A special relationship

Print edition : August 22, 2014

AS the Israeli military was pounding the Gaza Strip from the ground, air and sea, the Indian government mostly maintained a studied silence. The Indian External Affairs Ministry issued a statement calling on both sides to exercise restraint even as the Palestinian death toll was mounting. The demand of the opposition for a discussion in Parliament on the atrocities being perpetrated on the defenceless people of Gaza was initially opposed by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. Pressure from a united opposition in both the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament made the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj clarify the government’s stance. She stated that there was no change in India’s long-standing position on the Palestine issue.

A perceptible shift in the government’s pro-Israel stance was visible after the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) summit in Fortaleza, Brazil. The BRICS communiqué on Palestine strongly criticised Israel’s actions in the occupied territory. It would have been extremely difficult for the NDA government to take a different position publicly on Israel domestically or at international forums after the Fortaleza Declaration. Other groupings like the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), in which India aspires for a leadership role, have strongly condemned the renewed Israeli aggression and the war crimes committed in Gaza.

India’s decision to vote in support of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution to launch a probe into Israel’s war on Gaza followed. India joined the other BRICS member countries, China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa, to vote in favour of a Palestinian-drafted resolution titled “Ensuring Respect for International Law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories”. In the 47-member Council, 29 countries voted in favour of the resolution while 17 nations, mainly from Europe, abstained. Only the United States voted against the resolution. The UNHCR resolution strongly condemns the continued occupation of Gaza by Israel. The resolution called for the immediate lifting of the blockade on Gaza.

Since the early 1990s, successive Indian governments have become close to Israel. Both the Congress party and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have played key roles in fostering closer political and strategic relations with Israel.

The BJP has an ideological soulmate in right-wing parties like the Likud that have been running the state of Israel for the last two decades. During the last NDA government, many high-level visits had taken place. The late Ariel Sharon, who was Israel’s Prime Minister from 2001 to 2006 and a man held responsible for many war crimes, was given a great welcome in New Delhi. The then National Security Adviser to the NDA government, Brajesh Mishra, in a speech delivered to an influential Jewish lobby in the U.S., had called for a Washington-Tel Aviv-New Delhi axis in international politics. Israel’s expertise in counterterrorism continues to be greatly valued in the corridors of power. Some of the measures Israel uses against Palestinians have been sought to be replicated in counterterrorism operations in India.

The close relationship flowered further under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, with the high-level visits continuing. Amos Harel, a columnist for the well-regarded Israeli newspaper Haaretz, has written that India’s commitment to the Palestinian cause has slackened in the last two decades. “Nowadays, its leaders do pay lip service to the Palestinian plight, and they have long since stopped clashing with Israel on the subject. At the same time, the areas of dialogue with Israel are expanding and include fighting terrorism, security related deals,” he wrote. Israel is the second biggest supplier of armaments to India. All these factors, plus the fact that Israel is America’s closest ally, give the Jewish state tremendous leverage over the Indian government and bureaucracy.

In Western countries, there is a burgeoning Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Prominent people in the academia, business and entertainment, along with NGOs like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have joined the movement to protest against the racist and discriminatory policies of Israel and the continued occupation of Palestinian land. Recently, two prominent Palestinians visiting India, the Grand Mufti Mohammed A.H. Hussein and a Parliamentarian, Abdullah A.I. Abdullah, called on India to join the BDS movement. The two leaders cited the growing support for the movement in the U.S. and Europe. They pointed out that several European countries had already stopped buying products from Israel which were manufactured or grown in the occupied territories. Seventeen E.U. countries have issued guidelines to their citizens “about the risks involved in trade and other business links with illegal Israeli settlements”. The Maldives has scrapped three agreements signed with Israel and the government is considering stopping all Israeli imports.

Many Palestinians have not forgotten what Mahatma Gandhi wrote way back in 1938: “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same way that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct.” Those swearing by his ideology today have chosen to forget his words on Palestine.

People all over the country have staged protest marches. In Kerala and West Bengal, huge protest rallies have been held. The Kashmir valley erupted in violence after a protester was killed.

John Cherian

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