Why Gaza has become the Great Indian Cop-Out

India’s strategic deals with the US, Russia and Israel have made it turn a blind eye to the humanitarian catastrophe in Palestine

PM Narendra Modi with Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: National Herald archives)
PM Narendra Modi with Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: National Herald archives)

Sarosh Bana

Political observers see some ingenuous cavorting by the Narendra Modi government in its foreign policy—first with regard to Russia’s war on Ukraine and now on the Israel–Palestine war in Gaza. India’s diplomatic dance has raised both questions and concerns about how India is adapting to the challenges of contemporary geopolitics.

It has not gone unnoticed that Israel’s retaliatory air strikes and ground offensive in Gaza, which is flattening neighbourhoods and looking like mass murder of civilians (the death count at the time of writing was a staggering 9,000 people), still did not deter India from abstaining in the 27 October vote on a United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution calling for an ‘immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce’. On the pretext of waging an uncompromising war on (Hamas) terror, Israel has continued to pummel the Gaza Strip—a 365 sq. km occupied Palestinian enclave, smaller even than the city of Mumbai (438 sq. km). While India equivocated, even the European allies of Israel and the US— France, Spain, Belgium, Ireland, Portugal, Luxembourg, Malta and Slovenia—broke ranks with the 14 countries that voted against the UNGA resolution to side with the 120 that supported it.

India was among the 45 countries that abstained from the non-binding resolution. Rationalising its decision to abstain, India cited the absence in the resolution of an “explicit condemnation” of the terror attacks by Hamas. The Indian government’s stance is being viewed as an apparent contradiction to Prime Minister Modi’s message in June to Russian president Vladimir Putin that “today’s era must not be of war”. Modi had also stressed in his address in June to the Joint Session of the US Congress, “The global order is based on respect for the principles of the UN charter, peaceful resolution of disputes, and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

This posture notwithstanding, India also abstained from voting on UN resolutions condemning Russia for its unprovoked war on Ukraine, leading US president Joe Biden to publicly cite India’s response as “shaky”. New Delhi has avoided participation in the global coalition against Russia as it enjoys strategic partnerships with both Russia and the US, respectively its first and second largest vendors of arms, India being the world’s largest importer of weaponry.

India’s fuel imports from Russia have escalated from less than 2 per cent before February 2022, when the Ukraine war started, to 36 per cent today. Russia is now India’s top oil supplier, with London-based market intelligence provider Vortexa reporting that it supplied 1.58 million barrels per day to India in September, the implication being that such trade was helping fund Russia’s war effort against Ukraine.

India has a strategic partnership with Israel as well, which has also become a significant arms supplier. While Opposition parties in India were in agreement that the Hamas assault of 7 October was nothing less than an act of terrorism, which killed over 1,400 Israeli civilians and took 238 Israelis hostage, they also underlined the fact that India’s abstention in the UN vote betrayed a disinclination to share the anxiety and urgency of the larger international community to secure a ceasefire and de-escalate the conflict, so that the ongoing bloodbath stops and a worse humanitarian catastrophe is averted.

The Israeli prime minister enjoys a deep personal rapport with his Indian counterpart, and the latter was among the first leaders in the world to express “solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour”. In a tweet posted within hours of the Hamas onslaught, Modi had said: “Deeply shocked by the news of terrorist attacks in Israel. Our thoughts and prayers are with the innocent victims and their families. We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour.”

When Netanyahu called Modi three days into the conflict to thank him for his support and apprise him of the developments, the latter again tweeted: “I thank Prime Minister @netanyahu for his phone call and providing an update on the ongoing situation. People of India stand firmly with Israel in this difficult hour. India strongly and unequivocally condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.”

In July 2017, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel; Netanyahu reciprocated the visit in January 2018. Modi had then chosen to break protocol by not stopping in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank that is a traditional stop for most foreign leaders visiting Israel.

Strong parallels are emerging between the Israeli and Russian wars, where India seems to be siding with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Putin, both of whom have taken the high moral ground in justifying the military excesses of a Goliath of a regional power against a David of an enemy.

As with the Russian war, the Israeli shockand-awe offensives too have drawn international condemnation. The war will be calamitous for civilians, will displace the 2.3 million Gazans from their homeland and lead to renewed surges of asylum-seekers. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) records that Russia’s armed attack has till 10 September killed 9,614 Ukrainians and wounded 17,535 others.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) additionally estimates the war to have led to 3.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and caused a further 6.2 million Ukrainians to seek refuge abroad. On 26 October, nine Arab countries, namely Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, issued a joint statement condemning the targeting of civilians and violations of international law in Gaza. Their foreign ministers pointed out that Israel’s right to self-defence after a devastating 7 October attack by Hamas militants did not justify neglecting Palestinian rights. They also deplored the forced displacement and collective punishment in Gaza, emphasising that ‘the absence of a political solution to the Palestinian–Israeli conflict has led to repeated acts of violence and suffering for the Palestinian and Israeli peoples and the peoples of the region’.

In his war, Putin also added a nuclear dimension by announcing suspension of the implementation of the last remaining treaty limiting the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). He further ramped up his nuclear rhetoric on 5 October when he said that Russia had successfully tested the nuclear-powered, nuclear-capable Burevestnik strategic cruise missile, and hinted at the resumption of nuclear testing by his country for the first time in more than three decades. He also pointed out that Russia was close to producing its nuclear-capable Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, each capable of carrying at least 10 nuclear warheads. “In the event of an attack on Russia, no one has any chance of survival,” he said.

In rejecting the UNGA resolution, Netanyahu too ruled out a pause in fighting, asserting, “This is a time for war.” He also said on television, “Hamas is Daesh [Islamic State group] and we will crush them and destroy them as the world has destroyed Daesh.” Israel contends that a ceasefire will provide time to Hamas to recoup its losses and prepare again for war, and it is only by routing Hamas that it can prevent the militant group from launching another mass assault on Israel.

The UNGA resolution marked its first formal response to the escalating violence, following the UN Security Council’s failure on four occasions to reach consensus on any action. The resolution also demanded ‘continuous, sufficient and unhindered’ provision of lifesaving supplies and services for civilians trapped inside the enclave, as Israel expanded ground operations and intensified its bombing campaign.

Several countries took the floor during the UN vote, expressing concern about the great devastation this war has already caused and the obstruction of critical aid supplies of food, water and fuel. UN Secretary General António Guterres urged Israel to abide by its obligations under international humanitarian law, but from the current look of things, Israel and its backers have turned a deaf ear to those appeals. Gaza’s health ministry says Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip since 7 October has killed, at the time of writing, 3,457 children, more than 40 per cent of the overall toll of 8,306 Palestinians. It adds that these figures only account for those admitted to hospitals, whereas an estimated 1,050 children are reported missing under the rubble of destroyed buildings.

London-based NGO Save the Children says the number of Palestinian children killed exceeds the annual number of children killed across the world’s conflict zones since 2019.

India’s silence on the unfolding catastrophe is deafening, its humanitarian response hamstrung by its strategic interests, its need to tread a fine line across an international order that divides US-aligned ‘democracies’ and an ‘authoritarian axis’ led by China and Russia.

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