambiguous stand on a terrorist act on Israel, India is messaging Pakistan, and China which backs Pakistani terrorists in the UN by blocking sanctions. As also the West, and Canada in particular, with India accusing Ottawa of providing a haven to Khalistani terrorists.

Secondly, supporting Israel’s right to self-defence is in India’s interests.As Israel continues to bomb Gaza and prepares for a ground invasion, India has not called for restraint or ceasefire. However, it has said there is a universal obligation to observe international humanitarian law and expressed concern about civilian casualties.

It indicates India’s approval of Israel’s right to defend itself. Even in 2021, India had condemned Hamas rocket attacks on Israel while “noting” Israel’s retaliation.

This position is in India’s interests as it has also exercised the use of force in retaliation for terror attacks — the surgical strike in 2016 and the Balakot airstrike in 2019. India also does not want to eschew the option of ground operations. It came close to one after the Parliament attack in 2001 when it mobilised troops on the border. Delhi will seek international support if such an eventuality arises from a major terror attack by Pakistan.

Thirdly, India also demonstrated support for a Palestine State and for the Palestinian Authority as the sole representative of the Palestinians. TheMEA reaffirmed India’s “longstanding” and “consistent” policy on Palestine, advocating “resumption of direct negotiations towards establishing a sovereign, independent, and viable State of Palestine, living within secure and recognised borders side by side at peace with Israel.” PM Modi repeated this during his call with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. It would have not only reassured the Palestinians but also the Arab world.

Modi called Abbas to condole the deaths in the Gaza hospital explosion and reaffirmed India’s “principled position” on the Israel-Palestine issue. He also committed to providing humanitarian assistance, the first lot of which has already been delivered. This reaffirmed India’s recognition of the Palestine Authority as the sole representative of the Palestinians. Modi visited Ramallah in the PA-ruled West Bank in 2018, the first Indian Prime Minister to do so. India has not recognised Hamas although it has governed Gaza since 2006.

Fourthly, India did not bandwagon against Israel, its important strategic partner.India showed solidarity with Israel on the terror attack and has not cautioned it against retaliation, even as calls against it have grown. After the explosion in the Al Ahli hospital in Gaza, which unfortunately claimed a lot of lives, Modi condoled the deaths but did not assign any blame as to who was responsible as clear information was lacking, even as several global media attributed it to Israel. This led to widespread condemnation of Israel worldwide. India not only did not bandwagon against Israel but put itself on the same page as the US and its allies, who have had concerns over India’s position on Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Fifthly,India has probably assessed that it can confidently state its position owing to the current geopolitical trends. Before the conflict started, the Arabs sought to normalise ties with Israel. The Abraham Accords brought the UAE and Bahrain close to Israel and the other signatories. Their statements have been nuanced andcondemnedHamas. Saudi Arabia was reportedly ready to normalise ties with Israel without thepreconditionof a Palestinian State, in return for US security guarantees and help with starting a civilian nuclear programme. In fact, one of the objectives of the terror attack by Iran-backed Hamas could be to nix this. The Saudis have put the process on hold, not scrapped it. This is perhaps why Indiadoes not foreseeany impact on the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor project, as it is of long-term significance.

Indian diplomacy has successfully worked through the minefield of West Asia, having good ties with all contesting sides, Israel, Arab countries, and Iran over the decades. After supporting Palestine for 50 years, India recognised Israel and saw a phenomenal rise in ties with it as a close strategic partner. It did not impact India’s relations with the Arabs, which continues to flourish. The Arabs are looking to diversify away from oil, and India is an essential trade and investment partner. The ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict has shown that India has de-hyphenated Israel and Palestine in its national interest.

(The writer is Adjunct scholar, strategic studies, at the Takshashila Institution)

(Published 24 October 2023, 19:15 IST)

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