On 7 October 2023, Palestinian group Hamas, stormed into Israeli settlements and towns from their base in the Gaza Strip. In no time, the Hamas gunmen rolled into as many as 22 locations outside the Gaza Strip, including towns and communities as far as 15 miles from the Gaza border.
A seemingly beleaguered Israel immediately launched a series of air strikes, but pleaded helplessness. Solidarity poured in from Israel’s allies. The United States of America (USA), Britain, France, Germany, all stood unconditionally with Israel. So did India. For good reason, it may appear.
In reality, Israel was neither startled nor helpless. In the days following the Hamas attack, Israel unleashed its overwhelming military might on Gaza with an efficiency characteristic of a well-drilled and well-prepared force. Meanwhile, the pro-Israeli media in Western Europe and India churned out large amounts of misinformation and hate-speech against Palestinians. Israel’s ally states immediately stepped in to curb protests against the attack on Gaza and its civilian population.
What else could Israel have done? That’s the question posed even by ’good guys’, who ‘genuinely understand’ the situation but claim to simply not know what options Israel had in the face of the Hamas attack. The ‘good guys’ seem to have forgotten that the current situation is entirely a creation of Israel and its Western allies. It is the result of decades of imperialism and settler colonialism in Palestine. Israel’s war on Palestine is unjust and its actions go against the interests of long-lasting peace and justice in the West Asia.
India has historically identified with the anti-imperial and decolonial cause of Palestine. While India did recognize Israel in 1950, it established diplomatic relations with it only in 1992. However, since then, ties have grown by leaps and bounds, especially under Prime Minister Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu – a man responsible to a great extent for the current situation.
When Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, on the mandate of turning India into a Hindu nationalist state, he looked to Netanyahu as a leader to emulate: an unashamed head of a militaristic, ethno-nationalist state, thriving on an Islamophobic undercurrent. Unsurprisingly, defense has been the bedrock of India’s strategic friendship with Israel. Between Modi’s election in May 2014 and November 2014, Israel exported $662 million worth of Israeli weapons and defense items to India. India is currently Israel’s biggest defense buyer, accounting for 46 percent of Israel’s arms exports. In July 2017, Modi, who counts Netanyahu among his ‘friends’, became the first-ever Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel.
In this essay, we shall look briefly into the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the West Asia, and of India’s relationship with both Israel and Palestine. We suggest that India’s newfound support for Israel is unacceptable. It is inimical to the causes of decolonization and peace, and it goes against India’s national interest.
Israel was created by the outgoing British colonizers in connivance with the Americans back in 1947 in the historic land of Palestine. The United Nations (UN) General Assembly, under the influence of Britain and USA, passed a resolution in November 1947 partitioning Palestine into two states, with Jerusalem under a UN administration. The entire Arab world – on the cusp of decolonization and wary of neo-imperialism – rejected the plan, arguing that it was unfair and violated the UN mandate.
Britain and USA claimed that their stand was a response to the Zionist demand for a separate Jewish homeland. Zionists were people who believed that Jews ought to be able to go back to Palestine and have what they called 'a national homeland'; in other words, a Jewish state. Jews had suffered persecution in Russia, France and Germany, and a Jewish state would provide a safe refuge for Jews from all over the world. The situation escalated with the Nazi persecution of Jews in the 1930s and 1940s. For the Zionists, Palestine was the most desirable destination, for according to Jewish scriptures, it was the lost ancient homeland of the Jews.
Britain had become involved in 1917, when the foreign minister, Arthur Balfour, announced that Britain supported the idea of a Jewish national home in Palestine. After 1919, when Palestine became a British mandate, large numbers of Jews began to arrive in Palestine. The Arabs protested bitterly to the British that they wanted an independent Palestine for the Arabs, and an end to the immigration of Jews. The British were loath to accept the Arab viewpoint, especially in the light of certain economic developments in the region.
The discovery of oil in the region in 1908 had made the West Asia highly significant to the global economy. Soon after the discovery, a British oil company called Burma Oil created a subsidiary company to develop oil production in Persia, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC). It started the production of oil by 1913. Britain’s Royal Navy, under the leadership of Winston Churchill, who later became the British Prime Minister during the second world war, became the company’s major customer and a de facto hidden power behind its success.
The Western European military powers were deeply invested in the West Asian economy by the time the second world war ended. The significance of oil was not lost in the USA too. They needed a West Asia power firmly on their side, given the region’s geo-political importance in the context of global Communist assertion, in addition to the region’s economic value. Israel, their own creation, would be a more trustworthy ally than the potentially hostile freshly decolonized Arab nation-states.
Importantly, not all Jews in Western Europe and USA supported the Zionist demand for Israel. Many opposed it, particularly those that were prominent in the anti-racist anti-fascist movements across Europe and North America. Many of them were communists who saw the creation of Israel as an imperialist act, and a clever way for the Western powers to avoid responsibility for anti-Semitic sentiments and practices in their own societies.
Palestine was a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society prior to the partition; home to Palestinian Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities. But once the creation of Israel looked likely, and large-scale migration of European Jews increased, conflict intensified. From 1936 onwards there were violent protests by Arabs which culminated in an uprising. The British suppressed it with some brutality, killing over 3000 Arabs. The Zionists, on their part, began a terrorist campaign against both Arabs and British; one of the most spectacular incidents was the blowing up of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in July 1946, which the British were using as their headquarters. The British and Americans, already invested in the Israeli cause, lost no time in pressurizing the UN to partition Palestine.
Soon after the UN Resolution, Jewish militias launched attacks against Palestinian villages, forcing thousands to flee. The situation escalated into a full-blown Arab-Israeli war in 1948. The result of the war was the permanent displacement of more than half of the Palestinian population, known as Nakba, or catastrophe, in Palestinian historical memory. As early as December 1948, the UN General Assembly called for refugee return, property restitution and compensation. However, 75 years later, despite countless UN resolutions, the rights of the displaced Palestinians to return to their homeland continue to be denied.
Before the British rule in Palestine, Jews made up approximately 6 percent of the total population. From 1947 to 1950, during the Nakba, Zionist military forces expelled at least 750,000 Palestinians and captured 78 percent of historic Palestine. The remaining 22 percent was divided into the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
During the Six Day War of 1967, Israeli forces occupied all of historic Palestine including Gaza and West Bank (which includes East Jerusalem) and expelled a further 300,000 Palestinians from their homes. The expelled population has lived in refugee camps ever since. From 1967 onwards, till date, Israel has implemented a violent, discriminatory, apartheid rule against Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank, which we will discuss later in this essay. Importantly, Arab aggression ceased after the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Through the USA-mediated Camp David agreement signed in 1978, Egypt became the first Arab state to recognize Israel. Israel nominally agreed to respect the two-state solution originally proposed by the UN, but it refused to give up the occupied Palestinian territories.
In response to the 1948 Nakba and the subsequent Israeli aggression, Palestinians organized themselves under various banners. Fatah, born in 1959, emerged as a powerful Palestinian nationalist and social democratic party. Till the early 2000s, it remained the largest group within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO was founded as an umbrella organization in 1964. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a secular Palestinian Marxist–Leninist and revolutionary socialist organization, was founded in 1967. It quickly emerged as the second largest group within the PLO. Notably, they all felt the need for a military response to the overwhelming might of the Israeli state, especially given its reluctance to respect the boundaries proposed in the UN resolution of 1946 despite the cessation of Arab invasions following Camp David.
Palestinian organizations put enough pressure on Isarel and its Western allies by the 1990s for the peace process to make serious headway. In 1992, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres joined hands with Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, to chalk out a roadmap for peace. By the peace accord of September 1993, signed in Oslo, Israel formally recognized the PLO; the PLO recognized Israel's right to exist and promised to give up armed struggle, and Israel agreed to give Palestinians limited self-rule in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and to take steps towards complete demilitarization.
In 1996, elections were held to the Palestinian Council. There was an encouragingly large turnout of over 80 per cent. As expected, Yasser Arafat became the new Palestinian president and Fatah emerged as the majority party in the newly elected parliament. But the Zionist hardliners in Israel consistently sabotaged the implementation of the peace process. In response, Hamas, a more radical organization which desired to win back the whole of Palestine from Israel and was ready to use terror methods to achieve their aims, gained legitimacy especially in the Gaza Strip.
Benjamin Netanyahu, first elected the Prime Minister of Israel in 1996, never accepted the agreements reached in Oslo. He backtracked from the commitments made by the previous Israel government, which caused more resistance from the Palestinians. By 2000, the peace process initiated at Oslo had floundered. The status of Jerusalem had proved to be a thorny issue.
The original UN intention when Israel was created was that Jerusalem should be under international control. However, the fighting of 1948-9 ended with Jordan ruling East Jerusalem and Israel occupying West Jerusalem. This position remained until the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel captured East Jerusalem, along with the entire West Bank. Jerusalem has great symbolic and emotional significance for both Jews and Arabs, but Israel was unwilling to grant Palestine complete sovereignty over East Jerusalem.
On 28 September 2000, Ariel Sharon, the leader of the opposition Likud party, surrounded by a large contingent of security men, paid a highly publicized visit to Temple Mount in Jerusalem. He claimed that he was going to deliver 'a message of peace'. But to most of the rest of the world it seemed that this was a gesture to emphasize Israeli sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem, and even a deliberate attempt to provoke violence, which would end the peace process. His visit sparked off riots which spread from Temple Mount across the entire West Bank and Gaza, and among Arabs in Israel. It soon turned into a full-scale uprising, which became known as the al-Aqsa (Jerusalem) intifada (‘shaking-off’) heralding a new phase of confrontation.
Since 2007, Israel has imposed an air, land, and sea blockade on the Gaza Strip, making life miserable. The overwhelming Gazan support for the Hamas since 2005 has been cited as the key reason behind the blockade. But the Hamas’s strength is largely a product of Israel’s failure to honor the Oslo accords. If Hamas is indeed the thorn in the peace process, why is Israel continuously building Israeli settlements and intensifying repression in the West Bank, where Fatah continues to remain the dominant force and Hamas has little presence?
Israeli settlements built illegally on Palestinian land in the West Bank kicked off on a large scale after the conquest of these territories in 1967. Today there are between 600,000 and 750,000 Israeli settlers living in at least 250 illegal settlements (130 official, 120 unofficial) in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. These Israeli settlements are illegal under international law as they violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bans an occupying power from transferring its population to the area it occupies.
The population of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is growing at a faster rate than the population of Israel. Roughly 10 percent of Israel’s 6.8 million Jewish population lives in these occupied Palestinian territories. Despite being outside of Israel proper, these settlers are granted Israeli citizenship and receive government subsidies that significantly lower their cost of living. In contrast, Palestinians living in the West Bank are subject to Israeli military law.
Israel’s blockade of Gaza since 2007 has cut off Palestinians from their main urban center, Jerusalem, which hosts specialized hospitals, foreign consulates, banks and other vital services, even though the terms of the 1993 Oslo Accords stated that Israel must treat the Palestinian territories as one political entity, not to be divided.
Through a series of reports published during 2021-22, Amnesty International revealed shocking details of how Israel was imposing an institutionalized regime of oppression and domination against the Palestinian people wherever the latter exercised control over their rights; fragmenting and segregating Palestinian citizens of Israel and residents of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT); and denying Palestinian refugees their right of return. Through massive seizures of land and property, unlawful killings, infliction of serious injuries, forcible transfers, arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement, and denial of nationality, Israel has consistently pushed the people of Gaza and West Bank to a corner.
Israeli forces killed 151 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and injured 9,875, – according to the Amnesty reports – amid a surge of military incursions that involved excessive use of force, including unlawful killings and extrajudicial executions in 2021. Defense for Children International-Palestine reported that Israeli forces or settlers killed 36 children across the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the same year.
In March 2021, Israeli authorities re-enacted the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law that imposes sweeping restrictions on Palestinian family unification between Israeli citizens or residents and their spouses from the OPT, to maintain a Jewish demographic majority. In July 2021, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld a law authorizing the interior minister to strip citizens of their citizenship if convicted of acts that amount to ‘breach of allegiance to the state’. Since its enactment in 2008, application of the law has only been considered against Palestinian citizens. This is merely a gist of the Israeli actions against the people of Gaza and West Bank.
India’s support to Israel marks the culmination of the shift in India’s domestic and foreign policies since 1992. The shift had to do with India’s eagerness to be a subordinate ally of the USA, as it looked to integrate itself into the neo-liberal world order in the early 1990s. More recently, Indo-US interests in countering Chinese economic domination has also kept India close to Israel.
Under the auspices of the recently established West Asia Quad (comprising India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United States), India has become fundamental in helping to integrate Israel within the West Asia while it continues its occupation of Palestine, as well as aiding Washington as it challenges China in the region. The quad grouping, officially called I2U2, first convened in October 2021, with a virtual meeting of foreign ministers. The four countries aim to cooperate on joint investments and new initiatives in water, energy, transportation, space, health, and food security. The group's first joint statement, released on July 14, 2022, states that the countries aim to create a unique space-based tool with wide-ranging applications for policymakers, institutions, and entrepreneurs. Mr. Narendra Modi participated in the First I2U2 Leaders' virtual summit on July 14, 2022.
Military and economic partnerships between India and Israel have gone hand in hand. Israel has sold radar and surveillance equipment for military application to India. It also gives counter-insurgency training to India’s anti-terror forces. On May 10, 2017, three warships from the Indian navy docked in the port of Haifa, ahead of Modi’s scheduled visit during the summer. The ships, the INS Mumbai, the INS Trisula, and the INS Aditya, participated in a naval drill with the Israeli navy when they entered the port. This was a prelude to an even more significant development. The Adani Group acquired the Haifa port in Israel for $1.2 billion in January 2023, with 70% stake in a consortium led by the Adani Group and Israel's Gadot Group.
As Indian citizens, we must ask whose purpose is served through India’s solidarity with Israel? Neo-liberalism, Islamophobia, majoritarian, and authoritarian rule seem to be guiding principles behind this alliance. Are these consistent with the interests of workers, peasants and women – the makers of the country? Do these match the interests of Dalit Bahujan, Adivasis, and Muslims whose socio-economic, cultural and political futures are threatened by these very principles? India’s claim that the Indo-US-Israel axis is the only way to counter Chinese aggression must also be subjected to a thorough scrutiny.
India must continue to stand with Palestine and demand accountability from the main aggressor: Israel. The pro-Palestine position is consistent with India’s anti-colonial heritage and legacy, which the current government is keen to undo at multiple levels. It is also the only position which can ensure peace in the West Asia through the recognition of a sovereign Palestine and implementation of a lasting political solution. A powerful mobilization demanding accountability from Israel is necessary also to help tilt the scales against the divisive Islamophobic politics that is being played out in our country.
Standing with Palestine implies a democratic disposition in both national and international politics. Both must be based on the core principles of anticolonialism and anti-imperialism, respect for territorial integrity, and a commitment to diversity, equality, and citizenship rights.