Why India is walking a tightrope on the Israel-Palestine conflict

New Delhi can learn valuable lessons from Mahatma Gandhi’s position on such issues

A Saudi Arabian prince recently asked the people of Gaza to follow in the footsteps of Gandhi and his tactics of civil disobedience and non-cooperation to win freedom from Israeli occupation, rather than resort to military means. Whether or not Gandhi’s methods are viable in the ongoing humanitarian crisis in that region at present, many of us know that the iconic Indian leader and apostle of peace was interested in what was happening in Palestine in his lifetime.

He was opposed to the British policy of “settling” Jews in Palestine against the wishes of those who had lived there. Gandhi wrote back then, “The German persecution of the Jews seems to have no parallel in history (but) my sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice. The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me … Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct.” 

He wrote those sentences in the late 1930s, shortly after Hitler launched his anti-Jew pogroms. For decades, Free India stood by the Palestinians and upheld Gandhi’s views, even after it officially entered into ties with Israel in the early 1990s. Unofficial ties were much older.

Interestingly, notwithstanding Gandhi’s views against a national home for the Jews in Palestine, David Ben-Gurion, the founder and the first prime minister of Israel, had in his post-retirement study a portrait of the Mahatma, who did not live long enough to witness the formation of Israel. He was assassinated three months prior – in January 1948. 

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Why India is walking a tightrope on the Israel-Palestine conflict
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Palestinian scholars are crestfallen by an apparent change of stance by India now that the country’s new rulers are veering towards Israel. To be fair, New Delhi, after initially expressing solidarity with Israel and its “right to exist,” displayed concerns about the sad plight of the Palestinians and dispatched aid to the besieged people via Egypt. It is obvious that the country is dexterously performing the tight-rope-balancing act in the Middle East. 

It needs to, for multiple reasons. Firstly, nurturing closer ties with Israel, a country known for its startup, hi-tech, and military prowess, brings in advantages at a time when the country is growing as an economy and an important geopolitical player. Israel had supplied India with weaponry in crucial moments such as the Kargil War of 1999 and later helped equip it on the surveillance front.

India-Israel trade has grown from $200 million in 1992 to $4.5 billion in 2014. It was destined to grow further. In the 2023 fiscal year, Indian merchandise exports to Israel were valued at $7.89 billion and Israeli exports to India were at $2.13 billion. Besides, bilateral trade in services stood at $1.1 billion as of 2021, according to the latest data available. Indian tech companies and others are steadily investing in Israel. Similarly, Israel has made many investments in India, primarily in technology, agriculture, and water.

Most importantly, a consortium led by India’s Adani Group and a local partner owns the strategic Haifa port in Israel. One-third of the consortium’s shares are with the Israeli partner Gadot, while the other two-thirds are owned by the Adani Group.

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Israel and Haifa port are central to the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEEC), the ambitious multi-billion connectivity scheme linking India and Europe. The multi-modal transport corridor, conceived by G-7 countries as a counterweight to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), envisages linking India’s west coast via the UAE through the Arabian Peninsula to the Haifa port, from where goods will head for Greece and other European destinations.

In short, although the Israel-Hamas clash has put the IMEEC project, which requires cooperation from Arab countries, hanging, Israel is far more pivotal to India’s ambitions now than ever before.

The Gulf countries, for whom the Palestinian issue is a sensitive topic, are also vital for India. Close to 9 million non-resident Indians (NRIs) live in them, according to official government statistics. The PTI news agency reports that, as of March 2022, Gulf countries account for more than 66 percent of NRIs – out of around 13.4 million NRIs around the world. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) employs more than 3.41 million Indians, Saudi Arabia 2.59 million, Kuwait 1.02 million, Qatar 740,000, Oman 770,000, Bahrain 320,000, and so on. Far fewer Indian citizens are based in the US and the UK. On the other hand, only 20,000 Indians currently reside in Israel, according to Israel’s Consul General in Mumbai, Kobbi Shoshani.


READ MORE: ‘The Gravity of Fear’: Indian caregivers in Israel talk to RT about war

A survey of remittances from abroad reveals more about the India-Arab world connection. The US is the single highest source of remittances to India – which refers to the money that Indians abroad send to their own accounts or to their relatives back home in the country. But, as a group, the Gulf countries contribute much more, with UAE topping the list.

The United States accounted for remittances of $23.4 million, the United Arab Emirates $18 million, the United Kingdom $6.8 million, Singapore $5.7 million, Saudi Arabia $5.1 million, Kuwait $2.4 million, Oman $1.6 million, Qatar $1.5 million, and so on. New Delhi is also gung-ho about potential tie-ups with Saudi Arabia, which is planning a huge image makeover, including the building of new smart cities, to attract international investment. Indian businessmen have publicly talked about their excitement to invest in that country.

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People are seen holding placards during a protest by members of Majlis-e-Ulama-e-Hind against the illegal occupation of Israel on Holy Al-Aqsa Mosque on June 8, 2018 in New Delhi, India.
Prisoners in Palestinian homeland: Indian Muslims recall Gandhi, Nehru, and Vajpayee’s support for the plight of stateless Arabs

For India, it is all the more essential in the wake of its growing tensions with China to win more friends in the Arab world and Africa, besides the West, to retain its stature on the global stage and secure itself against tectonic shifts in world power. Which is why the foreign establishment has been cautious about the way the crisis is being handled.

There is, however, a worrying aspect about certain preoccupations that have crept in. It is obvious that, increasingly, at a cultural and political level at least, there is greater stress on the medieval period of India than the modern one, which saw Great Britain colonizing the subcontinent. That such a propensity is influencing our political priorities at home is a foregone conclusion. Not letting such internal politicking enter geopolitical concerns is crucial in not only gaining friends but also retaining them.

In that sense, Gandhi is as relevant as ever in the way he foresaw how dangerous digging up myths and ancient pieces of history to justify modern political projects can get. That must be the premise from which to operate: having empathy for the lived experiences of others without bias. As Gandhi warned us, doing justice to one group of people cannot come at a cost to another. 

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