Q-1 Before we talk about India’s stance can you please briefly explain to us what is
happening in this part of West Asia? Why are so many civilians being killed?
S : Tensions between Israelis and the Palestinians, both in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, have been rising in recent weeks over three issues.
The first is the clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police near the Old City of East Jerusalem, which began in mid-April, at the start of Ramadan. Palestinians clashed with Israeli police, who erected barriers to prevent evening gatherings at the walled Old City’s Damascus Gate following iftar, the breaking of the day’s fast. Palestinians saw the barriers as a limitation on their ability to assemble freely. The police claimed they were there to keep the peace, which seems dubious given that Palestinians sitting or milling around the Damascus gate posed no threat unless provoked, which the barriers did. After that the Jerusalem street saw clashes between Israeli and Palestinian civilians.
The second issue is the possible eviction of 13 Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah
neighbourhood in east Jerusalem’s disputed territory. Sheikh Jarrah is a primarily Palestinian
neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, just a short distance from the Old City. Anger had been building among Palestinians for weeks in the run-up to a now-postponed Israeli court ruling on May 10 on whether authorities could evict dozens of Palestinians from the Old City’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood and give their homes to Jewish settlers.
The third issue that has sparked the recent round of violence is the events at the Al-Aqsa compound in the Old City. On Jumu’atul-Wida, the last Friday of Ramzan i.e. 7th May, Israeli forces broke up a massive congregation of Palestinian worshippers at the mosque, revered as Islam's third holiest site, injuring over 150 Palestinians. As a result, more clashes occurred in the area over the next two days. On Monday, tensions erupted once more, just hours before the annual Jerusalem Day march, in which thousands of Israeli flag-waving Jewish youth were to walk through the Old City to commemorate the day Israeli forces captured the territory during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Despite the fact that the march’s route had been changed, the Israeli police entered the Al-Aqsa mosque compound as a precautionary, eventually firing stun grenades and tear gas and clashing with Palestinians, injuring over 300 of them. Hamas launched rockets into Israel that evening from Gaza, just minutes after issuing an ultimatum to Israel demanding the withdrawal of its security forces from the compound and Sheikh Jarrah. Israeli retaliation followed shortly thereafter.
Q-2) Could you please explain why Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah are being evicted
from their homes?
S : In November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted in favour of partitioning Palestine, effectively ending British control of the territory. The Jewish community in Palestine accepted the partition plan, whereas the Arabs rejected it, demanding sovereignty over the entire territory, as had been granted to Arabs in Jordan, Syria, and Iraq.
There was a civil war in Palestine that lasted until May 14, 1948, during which the Palestinians
fought with the Jews for control of the country. When Britain formally left Palestine and the state of Israel was established on UN-mandated territory. Following that, the dispute over the partition plan erupted into an international war, in which the fledgling state of Israel fought Palestinian Arabs as well as Arabs from neighbouring countries who had joined the war. During the war, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced and became refugees in neighbouring countries.
Jordan took control of parts of Jerusalem at the end of the war as a result of armistice agreements signed by Israel with Arab countries, including the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, which had previously been home to a Jewish community that had been displaced as a result of the war.
In 1956, some Palestinian refugee families moved into homes built with the assistance of the
Jordanian government and the UNRWA in Sheikh Jarrah. Israel occupied east Jerusalem,
including Sheikh Jarrah in the June 1967 War, and annexed the territory in 1980, declaring a
‘united Jerusalem’ the capital of the state of Israel. The international community, however, does not recognise Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem.
Israel passed the Legal and Administrative Matters Law in 1970, establishing the collective right of Israeli Jews to claim Palestinian property on the grounds that it was previously owned by Jews prior to 1948. In 1972, nearly two decades after Palestinians settled in the Sheikh Jarrah area, rightwing Jewish settlers began challenging Palestinian claims to their property, igniting a legal battle that continues to this day.
Q-3) If more civilians are dying in the Palestinian territory of Gaza, why are so many
Indians expressing strong support for Israel? (#IndiastandswithIsrael)
S : This hashtag was trended by Hindutva-driven right-wing Islamophobes who see Muslims
everywhere in the world as enemies (and in a Hindu nation, they must be subordinated through use of force). Unfortunately, they have little understanding of the nuances of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is complex and long-running, and regard the killing of civilians in Gaza as the death of their enemy, Muslims. Because they are so filled with bigotry that they justify every Israeli attack on Gaza while condemning every Hamas attack on Israel.
While Israel is protected by an iron dome from Hamas rockets, Gaza is an open field that is
extremely vulnerable. The Hindutva brigade are blind to the enormous power disparity between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the gross disproportionality of Israel’s response to Hamas' rocket. Israel employs such disproportionate responses as a deterrent against future Hamas rocket attacks, which clearly does not work, and continues with a business-as-usual approach to the occupation of Palestinians and associated injustices.
Israel and Hamas are both wrong when they exchange fire, as it results in civilian deaths
on both sides, but for our ill-informed Hindutva brigade, two wrongs make a right when it comes to killing Palestinians, the majority of whom are Muslims.
Islamophobia fuelled by Hindutva may have infiltrated the Hindu mainstream. So, the pro-Israeli sentiment regarding the clashes between Hamas and Israel may be more widespread than I would like to believe.
Q-4) Why did Oslo process fail ?
S : The Oslo process failed primarily as a result of two factors: settlements and terrorism.
Israel’s settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem was, from a Palestinian perspective, akin to eating the pizza while negotiating over it. Throughout the five years following Oslo, as settlement construction continued unabated, so did terrorism. Israelis were being killed at a much higher rate than Palestinians, and Hamas was the primary perpetrator of these attacks. Arafat’s failure to rein in Hamas was egregious, and Israel’s failure to halt settlement expansion was even
more egregious, resulting in both parties losing faith in the Oslo peace process.
Q-5) Is a two-state solution still feasible?
S : Before I address that question, let me explain why a two-state solution was initially considered feasible.
The Oslo Accords drew a line under the concept of Palestine, limiting it to the territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. With the establishment of Palestinian institutions such as a parliament, a president, and ministries, the concept of Palestine was narrowed down by its sovereign institutions. The shift in public perception of Palestine as a future sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza, but not in Mandatory Palestine, was dubbed the Oslo dynamics, and was intended to serve as the foundation for final status negotiations on contentious issues such as refugee repatriation, Jerusalem, final borders, and natural resource distribution.
The security of Israel as a sovereign Jewish state guaranteed by the Oslo Accords was one of the primary reasons for Israelis’ overwhelming support: Israel makes a concession on 1967 in
exchange for the Palestinians making a concession on 1948, and the conflict is resolved on this basis. By contrast, the Palestinian refugee group was the most vocal critic of Oslo, claiming that they stood to gain little from the agreement. Their situation, however, was in stark contrast to that of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, who enthusiastically supported the accords because they provided them with both immediate and long-term benefits.
The issue of refugee return harking back to 1948, which would raise the specter of the Jewish
state’s survival, was deferred under the Oslo Accords until the final status talks. These were
tentatively scheduled after five years of trust building through the implementation of the Oslo accords, particularly those pertaining to Israeli redeployment from the West Bank and the maintenance of security for Israel contingent on the Palestinian party.
With the Oslo Accords collapsing for the reasons stated previously, the emerging issues
reintroduce us to the central 1948 issue – the return of the Palestinian refugees to their land within Israel. The events in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan only serve to highlight the Palestinian people’s rights being subordinated to those of the Jews who live in that land.
To discuss the feasibility of the two-state solution, two factors must be considered: perception and reality. At least on the Palestinian side, perceptions are shifting. The Palestinians’ response to recent events in Gaza, as well as Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, demonstrates that refugee Palestinians in the diaspora have been at the forefront of political opposition to Israeli occupation.
On 18 May 2021, a general strike called by Palestinian citizens of Israel in solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip demonstrated how Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories view their fate as shared. Palestinians in the diaspora and in Mandatory Palestine are fighting for self-determination in unison. Thus, the Palestine of 1948 and the ensuing refugee crisis have been reintroduced into any discussion of resolving the conflict.
The Oslo dynamics have imploded! For the Jews, this means the end of Israel as a Jewish state for Jews, unless political leaders are willing to make difficult choices in favour of a divorce from occupation.
However, ending the occupation is not as simple as it appears. At the most fundamental level, the West Bank and East Jerusalem are splintered by settlements, making it impossible to establish a viable Palestinian state with contiguous borders. Gaza’s devastation continues with wars and problems caused by its isolation from the rest of the world as a result of Israeli policies.
Additionally, the political rivalry between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority ensures that there is no unified Palestinian vision for the future.
As a result, discussing a two-state solution as the default option avoids acknowledging the
entrenched five-decade-long occupation, which has resulted in a one-state reality in which only Israeli Jews have full political rights, while Palestinians lack even basic civil and political
protection, let alone rights.
Regrettably, the only politically viable project at the moment is the status quo, which is marked by inequity and colonization. In the absence of a radical shift in
circumstances, two states, or even one state or a binational state, are not viable.
Q-6) Has India’s policy toward Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict changed
under the Modi government?
S : Since establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, India has had to perform a delicate balancing act in its relations with both the Israelis and the Palestinians. However, the Modi government abandoned the diffidence that had characterised India’s relationship with Israel by delinking it from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as recognising the full scope of the relationship, which extends from defence to science and technology to agriculture.
While India is unafraid to engage with Israel, Modi’s India appears to be prepared to deal with both parties on an equal footing and independently, regardless of their relations with each other.
The first sign of the new phase was the BJP’s refusal in 2014 to introduce a resolution in parliament sponsored by the opposition condemning Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s military operation against Hamas in Gaza in July of that year. Exactly one year later, India abstained from voting on a resolution endorsing the HRC High Commissioner’s report at the United Nations Human Rights Council. The report documented Israeli forces’ war crimes committed during the 2014 airstrikes on Gaza, which killed over 2000 people. The abstention was notable in light of India’s 2014 vote in favour of the resolution authorising the UN Human Rights Council inquiry.
However, a significant shift was the omission of East Jerusalem from Modi’s statement during
President Mahmoud Abbas’s 2017 visit. Until then, India had always included a line indicating
support for East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state in various statements expressing support for a two-state solution to the conflict. By omitting references to East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, India signalled a break with the past, stating that it could no longer support the Palestinians’ exclusive claim to the holy city and that the status of Jerusalem should be determined through negotiations in which both parties respect the other’s rights and beliefs.
On 17 May 2021, India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, T. S. Tirumurti,
delivered a carefully worded statement during the UN Security Council's ‘open debate’ on the escalating Israel-Palestine conflict, stating that despite the escalating crisis, “the historic status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites, including the Haram as-Sharif/Temple Mount, must be respected.” By referring to Haram as-Sharif/Temple Mount in the same breath, India demonstrated that it fully comprehends Israel’s and Palestine’s competing but equal claims, and resolution of future contentions should be based on accommodation and compromise.
Simultaneously, in December 2017, India supported a United Nations resolution introduced by Turkey and Yemen opposing the United States’ decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate the US embassy there. Many predicted that India would vote in abstention, and some even advocated for not voting at all. However, the vote on was appropriate and consistent with the city's contested nature and India's support for a negotiated settlement of the dispute. With a sense of global support for the resolution and a desire to send a message that anti-Islamic ideology is not conducive to growing India-Israel relations, New Delhi approached the UNGA's ‘Jerusalem Question' with pragmatism and restraint..
The Prime Minister stunned everyone, including his harshest critics, when he announced that
India's annual contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) would be quadrupled to $5 million starting in 2018. It refuted
opposition claims that the BJP-led government was firmly aligned with Israel at the expense of Palestine and was eroding calibration in favour of an either/or policy.
India’s approach to the world’s most evocative conflict has evolved from being unambiguously pro-Palestinian for the first four decades of independence to a delicate balancing act with its more recent friendly relations with Israel.
While India and Israel share numerous areas of agreement and mutual interest, ideological convergence and personal rapport between leaders will be critical in sustaining the ‘interest edifice’ when dissonances arise. Palestine will always be a cause that India will support, as we cannot ignore our own struggle against domination, suppression, and denial, as well as our memories and lessons learnt from history.
As India continues to strike a balance, it maintains a level playing field with Israel and Palestine.
Q-7) Can India play a greater role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and bring
S : India’s role in achieving peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict is debatable. India, I believe, lacks the capacity to do so, owing to our own internal and strategic challenges. There are generally five types of power. Military might and economic clout are the most frequently discussed and understood categories.
Three lesser-discussed factors – advancement in technology, social stability, and international image – are also critical when discussing power. India is deficient in all
of these areas, particularly at the moment. However, given the fluid nature of power, the answer to this question will likely change over time and in response to changing circumstances.