Arindam Bagchi, the Indian external affairs ministry’s spokesperson, defended his country’s decision to abstain during the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) vote (May 27), which approved a probe into Israeli human rights abuses (in Palestine, including the West Bank and Gaza). On that occasion, the UNHRC passed a resolution, co-sponsored by Palestine and Pakistan, which for the first time ever created a permanent commission of inquiry into human rights violations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - without a time limit. It was approved by 24 votes in favor, 9 against, and 14 abstentions. Regarding Indian abstention, Bagchi stated this is not a new position, for New Delhi had abstained on previous occasions. At the virtual session, India provided no explanation for its vote.
Palestine’s foreign minister Riad Malki sent an (unusually strongly worded) letter to his Indian counterpart (on May 30), expressing Palestinian concern over what appears to be a shift in the Indian policy for the Middle East. He wrote: “[the] Republic of India missed an opportunity to join the international community at this turning point, both crucial and long overdue, on the path to accountability, justice, and peace”. Israel voted against it, while India as well as France, Italy, Japan, and Brazil were among the 14 countries that abstained from voting.
The resolution was the result of years of investigations and arose out of multilateral consultations. At the UN Security Council (May 27), India stated both Israel and Hamas should "avoid acts of violence, and provocation" and called for dialogue between the two-parties towards a two-state solution.
The recent round of violence in Gaza started when Israeli authorities cut the loudspeakers that are employed to broadcast prayers from the Al-Aqsa mosque (April 13). This was followed by Israel’s decision to ban all gatherings near the Damascus Gate. Worse still, Israeli police also stormed the mosque, which is Islam’s third holiest place (and is also a pilgrimage location for Christians). Such measures have attracted international solidarity with Palestine especially in the islamic world. A ceasefire (brokered by Egypt) has been in force since May 21.
Historically, India has supported the Palestinian cause for self-determination, in line with its anti-colonial stance. India was in fact the first non-Arab country to recognize the Palestinian Liberation Organization as the representative of the Palestinian people. New Delhi recognized Israel in 1950 but diplomatic relations were established only in 1992. Since then, the ties between the two countries continued to evolve, and today India is Israel’s largest defence buyer. Even so, solidarity with the Palestinian cause had always remained and New Delhi still supports the two-state solution.
However, there are signs that indicate things have been changing. Since at least 2017, India has often ceased to include in its statements (favoring the two-states solution) words in support of East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state - contrary to what it had always done before. This is a huge shift. Last year, India voted in favor of Israel, denying observer status to Shahed (Palestinian human rights organization) at the ECOSOC. More recently, T.S. Tirumurti, New Delhi’s permanent representative to the UN has also condemned (May 12) the rocket firing from Gaza
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu as a “friend”. He became the first Indian prime minister to ever visit Israel in 2018. Furthermore, hashtags such as #IndiaWithIsrael have been trending on Indian social networks since the beginning of the violence in Gaza. Domestically, anti-Muslim feelings seem to be on the rise among part of the Hindutva groups in India - due to tensions with neighbouring Pakistan - and this too explains their support for Israel in the context of the Bharatiya Janata Party (of Hindu nationalist persuasion) being currently the ruling party. The issue of Pakistani nuclear weapons has been a concern for both New Delhi and Tel Aviv for decades.
The fact is that Indian-Israeli ties are ever-warmer. For example, in May, Israel and India signed an agreement on agriculture cooperation, and are now implementing the "INDO-ISRAEL Agricultural Project Centres of Excellence". Last month Israel sent a planeload of medical aid to India, which is having a hard time with the Coronavirus epidemic. This is happening at a time US-Indian relations are on the rise too, even though there have been tensions over the latter’s relations with Russia.
India’s close relations with Arab countries (such as the United Arab Emirates) have certainly caused it to be more cautious in further enhancing its ties with Israel so far. On the other hand, the policy-makers in New Delhi might have considered that the recent wave of peace deals between Arab countries and Israel could pave the way for a deeper change in foreign policy regarding Palestine. However, the latest Egyptian diplomatic rise has shown us that those Arab countries (that currently have relations with Tel Aviv) might in fact use their influence to balance things, thus favoring the Palestinian cause. Therefore, any Indian stance that could be perceived as too pro-Israel can still damage its relations with its Arab allies.
Palestine must have its right to self-defense like any other nation. While the current US administration led by president Joe Biden closes its eyes to human rights violations in Gaza and the West Bank (contrary to its own human rights discourse), the international community is increasingly showing its solidarity with Palestinians. India would benefit from honoring its own foreign policy record of supporting the self-determination of all peoples. In fact, it could even mediate the peace process between Palestine and Israel - as an independent and non-partisan actor, who has a long history of cooperating with Palestine while at the same time maintaining strong defence ties with Israel.
By Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts.
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