Israel-Hamas Conflict: Deciphering the Indian Response

 By Dr. Manjari Singh
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While the Middle East Quartet[i] facilitated and Egypt mediated “permanent ceasefire” and mediation efforts in the fresh round of the Israel-Hamas conflict is underway, there are many speculations inside the country and outside on India’s role, reaction and response on the issue. After decades of non-aligned and pro-Arab policy, India normalised its relations with Israel in January 1992. Since then, it has maintained a balanced, neutral, non-partisan and somewhat nuanced approach to Israelis and Palestinians alike. With the 2017-2018 de-hyphenation and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s standalone visits to Israel and Palestine, New Delhi’s emphasis on a neutral approach was much clearer.

This shift from ideologically and morality driven Indian foreign policy of the post-Cold War era to a balanced and pragmatic approach is much visible in India’s relations with Israel and Palestine. While relations with Jewish Israel have seen an upward trend, especially as a top defence and security partner and top source in agri-tech and water technology; relations with Arab Palestine are age-old and hold an important place in India’s foreign policy. On the one hand, Israel is India’s second-largest arms supplier and the latter its largest purchaser.[ii] On the other, India was one of the first countries to recognise the State of Palestine in 1988 and continues to extend economic and humanitarian aid & assistance. Apart from building libraries, schools and hospitals, New Delhi has provided US$30 million as budgetary support to Palestine.[iii] Noting the fragile healthcare infrastructure in Gaza, India sent batches of critical medicines, medical equipment and vaccines as COVID-19 assistance.[iv]

Thus, given New Delhi’s affability with both the parties, its reaction to the recent violent escapade in the protracted Israel-Palestine conflict was noted by international and national experts on the subject. Notably, in March 2020, the UN delegation that came to New Delhi asked India to mediate between the two. As per an official statement, the delegation “intends to engage India, a country with good relations to both the State of Palestine and Israel, in looking for ways how it could play a more proactive role in the settling of the Question of Palestine”.[v] However, whether India should mediate or not is yet debatable, and there are two schools of thoughts on the subject in India.[vi]

Surprisingly, as the violence broke out, India did not release any official statement through its Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi. While most awaited for an official response, New Delhi showcased a pragmatic approach on the issue by not releasing one. The only Indian statements that are available from the Indian side are the ones from its Permanent Representative at the UN Ambassador T.S. Tirumuti’s who spoke eloquently and presented a balanced, nuanced and layered statement at the UN Security Council (UNSC) Open Debate and UN General Assembly (UNGA). In that context, India’s balanced approach in both UNSC and UNGA in May 2021 on “Palestine-Israel Conflict” was critically examined by Middle East watchers. This is also the best example of speak when spoken to. Moreover, it reflects New Delhi’s geopolitical constraints and addresses its indirect yet crucial stakes in the Middle Eastern conflict.

The primary concern of most Indian scholars on the subject was that the Indian Representative did not use the H-word. Indian statements, however, must not be seen independently but in the context of the world representatives present in the UNSC and UNGA meetings. Under the Chinese presidency, the 15-membered UNSC open debate (including both permanent and non-permanent members), wherein extra members consisted of representatives (Foreign Ministers/Permanent Representatives) of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Algeria, League of Arab States along with Security General and the UN Special Coordinator for Middle East Peace Process, SC Wennesland. Moreover, in the 3 hours 15 minute and 32-second live-streamed video of the Open debate, the H-word was scarcely used. Barring the special coordinator and representatives of Israel, Norway, the US, UK, France, Kenya, Mexico, and Estonia, none of the representatives referred to Hamas. India followed the queue in not naming the terrorist organisation.[vii] The main reasons probably for the representatives to not refer to Hamas could be to not give legitimacy to the terrorist organisation or to give a sounding to the Palestinians to clean their backyard. Moreover, Ambassador Tirumurti’s two times reference to ‘Palestinian Authority’ in the 27 May UNSC statement while calling it the “fulcrum for…to ensure the well-being and interests of all Palestinians”[viii] and Indian developmental and humanitarian assistance to it, confirms that India detests of Hamas and supports the Palestinian Authority, despite Hamas’s victory in the 2006 elections.

Coming to Ambassador Tirumurti’s statement, which is regarded as a treatise in craftsmanship, as on the one hand, it contextualises Tel Aviv’s right to self-defence and contests Hamas’s narrative (without taking the name), on the other, it also censures Israel’s actions. While the Ambassador chose to only speak on the current conflict without referring to earlier issues between the two parties and called out both the parties to practise restraint, his statement was read as being harsher concerning firing from Gaza. It must be noted that the statement was being made against a state and a non-state actor (especially the one recognised as a terrorist organisation by some countries). Moreover, the “condemning” was done twice in the same statement, one against Gaza rocket firings and the second “condemnation” is when Tirumurti refers that “We reiterate our strong condemnation of all acts of violence, provocation, incitement and destruction”.[ix]

Nevertheless, as stated by the Indian Permanent Representative, in the two closed-door meetings on 12 May, in the UNSC open debate on 16 May, in the UNGA statement on 20 May and subsequent UNSC statement on 24 May; India focussed on four main points. One, it condemned all acts of violence especially rocket attacks from Gaza; two, mourned the demise of Indian national, a female caregiver from Kerala; three, called for immediate de-escalation and lastly, called for parties to refrain from unilaterally changing the status quo. Apart from these, by carefully using both Islamic and Jewish terms Haram Al-Sharif and Temple Mount and by mentioning the possible eviction process in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighbourhood in East Jerusalem which is part of an arrangement facilitated by the UN; the Indian statement could not have been more calibrated and balanced.

The statement also mentioned protecting historic Indian hospice, Al Zawaiyya Al Hindiyya, associated with Indian Sufi saint Baba Farid and is sacred to the country. Indian statement called on to support the international community, especially the Quartet, for immediate dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. Notably, the official statement did not hint at India joining in the mediation process and the balanced viewpoint. The current conflict further substantiates that while Indian experts and scholars are vouching for an Indian mediation, New Delhi’s official stand is to refrain from it! Once again, this is in line with India’s non-interventionist and pragmatic policy vis-à-vis the region.

The last statement by the Indian Ambassador is the most interesting to note. Wherein, he says, “I reiterate India’s strong support to the just Palestinian cause and its unwavering commitment to the two-state solution”.[x] Not only is the statement ambiguous, but it is also a clear departure from India’s 2014 statement in the UNSC on the “united state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital”.[xi] Omission of reference to East Jerusalem reflects India’s stand on the issue since May 2017 when Prime Minister Modi hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Similarly, during President Trump’s decision to shift the US embassy to Jerusalem, India did not reiterate its long-standing position on East Jerusalem. Moreover, the equivocation in the Open Debate’s last statement keeps in mind the several audiences at the meeting but more so due to the perception war in the latest round of conflict between Israel and Hamas. New Delhi clearly does not wish to be entangled in it.

The conflict claimed over 200 lives in Gaza, including 64 children and more than 50,000 people got internally displaced, while Israel has lost 12 lives, including two children, and has faced more than 4000 rocket attacks from Hamas. Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ missile defence system intercepted approximately 90 per cent of the rockets fired at it, which led to lesser casualties. The retaliatory attacks from Israel, which inflicted more damage that led to enormous casualties in the Gaza side, may have scored Tel Aviv higher points at the battlefront, but Hamas has won the perception war.[xii] India is aware of these intricacies and thus decided to tread carefully on the matter.

While some Indian journalists noted that India’s statement in the UNSC and UNGA was different and tilted towards Israel in the latter, it must be mentioned that 15-membered UNSC is the official body that is responsible for peace and order. At the same time, 192-membered UNGA is mainly responsible for budgets and recommendations. Thus, the Indian statement was elaborate where it matters the most! The ambiguity in India’s statement was clearly not understood properly, which probably also irked the former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who chose to leave India while thanking 25 nations for support. However, the new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s remark on “looking forward to working with PM Modi to develop warm relations further” proves that the bilateral relations with Israel are intact.[xiii]

On balance, stability in the Middle East, especially in Israel and Palestine, is of crucial importance to New Delhi because of the multi-dimensional relations it shares with the region, which covers a wide range including historical, cultural, religious, trade and defence fields. From suggesting a federal plan to supporting the two-state solution, the Palestinian Question is integral to India since its independence times and maybe much before that. Given that India shares friendly relations with Palestine and Israel, a beneficial solution is in Indian interest. India must continue with its efforts to bring peace and stability in the restive region.

Endnotes:

[i] Middle East Quartet or the Diplomatic Quartet includes the UN, the US, European Union and Russia. The Quartet was formed in Madrid in 2002 as a result of escalating conflict in the region. Its office is situated in East Jerusalem.

[ii] Pieter D. Wezeman, Alexandra Kuimova and Siemon T. Wezeman (2021), “Trends In International Arms Transfers, 2020”, SIPRI Fact Sheet 2021, March 2021. Available at: https://sipri.org/sites/default/files/2021-03/fs_2103_at_2020.pdf, Accessed on 18 June 2021.

[iii]MEA (2018), “India-Palestine Relations”, Government of India, August, Available at: https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Updated_Note_on_India-Palestine_Relations_for_MEA_Website.pdf, Accessed on 18 June 2021.

[iv] “India to send second batch of medicines to Palestine as COVID-19 assistance”, Business Standard, 27 February 2021, Available at: https://www.google.com/amp/s/wap.business-standard.com/article-amp/current -affairs/india-to-send-second-batch-of-medicines-to-palestine-as-covid-19-assistance-121022700225_1.html, Accessed on 18 June 2021.

[v] “UN asks India to mediate between Israel and Palestine”, The New Indian Express, 2 March 2020, Available at: https://www.newindianexpress.com/world/2020/mar/02/un-asks-india-to-mediate-between-israel-and-palestine-2111102.html, Accessed on 18 June 2021; See Also: “UN delegation on Palestine arrives in India to seek support on peaceful resolution of conflict”, The Economic Times, 2 March 2020, Available at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/un-delegation-on-palestine-arrives-in-india-to-seek-support-on-peaceful-resolution-of-conflict/articleshow/74434901.cms, Accessed on 18 June 2021.

[vi] P R Kumaraswamy (2021), “On Israel-Palestine, resist the temptation to mediate”, The Hindustan Times, 8 June 2021, Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/opinion/on-israel-palestine-resist-the-temptation-to-mediate-101623064773907.html, Accessed on 18 June 2021; Sumit Ganguly and Nicolas Blarel (2021), “An Indian Return to the Gaza Strip? New Delhi has Unique Legitimacy to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”, The Times of India, 20 May 2021, Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/toi-edit-page/an-indian-return-to-the-gaza-strip-new-delhi-has-unique-legitimacy-to-mediate-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict/, Accessed on 18 June 2021.

[vii] UN Headquarters (2021), “Palestine/Israel: “Fighting must stop. It must stop immediately.”, UN Security Council Debate, 16 May, Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PdvxuiFinvI, Accessed on 18 June 2021.

[viii] UNSC (2021), “India Statement by Ambassador TS Tirumurti, Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations”, UNSC Briefing on the Middle East (Palestine), 27 May, Available at: https://pminewyork.gov.in/IndiaatUNSC?id=NDI2MA,,, Accessed on 18 June 2021.

[ix] PR/Amb T S Tirumurti (2021), “Retweet on PR @ambtstirumurti Speaks on Open Debate on Middle East”, 16 May, Available at: https://twitter.com/IndiaUNNewYork/status/1393969123886043145, Accessed on 18 June 2021.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] MEA (2014), “Statement by Permanent Representative of India during the Security Council Open Debate on ‘the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question”, 23 July, Available at: https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/23713/Statement+by+Permanent+Representative+of+India+during+the+Security+Council+Open+Debate+on+The+Situation+in+the+Middle+East+including+the+Palestinian+QuestionJuly+22+2014, Accessed on 18 June 2021.

[xii] Sreemoy Talukdar (2021), “Gaza Conflict: India’s Statement at UNSC Gives Tacit Support to Israel and Delegitimizes Hamas as Palestine’s Voice”, First Post, 20 May, Available at: https://www.firstpost.com/india/gaza-conflict-indias-statement-at-unsc-gives-tacit-support-to-israel-and-delegitimises-hamas-as-palestines-voice-9638491.html, Accessed on 18 June 2021.

[xiii] “New Israeli PM Naftali Bennett: Looking Forward to Working with PM Modi to further develop warm relations”, India Today, 14 June 2021, Available at: https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/new-israeli-pm-naftali-bennett-looking-forward-to-working-with-pm-modi-to-further-develop-warm-relations-1814627-2021-06-14, Accessed on 18 June 2021.

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Dr. Manjari Singh is an Associate Fellow at Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) and she obtained her doctorate from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi for her thesis on Sustainable Development in Jordan: A Study of Social, Economic and Environmental Dimensions. Dr. Singh is a Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF) Fellow and is specializes in sustainable development and the Middle East. Her research papers have appeared in international journals such as Contemporary Review of the Middle East, Mediterranean Quarterly, and Migration and Development. She has co-authored Persian Gulf 2018: India’s Relations with the Region (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan) and has co-edited Islamic Movements in the Middle East: Ideologies, Practices and Political Participation (New Delhi: Knowledge World) and Challenges to National Security: Young Scholars Perspective (New Delhi: Pentagon Press)She also serves as Assistant Editor of Contemporary Review of the Middle East (Sage Publications) and Managing Editor of CLAWS Journal (KW Publishers).