There are too many moving pieces that India needs to be cautious about when its response finally comes.
Operation Al Aqsa Flood by Hamas has not just shaken up Israel but the entire world. It’s swept the pieces from the chessboard on which the world’s strategic thinkers and foreign police shapers dream up global moves. All bets are off. Hamas has started a new game altogether. Perhaps that was the intention.
At a time of a massive political upheaval and division in Israel against the far-right policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Hamas was able to carry out its attack at a time and day of its choosing. The shock at the intelligence failure in the land of the famed Pegasus and other surveillance equipment is as great as the world’s horror at civilian casualties inflicted by the attack, including children and women killed and an uncertain number taken hostage.
Netanyahu’s “declaration of war” presages more human casualties on both sides, more horrific deaths and killings as the conflict escalates. At this moment, Israel is mourning over 900 dead. In densely packed Gaza, local health authorities have quoted similar civilian deaths due to Israel’s bombardment.
As the conflict escalates, a lot will change in the world, again. Even as the geopolitical flux triggered by Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, countries will need to rearrange themselves for the outbreak of a new cycle of hostilities in the world's oldest conflict.
Meanwhile, the long silence of India’s ministry of external affairs, after two unstinted expressions of solidarity by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is telling of how quickly the situation has changed.
In the aftermath of Hamas’s attack last week, Modi’s swift tweet expressing solidarity with Israel reciprocated Israel’s immediate support to India during the 26/11 attacks by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba. Israel’s support at the time came even before its nationals were targeted at Chabad House, the Jewish centre in Mumbai.
Modi then had a phone call with Netanyahu where he reiterated India’s support for Israel. His second tweet, which condemned terrorism in “all its forms and manifestations”, was clearly aimed at Hamas, with which India has no dealings. Delhi engages only with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which is controlled by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation or Fatah.
India is thus among the few in the Global South to articulate such strong, unqualified support for Israel. Perhaps the Ministry of External Affairs wants to allow a decent interval before articulating a response that will need to include all other elements of what has been the Indian policy on the conflict in West Asia without risking being seen as watering down the prime minister’s first reaction.
This policy includes support for a two-state solution. In previous war-like situations, India has called for restraint on all sides, performing a balancing act between its three-decade ties with Israel and its historic friendship with the Arab world. India’s June 2021 statement in the UN Security Council during a particularly fraught period even appeared to locate the reasons for that cycle of the conflict on Israel’s settler policy in East Jerusalem rather than Gaza.
One of the justifications being forwarded for the silence is that the Arab world is itself divided. While the UAE and Bahrain may have condemned Hamas, it may get increasingly difficult for the heads of these countries to ignore the mood on the Arab street. This is especially since Saudi Arabia, the regional leader, did not denounce Hamas in its statement but noted that it had repeatedly warned Israel that its “occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights, and the repetition of systematic provocations” would lead to a dangerous turn. Kuwait, Oman and Qatar have also criticised Israel.
With Delhi’s ties to this region stronger than ever before, any government statement will have to reflect at least some of the Arab outrage. Even India’s allies in the South Asian region have been more circumspect, asking for restraint on all sides and renewing calls for a two-state solution.
If civilian casualties continue to rise, with Israel’s retaliatory bombardment of Gaza, the calls for restraint will only grow louder, and not just in South Asia. While standing by Israel’s right to defend itself, even Biden reminded Israel that militants intentionally target civilians while democracies like the United States and Israel are “stronger and more secure when we act according to the rule of law”.
Within BRICS, Modi’s positioning of India is in sync only with Brazil’s stand. Palestinians often compare their treatment at the hands of Israel to “apartheid”. South Africa, which threw off the shackles of apartheid only three decades ago after a long struggle, blamed Israel for the escalation.
In a statement, South Africa’s department of international relations said: “The new conflagration has arisen from the continued illegal occupation of Palestine land, continued settlement expansion, desecration of the Al Aqsa Mosque and Christian holy sites, and ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people. The region is in desperate need of a credible peace process that delivers on the calls of a plethora of previous UN resolutions for a two-state solution and a just and comprehensive peace between Israel and Palestine.”
Delhi, which is perceived as supporting Russia on its invasion of Ukraine (or not backing Ukraine enough), is this time quite clearly with the US on the Hamas attack. For the US, the war in Ukraine may itself take a backseat if the conflict in West Asia spirals to draw in Hezbollah and Iran.
As the world changes, India will need to rethink many recent developments it had billed as “game-changers” that would work to its advantage.
The first geopolitical casualty is the highly vaunted Israel-Saudi normalisation process, that US Secretary of State Anthony J Blinken said just days ago “would be transformative, if we can get there”. This process was likely one of the chief triggers of the Hamas attack, intended as a reminder to all players that no transformative deal is possible by excluding the Palestinians. The temptation to make “peace in the Middle East” seems to be the curse of every US presidency in the closing months of a term, and none has yet succeeded.
President Donald Trump believed he had a win with the Abraham Accords. But those too are up in the air now. Hailed as Trump’s single big foreign policy “success”, the accords had left the Palestinians in shock and anger at the “betrayal” and “stab in the back” as one of its biggest supporters, the UAE (Bahrain and Morocco followed suit), signed the accord to normalise ties with Israel.
Meanwhile, among both Palestinians and Israelis, there are fewer takers for a two-state solution. In any case, this has been far from implementation due to disagreements over the partitioning of territory. Palestinians have always demanded a return to pre-1967 borders, when Israel changed the status quo by capturing Gaza, West Bank, Golan Heights and Sinai. Israel's long-standing settler policy in the West Bank, given new wings by the Netanyahu government in recent months, has undermined the idea of two states further.
The 1990s split in the Palestinian movement between the PLO/Fatahand Hamas – the former controls West Bank and the latter Gaza – helped Israel consolidate policies that worked against the two-state solution. Hamas was useful to Israel as its hardline positions undermined the legitimacy of the PLO among a new generation of Palestinians, who saw its acceptance of the two-state solution as a sell out. The action by Hamas would have further strengthened the group’s image at the expense of the PLO.
Talk about “normalisation” and “stability” in West Asia, with so many unresolved issues, plus a government in Israel whose ministers have openly baited Palestinians over the last 10 months, seemed a fantasy. Even Blinken appeared to acknowledge this when he said “whether we can get there and when we can get there, that we don’t know”.
What this means is that the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor is effectively dead. Announced by Modi and Biden during the G20 summit, it was hailed as “a real big deal” that would put the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in the shade. No details about the plan were forthcoming but projections were aplenty about how Delhi's influence in West Asia would act as a counterweight to Chinese influence in the region, strengthening its ties to the Gulf countries and with the US.
The U2I2 initiative, the Biden Administration-sponsored, feel-good “quad of the Middle East” that included the US, Israel, India and the UAE, may also have to be shelved.
China’s response to the Hamas attack has been the most circumspect of all. It has not condemned Hamas, instead expressing concern at the “continued escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict” and urging “all parties concerned to immediately cease fire and stop fighting”. Earlier this year, it succeeded in projecting influence in West Asia by brokering a peace agreement between Saudi and Iran, which in turn led to a halt in the fighting in Yemen.
At the time, it appeared as if Beijing was signalling that it was positioning itself as a peacemaker in the region. It looked as if it might even try its hand at mediating between Israel and Palestine. Now, it seems that China wants to steer clear of involvement in a situation that could jeopardise its vast economic influence in the region.
Whenever Delhi decides to break its silence, it too might have to return to a more cautious formulation in keeping with its long association with the Palestinian cause, its historic friendships, and interests in the West Asian region, which includes strategic partnerships and economic ties, not to forget the welfare of millions of Indians living and working across the Gulf countries.
Nirupama Subramanian is founder editor of AwaazSouthAsia.com.