India’s statement at UNSC gives tacit support to Israel and delegitimises Hamas as Palestine’s voice-India News , Technomiz
India’s statement Sunday at the United Nations Security Council during the first (virtual) public debate on the “situation in the Middle East” has been variously interpreted. The most common refrain in media, however, is that ‘India has reaffirmed its support for Palestine’ (see here or here). Palestine envoy to India Adnan Mohammad Jaber Abualhayjaa has even thanked New Delhi for “strongly supporting the cause of the Palestinian people.”
Has India really taken sides in the violent confrontation between Israel and Hamas terrorists — that is now in its second week — and tacitly backed Palestine? There is no straightforward answer to the unfolding theatre in West Asia that resists a monochromatic breakdown of the issue into ‘victims’ and ‘villains’.
The speech delivered at the UNSC by India’s permanent representative TS Tirumurti is a balanced, nuanced and layered statement that reflects India’s geopolitical constraints and addresses New Delhi’s indirect yet crucial stakes in the West Asian conflict. If anything, it perhaps tilts towards Israel without appearing to do so — contextualizing Tel Aviv’s right to self-defence and contesting Hamas’s narrative while seemingly censuring Israel’s actions.
Even the concluding sentence: “I reiterate India’s strong support to the just Palestinian cause and its unwavering commitment to the two-State solution” is an equivocation that demands careful parsing. The statement is a treatise in craftsmanship.
The equivocation in the statement is deliberate. India is addressing several audiences at once in a tightrope walk. But part of the ambiguity is also due to the perception war around the latest round of Israel-Hamas conflict. It has already claimed over 200 lives in Gaza, including 64 children, and displaced more than 50,000 while Israel has lost 12 lives, including two children, to more than 4000 rocket attacks from Hamas.
The casualty on the Israeli side would have been much higher had it not been for Tel Aviv’s ‘Iron Dome’ missile defence system that managed to intercept approximately 90% of the rockets fired by Hamas. Israel’s military claims to have destroyed more than 60 miles of underground tunnels called ‘The Metro’ that Hamas operatives use for their guerilla warfare, struck 80 rocket launchers and killed at least 130 terrorists.
If the disproportionate number of deaths on the Palestinian side and degrading of Hamas’s terror network feel like an upper hand for Israel, it is a misconception. In the deadliest fighting in Gaza since 2014, nothing is what it seems. Israel might be inflicting more damage, but Hamas is winning the perception war.
As pressure grows on Israel for immediate de-escalation and ceasefire with even a reluctant Joe Biden — who has blocked the UNSC from issuing a statement on the conflict three times already, and has been fighting back pressure from within his own party to hold Israel responsible — making it clear to Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call Wednesday that fighting has to stop, Hamas is soldiering ahead with its weaponization of the civilian population in Gaza.
The terrorist organisation is secure in its belief that the civilian body count in Palestine is directly proportional to the tsunami of global anger against Israel even though only one side is trying to discharge its primary duty in a violent conflict — protect its civilian population — while the other side is using Gazans as cannon fodder for its guerilla warfare.
As columnist David Horovitz writes in Times of Israel, “beyond our immediate neighborhood, the complexities of attempting to thwart a terror-state’s rocket fire, cynically launched from the midst of a civilian population, have undermined Israel’s international standing, with numerous world leaders and opinion-shapers maliciously or lazily comparing death tolls and concluding that because Israel’s is lower, it must be the aggressor.”
At the heart of this perception, war is the inability of media, global opinion shapers and influencers in understanding the complexities of a conflict and furthering their activism/ignorance/prejudices through the reach of social media. What we see before our eyes, therefore, is just one reality when several realities are colliding with each other to create a complex mosaic of ‘realities’.
So, while Israel is bombing Gaza to dust and seemingly ‘winning the war’ through a “disproportionate response” — in another reality it is losing the battle and digging a deeper hole for itself each day.
Writing for Tablet, Matti Friedman points out that “subtleties seem beside the point when the villains and the heroes are so clear”. He adds, “When some Westerners see dozens of green Hamas flags in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, they seem to perceive a civil rights protest, and when a Hamas leader calls on his people to buy “five-shekel knives” to cut off Jewish heads, demonstrating with his finger exactly how this should be done, some hear a call for social justice that Israelis should try to accommodate.”
It’ll be useful to place India’s statement within this context. The relentless missile attacks from both sides, growing casualties, destruction of properties and Jewish-Arab rioting in the mixed localities of Israel make it obvious that India will call for “immediate de-escalation”, “to arrest any further slide towards the brink.” The statement mentioned the death of an Indian national, a caregiver from Kerala in Israel, to rocket fire and “reiterated” India’s “strong condemnation of all acts of violence, provocation, incitement and destruction.” Not doing so would be a moral transgression. The fulcrum of the statement is ‘balance’, but the statement also makes it apparent how difficult it is to strike a ‘balance’ in the complex vortex of competing realities.
Ambassador Tirumurti stated that “violence began in East Jerusalem a week back”, linking it to the “possible eviction process in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighbourhood in East Jerusalem” and “violence in Jerusalem, especially on Haram Al Sharif/ Temple Mount during the holy month of Ramadan.”
The fact that India places the origin of the current cycle of violence on 7 May, when clashes first broke out between Palestinians and Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound — the sacred site for Islam also revered by the Jews as Temple Mount — and not on May 10 when Hamas’s rockets landed on Israeli soil for the first time in years provoking furious reaction from Israel, is significant.
No less so is the reference to the property dispute in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, where fears of eviction of six Palestinian families — residing on property taken from Jewish families in 1948 — through a judicial verdict became, as New York Times writes, “emblematic of a wider effort to remove thousands of Palestinians from strategic areas in East Jerusalem and a stand-in for the whole decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Israeli columnist Matti Friedman calls “the evictions unjust and inflammatory, and Israel needs these properties like a hole in the head.”
India’s statement is quite categorical in that it urges “both sides to show extreme restraint, desist from actions that exacerbate tensions, and refrain from attempts to unilaterally change the existing status-quo, including in East Jerusalem and its neighbourhood.” The call for maintaining status quo in the contested sites and reference to clashes at the Al-Aqsa Mosque indicates that India is leaning on Israel to show restraint and contesting Tel Aviv’s version of events.
Read with India’s “strong support to the just Palestinian cause and its unwavering commitment to the two-State solution” would seem New Delhi is admonishing Israel. At one level, it is possible to interpret India’s statement as favouring the Palestinian narrative. After all, as Indian Express points out, “the relationship with Palestine was almost an article of faith in Indian foreign policy for over four decades.”
India co-sponsored the draft resolution on “the right of Palestinians to self-determination” during the 53rd session of the UN General Assembly and voted in favour of it. It was also the first non-Arab state to recognize PLO as “sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” in 1974. New Delhi was one of the first countries to recognize the State of Palestine in 1988 and be it late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat or incumbent Mahmoud Abbas, India has played host to them a number of times.
India also has deep and ever-growing stakes in the Arab world and would have been careful not to alienate its key partners in a region that remains key to its energy security and houses 8.5 million Indians and generates billions in remittances. And under Narendra Modi as prime minister, India’s relationship with the Arab Gulf has been deeper.
Writing for Economic Times, Union minister for petroleum and natural gas Dharmendra Pradhan points out, “In August 2015, Modi became the first Indian PM to visit the UAE in 30 years, which he visited again in 2018 and 2019. During his last visit, he received the Order of Zayed, the UAE’s highest civil decoration. Three years prior, he received the King Abdulaziz Sash Award of Saudi Arabia and the King Hamad Order of the Renaissance, the third highest civilian order of Bahrain in 2019. Modi has had a calibrated approach to the Gulf region’s powers with high profile visits to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Iran and Bahrain, which were followed by Gulf dignitaries’ visit to New Delhi.”
Does the statement, therefore, fail to square up to India’s growing closeness with Israel, more openness about the depth of bilateral ties and the personal rapport between Modi and Netanyahu? The answer is an emphatic ‘no’. Though it didn’t let Israel completely off the hook due to geopolitical compulsions, there are enough clues to indicate where the sympathies lie for India, which has long suffered the scourge of terrorism like Israel.
The first thing to note is that India is backing the political process in Palestine that has been weakened by a terrorist outfit’s adoption of the Palestinian movement. By firing rockets at Israel, and emerging as the figure of resistance against ‘Israeli occupation’, Hamas has degraded the political capital of Fatah Party and its chief, Mahmoud Abbas, the perpetual president of Palestinian Authority who recently called off the first election in 15 years fearing defeat at the hands of Hamas.
The marginalisation of the West Bank leadership in favour of a terrorist outfit that seeks to propagate unending jihad as opposed to the efforts of compromise and negotiation by the moderate Arab centre in West Asia has fed the violence on both sides. This is why we must take a relook at India’s statement where it says it strongly supports “just Palestinian cause” and has “unwavering commitment to the two-State solution”. This is a clear distinction drawn between the traditional backing of political process within Palestine leading to a two-state solution and the terrorism from Hamas.
This explains why India formally “condemns” “indiscriminate rocket firings from Gaza targeting the civilian population in Israel” and frames Israeli response as “retaliatory strikes” quite unlike the emerging global narrative that identified Israel as the perpetrator and aggressor.
The second clue in the well-drafted statement, that India recognizes PLO as the legitimate body that represents Palestinians and not the terror outfit, comes in these lines: “These incidents have once again underscored the need for immediate resumption of dialogue between Israel and Palestinian authorities. The absence of direct and meaningful negotiations between the parties is widening the trust deficit between the parties.” The reference is to Palestinian authority, not Hamas.
The semantics are no less significant. India’s statement mentions Haram al-Sharif Mosque twice, and both times it is hyphenated as Haram al-Sharif Mosque/Temple Mount, referring to the Jewish claim over Islam’s holy site and negating “exclusive Islamic control and ownership.”
On balance, therefore, India’s carefully drafted statement backs Israel’s right to self-defence against indiscriminate attacks from a terrorist outfit that targets Israeli civilians, derecognises the role of Hamas as the representative of Palestinian people and contests the framing of the Palestinian narrative of the Gaza conflict while leaning on Israel to show restraint — and is mindful of not hurting Arab sentiment. Unpacking the layers of the clever document makes it evident where India’s empathies lie.
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