Friday, January 23, 2009

India and the Gaza crisis

Conflict in the Middle East: Indias tightrope walk

By P R Kumaraswamy
Deccan Herald, 24 January 2009, Saturday

India expressed its willingness to recognise the complex Middle East realities by refusing to join the anti-Israeli chorus.

Pin-pricks! That was how a colleague described the barrage of rockets from the Gaza Strip that were pounding Israel. While having no qualms about depicting the Israeli response as ‘disproportionate and brutal’, the academic carefully skirted any reference to the Qassam rockets which precipitated the recent round of violence. Those who are unfamiliar with the Middle East realities might be wondering why Israel was using such a massive force against unarmed Palestinians especially when it was at the receiving end of international criticism and condemnations.

These ‘pin-pricks’ did not cause much human casualties. Not that their launchers did not want to kill but they did. Effective early warning systems and organised safety mechanism saved scores of lives in Israel.

But why dismiss the Qassam rockets as pin-pricks? Admitting that rockets were launched against Israeli civilians would weaken the case against Israel. Such a one-sided understanding of the Middle East is not unusual to mainstream Indian intellectuals. They choose to ignore the relative quiet of the West Bank. How come over two million residents of the West Bank remain mute spectators? Are they all collaborators?

India’s response to the latest battle was curious, to say the least. There were political pressures. President of the Indian Union Muslim League Panakkad Muhammedali Shihab Thangal demanded the resignation of his party’s representative E Ahamed from the Union cabinet. For his part, the Minister of State for External Affairs maintained that he would follow “the government’s view” which he felt strongly condemned Israel for its action.

This intellectual one-sidedness is in contrast to the tightrope walk done by the Indian government. This time around it had been more nuanced than the second Lebanon war that broke out 2006. In its first statement issued within hours after the hostilities began, the Indian government ‘condemned’ the Hezbollah whose abduction of two Israeli soldiers precipitated the crisis. This balance quickly disappeared thanks to domestic pressures from the Left and widespread support within the Arab street for the Islamic militants.

In its first statement, the Indian government admitted that it was “aware of the immediate cross-border provocations resulting from rocket attacks particularly against targets in southern Israel.” In later pronouncements, however, it accused Israel of using “disproportionate force” and “indiscriminate force” which were “unwarranted and condemnable”. Since the conflict erupted on December 27, the Indian government came out with as many as five official statements on the Gaza crisis.

In a statement issued following Israel’s ground offensive, it demanded “an immediate end to military action by all concerned,” an indirect reference to Hamas. A few days later it described the Israeli offer of a three-hour cease fire as ineffective because “nearly three-fourths of the Gaza population” was without electricity and food. Welcoming the peace initiatives of Egypt and France, it hoped for an early end to the plight of the people of Gaza Strip and an early resumption of the peace process.

Through these statements, India expressed its willingness to recognise the complex Middle East realities than in the past. One could fathom a few possible explanations for the Indian refusal to join the anti-Israeli chorus.
The crisis over the Gaza Strip highlighted the internal schism within the Palestinian society. The West Bank was relatively quiet and tranquil when the Gaza Strip was literally on fire. Obviously, the Fatah and Hamas are not in sync over the Gaza crisis. This naturally calls for a measure of caution and balance. Going overboard may garner media headlines but is disastrous as a national policy.

As far as India is concerned there is only one Palestinian Authority, the one that is headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. Without saying it in so many words, it has not recognised the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Due to security concerns in August 2003, more than a year before Arafat’s death, the office of the Indian mission representative was shifted from the Gaza city to Ramallah. Thus, New Delhi cannot ignore the implications of Abbas’ not so subtle criticisms of Hamas for the current round of violence.

Furthermore, the Left is weaker than in the post. Their withdrawal of support to UPA government has considerably undermined their influence. Ever since the formation of the UPA government, the Left had been demanding a ‘course correction’ in India’s Israel policy. Recognising that the termination of relations was impossible, the Left parties had been calling for an end to military-security ties with the Jewish State. Much to their consternation and disappointment, the UPA enhanced the level of security ties with Israel. The launching of an Israeli spy satellite in January 2008 was a case in point.

Echoing the calls by Hamas leaders for the Palestinians to rise against Israel, some Indian media pundits talked of the third Palestinian intifada. In their eagerness to condemn Israel, they conveniently ignored the situation in the West Bank. How to square up the violence in Gaza Strip with total indifference of the West Bank Palestinians? Were the latter merely collaborators or have fundamental differences with Hamas over Palestinian destiny? Why get into uncomfortable intricacies. So is the Indian government’s nuanced approach.

(The writer teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

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