The newly-elected BJP-led Indian government’s response to the Gaza crisis has been described as one of being a “spectator” to the “massacre” of Palestinians. Uproar in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the parliament, over the government’s refusal to condemn the Israeli offensive which has killed over a thousand Palestinians, was followed by a vote in favour of a UNHRC resolution condemning the violence in Gaza – a resolution “that came down heavily on Israel”.
The vote came after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government met with strong criticism from domestic political actors. Modi, who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat when communal violence broke out in 2002, has risen to power amidst concern and controversy surrounding his government’s policies towards India’s minority groups.
New Delhi has traditionally supported the creation of a sovereign state of Palestine, alongside Israel, based on pre-1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital. This stance evolved against the backdrop of British India’s partition and the creation of Pakistan, thus conflating the Palestinian question with India’s demographic realities.
India recognised the State of Israel in 1950 but did not establish diplomatic relations. However, India and Israel established cooperation in defence, counter-intelligence, trade and technology. Full diplomatic relations were developed in 1992 after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Non-Aligned Movement, with Indo-Israeli relations deepening ever since.
In this vein, India has moderated its position on the Israel-Palestine conflict over time. Leading Indian journalist Suhasini Haidar posits that while New Delhi’s statements “condemn” Israel for acts of aggression from 2000 to 2009, in 2012, the word “condemn” was dropped in exchange for “expressing concern” at the violence between Israel and Palestine.
Modi also expressed his desire to “deepen and develop” ties with Israel after he assumed office. As the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi expanded relations with Israel beyond the realm of defence trade to include infrastructure development and investment. He visited Tel Aviv in 2006 and promised to return, raising speculation that he could be the first Indian head of state to visit Israel.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs first responded to the ‘disproportionate’ exchange of rockets and airstrikes between Hamas and the Israeli forces by expressing concern at the “escalation of violence between Israel and Palestine, particularly, heavy airstrikes in Gaza, resulting in tragic loss of civilian lives and heavy damage to property”. The ministry added that it was “alarmed at the cross-border provocations resulting from rocket attacks (by Hamas) against targets in parts of Israel”.
Later on, India used the platform of the Sixth BRICS Summit's Fortaleza Declaration to elucidate opposition to the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, calling for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
New Delhi’s ‘balancing act’ between Israel and Palestine reflects not only India’s interests but also the structural changes taking place in the West Asian region that have tempered the responses of the Arab states. The tepid response to the Gaza crisis from Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq is indicative of the shifting power relations in the region.
The rise of the Mohammad Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt led to concerns of regime security in the region. The Gulf States have always feared that the Muslim Brotherhood would export revolution to their borders particularly after Saudi Arabia and the UAE faced agitation movements in their countries driven by the Brotherhood’s calls for political reforms. The change of guard in Egypt was followed by a region-wide crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, including Hamas.
A convergence of interests between the Gulf regimes and Israel has culminated not only into a muted response towards the Gaza crisis, but also a punitive political and military stance towards Hamas instead of Israel. The political advantage in the weakening position of the ‘axis of resistance’ – Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas – has thus surpassed the traditional Gulf antagonism towards Israel. The possibility of a US-Iran nuclear detente has also created space for Saudi Arabia and Israel to recognise common interests.
India has so far balanced its relations with Israel and the Gulf, both of which are vital sources of economic, energy and military requirements. Given that even regional states have adopted a pragmatic course, there is little relevance in viewing the region through the traditional binary lens of Israel versus the Arab states. India’s approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict is no longer guided by zero sum calculations.
However, domestic politics have a much larger role to play in New Delhi’s strategic calculus towards the Palestinian issue. Thousands of Indians have reportedly volunteered to join the ‘jihad’ in Iraq and protect Shia shrines, while many others have enrolled in the ranks of the Sunni insurgent group, Islamic State. There is increasing concern that conflict in the region could reach Indian shores and the rising power and appeal of Islamist insurgencies could lead to greater mobilisation among Indians.
Leading Indian scholar P.R. Kumaraswamy writes that “India has always perceived, understood and articulated its position towards Israel through an Islamic prism”. With the third largest Muslim population in the world, the Palestinian question has been dominated by the domestic Islamic factor.
Pre-partition, the Indian National Congress used Islamic “terminology, goals and demands”, to compete for Muslim support with the All-India Muslim League. Post-partition too, the discourse around India’s position towards the conflict finds expression in assuaging Muslim sentiments, thereby elevating the importance of balancing Israel and Palestine in policy objectives.
India’s response to the crisis can thus be perceived through two converging spectrums. Firstly, the Arab regimes’ purported alignment with Israel and a consequential muted response to the conflict necessitates that India adapt its foreign policy to the political transitions taking place in the region. Secondly, given the domestic socio-political climate in India, New Delhi sees little merit in deeper involvement in the conflict.