There is an unprecedented quality about the October 7 attack by the Gaza-based Palestinian group Hamas inside Israel which has the potential to alter the strategic dynamics in West Asia in unforeseen ways that may possibly hurt India.
The one-sided Indian official response – in favour of the confirmed aggressor of seven decades even by the UN’s reckoning, as resolution after resolution shows – in this moment of a building international crisis and the wholesale destruction of human rights, the physical flattening of Palestinian townships through the use of air power and artillery over a tiny area, street by street, building by building, while a full-scale Israel-imposed blockade of food, medicines, water and electricity obtains, has been pusillanimous.
It causes injury to our self-esteem as a nation that could earlier stand erect in the company of nations rich or poor. This was principally on account of India’s humanist approach to international life and causes, its political philosophy of freedom and dignity from colonial oppression, and the effort to uphold democratic values at home, although this was a faltering proposition for a poor country with disparate and frequently disharmonious internal realities.
The current Indian stance on Israel-Palestine is likely to raise questions in West Asia/the Middle East, especially among its people if not in all of its monarchies and governments, as well as within India itself and its entire neighbourhood. In light of the unveiling of a new line on the Palestine-Israel question, India’s carefully nurtured reputation may also be expected to suffer in much of Africa and amongst sizeable sections of civil society in Western Europe and North America, though not necessarily with their governments.
Our stock phrase these days – let loose by Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the Hamas attack – that India opposes “terrorism in all its forms” is basically designed for the Pakistan context, and even there it can be placed under scrutiny. But this rubric unerringly fails to persuade in the backdrop of the leonine state violence unleashed by Israel against Palestine and some neighbours for decades since the Jewish state’s creation in 1948, supposedly in the name of self-defence, and before that by Zionist or Jewish religious nationalist terrorist gangs (whose actions leave in the shade the worst atrocities committed by India’s own religious nationalist roving battalions).
The intent of the recent Indian statements appears two-fold: one, to be deployed for internal political purposes in months before major elections with the aim to arouse triumphalism and majority communalism within India against its largest religious minority since the Palestinians for the most part are Muslim; and two, by standing foursquare behind Israeli militarism to indirectly signal to the United States that India is willing to line up behind it in a crucial theatre even at the cost of abandoning its known position of challenging colonial occupation in the Palestine-Israel context.
This signals making up to the US for earlier omitting to play the lackey in the Ukraine war which involves the US’s enemy Russia while Russia has been a historical friend of India and even today offers India petroleum at the cheapest rates imaginable, thus helping our finances in these stressful times for the world.
In order to understand the likely strategic fallout of the Hamas attack in West Asia and beyond, we need to grasp the full meaning of this extraordinary event which has been an act of military and intelligence innovation, leaving Israel stunned and bewildered and many other militaries, including the American, scratching their heads.
Palestinian groups have never before operated inside Israel militarily on any scale before October 7, leave alone one that has inflicted the heaviest casualties in Israel’s history, bigger than the Yom Kippur war of 1973 when Israel was attacked by the armies of Egypt and Syria, with Jordan chipping in, 50 years ago.
What Hamas has done is to launch a full-scale military assault fairly deep inside Israel, and this is what makes the event unprecedented and unforgettable – and is likely to leave its footprint across West Asia. Israel has been delivered a deep psychological blow since the ‘invading force’ was not a sophisticated army of any kind but a rag-tag militia improvising as it proceeded, although it was armed with first rate intelligence. How was that intelligence got? This question is now engaging professional circles in the US and in NATO centres.
In the past, Palestinian groups and individuals have sent rockets into Israel from within their own enclaves in order to register their protest and vent their collective anger against Israeli military occupation of their territories, they have clandestinely set off explosions inside Israel, or have engaged in random individual acts such as stabbings, to say nothing of launching stone missiles with slingshots at Israeli armed personnel within designated Palestinian areas. The October 7 attack is of an altogether different order of things and could have far-reaching implications and consequences.
After this event which has led to the largest ever Israeli military assault on Palestine lands, the countries of West Asia – the Gulf monarchies and others – are likely to be wary of making bilateral rapprochement moves toward Israel for fear their own populations may turn against them. Thus, the Abraham Accords, promoted by the US under President Donald Trump, look dead on the water. These were meant to create a new concordat involving the US, Israel and a clutch of Gulf states, with the Biden administration furthering the effort by seeking to bring Saudi Arabia on board.
If the Abraham Accords look to be in trouble, the fate of the I2U2 agreement seeking to bond Israel, India, the US and the UAE through greater commerce and investments may also now appear to be uncertain. With the stand that Modi’s India has taken of lending unprecedentedly strong support for Israel, New Delhi’s stock among Arab nations is likely to be at an all-time low. We may only hope that Indian expats in the Gulf do not face social hostility.
Also in trouble is likely to be the India-Middle East-Europe connectivity corridor touted by the Indian leader at the recent G20 summit in Delhi. This in any case had appeared a thoroughly unrealistic idea, whose real purport may have been nothing more than feel-good propaganda, which is Modi’s stock-in-trade.
Instead of these much advertised propositions binding together Israel and the US with India and the Gulf monarchies, what may instead be facilitated now is the closing of the gap to some degree between Iran and Saudi Arabia, historical rivals and enemies that have lately been sought to be brought together through the aegis of China to the chagrin of the Western powers – and Israel. Evidently, the renewal of wholesale brutalising Gaza by Israel has been too defining an act to ignore.
With preparations in an advanced stage for Israel’s ground attack on Gaza, Iran President Ebrahim Raisi and the all-powerful Saudi heir and vice-president Prince Salman have held a telephonic conversation. China’s foreign mister Wang Yi has been on the phone with the Gulf leaders and has spoken of “injustice” to Palestine for historical reasons.
India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar, hardly averse to globe-trotting to set the record straight when he believes India’s case deserves better articulation, has so far been conspicuous by his silence. However, for him the logical destination, after the prime minister’s forceful interjections, might be Tel Aviv, following in the footsteps of US secretary of state Antony Blinken who, incidentally, declared in the Israeli capital that he was visiting the country after the Hamas attack both as secretary of state and as a Jew, thus introducing a disturbing religious communal dimension.
It is noteworthy that India’s prime minister personally took the foreign policy lead on the Israel question, as he had done with regards to China after the Galwan incident when, to everyone’s amazement, he gave the Chinese a clean chit. In the Hamas-Israel case, he stood behind Israel “in this difficult hour” conspicuously, flagrantly.
In a rescue act of sorts, the external affairs ministry subsequently spoke on the record of the universal obligation “to observe international humanitarian law”. This was clearly meant to address Israel on the eve of its attacks on Gaza, though it is doubtful anyone took notice. Utterances such as these are clearly being made only for the record.
What seemed like mocking India’s historical support to the anti-colonial Palestine cause – given the current circumstance and the prime minister’s personal stand – the Indian spokesman further noted that India had always advocated a sovereign, independent and viable state of Palestine and called the Indian position on Palestine as being “longstanding and consistent”.
Remarkably, in it official statements India is yet to call for a cessation of violence and return to peace – such as it was. Even at the level of blatant formality, why did we not call for a “just and lasting peace in the Middle East”, as enjoined by the UN Security Council resolution 242? The resolution, of course, also underlines the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”, and this does not accord with our current passionate stance on Israel.
The upshot is that we will look the other way, exactly like the Americans and the sanctimonious Europeans, as Israel goes about pulverising Gaza, its buildings and infrastructure and the trapped population in the world’s “largest open air prison” that has been talked about for years. It seems clear that the idea is to physically liquidate the Palestine question itself before political action is directed to mark a new beginning. But if history teaches us anything, it is the impossibility of anything like this succeeding.
In striking contrast to the Indian position, the UN secretary general, Antonio Gueterres, in a speech made not long after the Hamas attack, criticised Hamas, but noted that the violent action, in which hundreds of civilians were also targeted and killed, did not occur “in a vacuum”. He did not mince words and pointed to the 56 years of “occupation” of Palestine territories by Israel. (The UN understanding does not include the period before 1967.)
Israel’s most famous newspaper Haaretz editorially criticised the Netanyahu government, laying blame for the October 7 attack at the Israel prime minister’s door. It criticised Israeli “occupation” and the planned further “annexation” in West Bank, the Palestinian enclave other than Gaza. The newspaper wrote sharply about Netanyahu’s foreign policy not taking into account the “existence” of Palestine, accusing it of a far right bias. It is instructive to consider that India’s position is so far removed from that of the UN as well as that of enlightened public opinion in Israel.
Terrorism is easy to denounce but the world has been selective about its identification and definition. This is why the UN has not been able to pass any worthwhile resolution on the subject, to New Delhi’s displeasure. The US, notably, refused throughout to call out the Taliban in Afghanistan as “terrorist”. It is evident that the issue of terrorism cannot be the core principle of a foreign policy, as the Modi government makes it out to be. A shibboleth is no substitute for well-grounded policy.
Hiding behind the glibly trotted out expression “national interest” – as even some well-meaning senior diplomatists of an earlier vintage have done – does not rescue us from the burden of striking the right balance as between our values, national character and philosophy, and real world needs. Modi, however, is a known worshipper at the altar of power and seems solely devoted to a values-less, transactional, way of life in all spheres. Regrettably, this has tended to inform and influence discussions and debates in open forums.
As for the notion of terrorism in the Palestine-Israel context, it is salutary to recall that even Yasser Arafat, who ran Fatah and the PLO in a completely secular manner, free of sectarian and religious considerations, was called a terrorist by Israel, the US and others – though not India in that era. For his pains, the great Palestinian leader is thought to have been slow-poisoned to death through medicines. For that matter, Mahatma Gandhi was seen as a moral and emotional terrorist by some and was shot to death.
It is not clear where the Indian prime minister would stand on Arafat or Gandhi, but it is interesting that, after Modi’s promise to stand firm with Israel following the Hamas attack, the Israeli ambassador in New Delhi permitted himself to be carried away and told the news agency ANI that such was the measure of support he found for his country in India that a unit of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) could be formed of Indians ready to go and do battle for Israel (against the Palestinians). In today’s world, an International Brigade of the far right does seem like an interesting thought, whether viable or not. Perhaps the irregular armed bands in variously named units who beat and kill in the name of cow protection or love jihad, or give calls for genocide of one religious community in India, are natural candidates to fill the ranks of the IDF even if they run away from joining the ranks of the Agniveer in their own country.
The moral dimension to the killings of ordinary people inside Israel, among them women and children, in cold blood, by the Hamas on October 7, is likely to remain a part of the discussion even when placed in the context of the long record of brutal repression of the occupier in Palestine, first with British and later with US backing, although there could be room for ambiguity.
Nevertheless, while acknowledging the dark side of the Hamas assault – the striking down of civilians – the UN secretary-general has been sensitive to the fact that the Hamas action was not “in a vacuum”. The question of judging a lone fact in the course of examining a long process of history is fraught with difficulty, and perhaps it is this that the secretary-general had in mind.
Massive anti-Israel demonstrations have been held in Britain, Australia and other countries in the wake of last week’s events, while the political situation in West Asia is still unfolding. The wider West Asia and the Gulf theatre are abuzz with mass mobilisations and political activity. Where this leads we can only know with the passage of time.
When approach to terrorism is the key ingredient of what passes for New Delhi’s policy on the Palestine-Israel question, it is useful to look at the UN General Assembly resolution 37/43 of 1982-83. It “reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle” (emphasis supplied). The Oslo accords of 1993, 1995 do not override this basic formulation.
Section 21 of the above resolution is explicit. It speaks of “the expansionist activities of Israel in the Middle East and the continual bombing of Palestinian civilians, (which) constitutes a serious obstacle to the realization of self-determination and independence of the Palestinian people”.
In February 2006, Hamas had won the highest number of seats for election to the Palestinian Legislative Council, easily surpassing Fatah of President Mahmoud Abbas who heads the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. In light of recent developments, Hamas’s general appeal among Palestinians is said to be rising. What’s the likely orientation of the people of Palestine in the present situation? And, what political outcomes may be expected in Israel where a strong anti-Netanyahu current is visible to observers?
We shall have a clearer picture in the coming weeks, and this cannot but impact the Arab situation overall. Considering the Modi government’s radical departure from the orientation of Indian policy toward the Palestine- Israel question, how will India deal with the extremely complex situation that is now likely to emerge? Continuing to ride on American coat-tails does not appear to be a viable idea.
Anand K. Sahay is a political commentator in New Delhi.