Israel-Hamas Conflict: Navigating Unprecedented Times; India’s Stance

Sub Title : As the conflict demanded delicate diplomacy, India’s stance remains a balanced one

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 5 Nov – Dec 2023

Author : Ambassador Anil Trigunayat

Page No. : 27

Category : Geostrategy

: November 27, 2023

The global community has faced a tumultuous half-decade marked by economic, political, and security turmoil. Conflicts in the Middle East and black swan events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war have strained international institutions and diplomacy, signalling a shift towards a more polarised and unpredictable global order. The Middle East’s long-standing tensions compounded by the ongoing Hamas- IDF conflict is challenging the efficacy of international governance and diplomacy.

The last five years have been remarkable and disastrous for the global economy , polity, security and stability  and created unprecedented challenges for the global community. Amidst the already prevailing hotspots in the Middle East from Libya, to Syria to Iraq to Yemen, the incidence of  black swan events like the Covid 19 pandemic , Russia -Ukraine war and now the unprecedented 4th Israel -Hamas war have adversely impacted the ability of the global powers and the multilateral institutions to cope and contend with the deep divisions and repercussions. An uncertainty and disruptive paradigm seems to be  dictating the trend . Diplomacy in a vertically divided   world has been under tremendous stress as the duality of the emerging bipolar to multipolar world order remains uncertain and in flux. Often it is being termed as the transitional world order or for that matter a global disorder in which even major powers are unable to exert their influence, including on their strategic allies and partners. An example is waning influence of the US on Israel in the ongoing war, pursuant to October 7 terrorists attacks by the Hamas killing nearly 1400 jews and taking 240 hostages.

A shocked Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, currently heading an ultra-right government  did what he knows best. To exact revenge on the Hamas, he vowed to destroy Hamas for good even though he is often accused of propping and sustaining them through the years against the Fatah in West Bank and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.  In this retribution the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have killed over a 11000 Palestinians including large number of women and children which appears to have frittered away the initial sympathy and support Israel had broadly received in the wake of the terrorist attacks including amongst major West Asian countries. UNGA resolutions and calls for immediate ceasefire and open humanitarian corridors for relief supplies grew louder as the international community began to align with the plight of Gazans being indiscriminately bombarded for over a month. Moreover, the Grey Zone and disinformation warfare by all sides have coloured the vision of most when the value of life is segregated or discounted depending whose side you are on.

USA has been the iron clad supporter of the Israeli state and all governments. No wonder President Biden not only immediately despatched his Secretaries of State and Defence to Israel and the region to garner regional support for  Israeli response but also dashed himself to Tel Aviv to assure Netanyahu of the unstinting and ever available military, economic and moral support to people. He marshalled his naval assets in the Mediterranean to dissuade any adventurism by other regional supporters of Hamas like Iran and Hezbollah. Role of powerful Jewish lobbies in the US remains a major factor. This blanket US support of a security solution, to an intractable Palestinian issue at least since 1948,  has defied any resolution to the problem and has in fact multiplied the security threats to the Jewish state . However, overtime seeing the world opinion being polarised and Russia and China getting better traction with the global south as well as several European partners President Biden was forced to rethink their strategy when he commented that Bibi had taken much longer than expected. Netanyahu continued to maintain that he will not agree to a ceasefire unless he has destroyed Hamas and secured the release of hostages in which Qatar, Turkey and Egypt have been trying to help. They did get some hostages out.

Secretary Blinken has already visited the region thrice with little success but did get assurances of the  four hourly ‘pauses’ to the firing for letting people leave from Northern Gaza to Southern part. Finally, UNSC 2712, a Malta sponsored resolution for humanitarian supplies and corridors  through pauses and unconditional release of hostages etc, was approved after 40 days of the war which shows the incapacity of the UN and other multilateral institutions and frameworks and limits of multilateral diplomacy, even as the UNSG Antonio Guterres has been crying hoarse from day one.

Diplomacy is a continuous process before the war, through the war and after the war . Russia and UAE along with China tried to work out a resolution at the UNSC which was vetoed by the USA as it did not condemn Hamas for the terror attacks and possibly it considered like Tel Aviv did that any ceasefire will reward the  Hamas. Similar fate was met by a Brazilian draft . Beijing for quite some time has been offering its good offices to resolve the Palestinian issue and has reiterated its position much aligned with the Arab countries.

Many of the Arab leaders especially from  Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE which either have Peace Treaty, Partnerships or Partnership in pipeline with Israel convened frequent meetings and conferred on the way forward to avoid the expansion of the conflict which could conflagrate in the region and undermine the ‘winds of rapprochement‘ that has been assiduously cultivated through the Abraham Accords, IMEC (India Europe Mediterranean Economic Corridor announced on the sideline of G20 in new Delhi) and other initiatives including Beijing mediated Riyadh-Tehran resumption of diplomatic relations. It is often surmised that the pace at which efforts for a Saudi – Israel rapprochement was proceeding may have caused a despair among the militant group of Palestinians like Hamas who thought it opportune to attack Israel knowing too well what and how Netanyahu will react! For the time being they have successfully recharged the Arab street in favour of the Palestinian cause and tied the hands of the rulers at the same time. Health and Hunger crisis in Gaza and ensuing plight of the Palestinians could not be ignored by the international community.

India had recently shown its diplomatic heft in converging the views of opposing powers to issue the G20 Summit Declaration apart from clearly articulating that it had indeed become a ‘Voice of Global South’. Hence, the regional countries hope for India’s initiative  knowing too well that she is  accepted as a friend by both Arabs and Jews-Palestinians and Israelis. India is counted as a benevolent force for good. In the wake of October 7 Hamas terror attacks , Prime Minister Narendra Modi  condemned the terror attacks and expressed his solidarity with the Israeli People in this ‘difficult hour’. This was perceived by some as some kind of a shift in India’s longstanding policy on Palestine, and was attributed to PM’s personal rapport with PM Netanyahu. But the fact remains that India since 2014 ad de-hyphenated its policy and relationship with Israel and Palestine stand on their own . But  India adheres to its age old position on the Palestinian issue. Moreover, this statement was in the context of terrorism and terror attacks from which India has herself suffered for decades and now follows a ‘Zero tolerance’ policy against terrorism and is a champion for fight against terrorism and extremists in whatever shape and form they manifested. Besides, Israel has been India’s major security partner and has always stood by India in the fight against terror. It is in this context that India’s abstention at the UNGA resolution, piloted by Jordan, needs to be seen as it did not address the causal issue of terror attack by Hamas. India’s explanation of vote , while talking of the plight of Palestinian civilians and need for humanitarian supplies and the Two State solution underscored that “Terrorism is a malignancy and knows no borders, nationality or race. The world should not buy into any justification of terror acts. Let us keep aside differences, unite and adopt a zero-tolerance approach to terrorism”.  Even then many observers are of the view that India should have voted for the resolution since it was more for ceasefire and humanitarian supplies for the beleaguered and besieged Gazans.

Later, the Indian Foreign Ministry Spokesman clarified India‘s consistent stand on the Palestinian issue and two state solution reiterating “Our policy has been longstanding and consistent. India always advocated the 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. I think that position remains the same.” In the wake of heinous attacks on the Al Ahli hospital in Gaza killing 500 people, PM Modi conveyed his shock, sympathies, concerns and condolences. He also spoke to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and sent immediate relief supplies for the Palestinians.

Again India took a principled stand on another UNGA resolution titled ‘Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and the occupied Syrian Golan’ which was approved by the Special Political and Decolonization Committee (Fourth Committee) of the UN General Assembly by a recorded vote of 145 in favour, seven against and 18 abstentions. The resolution condemns “settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan and any activities involving the confiscation of land, the disruption of the livelihood of protected persons, the forced transfer of civilians and the annexation of land, whether de facto or through national legislation.”  While calling them illegal the resolution further reiterated “its demand for the immediate and complete cessation of all Israeli settlement activities in all of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights’. Incidentally former President Trump had unilaterally legitimised the Israeli rights over Goan heights.  India also considers that increasing settlements hinder any progress on the resolution of the protracted Palestinian issue and ‘Two State Solution’ and has often voted for it.

Prime Minister Modi has spoken to many regional and global leaders including those of Palestine , UAE, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Israel, UK etc.  His foreign minister Dr Jaishankar has been in concert with a large number of his  other counterparts from the region and beyond. During the recently held 2+2  Foreign and Defence Ministers’ dialogue with the US a  special focus was made on the West Asian crisis, and the Joint statement  inter alia stated “They expressed support for humanitarian pauses and committed to continue close diplomatic coordination, including with key partners in the region, to prevent the conflict from spreading, preserve stability in the Middle East, and work toward a political solution and durable peace,”  as it emphasised the importance of humanitarian aid to meet the urgent needs of civilians in Gaza.

West Asia is India’s extended neighbourhood and most of its relationships with major countries in the region have converted into strategic partnerships from an earlier transactional relationship from energy to economy to expatriates and the sea lanes of communications. Any instability in this highly volatile region could have a tremendous impact on India’s own security energy and otherwise. Therefore, it is imperative that India does play a lead role as an honest and trusted interlocutor to initiate a dialogue between the Palestinians and Israelis when the dust settles down.