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What India is saying about the Israel-Hamas war

Can India balance support for Israel with its long-standing commitment to Palestine?

- November 2, 2023
Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu (left) and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left (cc:3.0) Avi Ohayon / Israeli Government Press Office; and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right (cc:4.0) 2130779joshitha via Canva.com

Have India’s relations with Israel shifted, as the Israel-Hamas war intensifies? India has long viewed the Middle East, what it refers to as “West Asia,” as part of its extended neighborhood and watches developments there with interest. India’s large diaspora population in the region is mostly concentrated in the Gulf countries, but includes tens of thousands in Israel and its Levantine neighbors. 

New Delhi has major trade ties with Israel, and Indian policymakers especially value access to Israel’s defense technology. India also seeks to be a leading voice of the Global South – where many countries have criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Additionally, many within India’s Muslim population (about 15% of India’s 1.4 billion people) have sympathetic concerns for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

To sort through these and other issues, I asked Shubha Kamala Prasad, an assistant professor of international relations at the Hertie School in Berlin, about the ongoing crisis.

Christopher Clary: How has India responded to the Oct. 7, 2023 attacks and the subsequent Israel-Hamas war?

Shubha Kamala Prasad: India’s official response was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tweet the same day, which expressed solidarity with Israel. Modi reiterated India’s stance in his phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few days later. Modi’s follow-up tweet unequivocally condemned all forms of terrorism. In the week following the attack, however, the Ministry of External Affairs emphasized India’s long-standing support for a peaceful two-state solution.

While the Indian government has not made any explicit statement regarding the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza, Modi conveyed his condolences to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for the lives lost at the Al Ahli hospital. India also sent medical and disaster relief aid for Palestine

However, India abstained from the Oct. 27 U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) resolution calling for a humanitarian truce in Gaza. The explanation India proffered for its vote was the absence of any mention of Hamas’ terrorist attack in the resolution. India’s response displays a strong support for Israel while balancing its commitments towards Palestine.

Is India’s response different than we might have expected from its behavior in earlier Israel-Palestine disputes?

Yes, India’s response is indicative of a growing shift in its position. Historically, regardless of the political leanings of the government in power, India firmly supported Palestine. At the United Nations, India favored resolutions that supported Palestine and criticized Israel. For example, India voted in favor of a 2003 UNGA resolution that raised concerns about Israel systemically violating the human rights of Palestinian people. India viewed the Israel-Palestine relationship through the prism of anti-colonialism and India promoted the right to self-determination for Palestinians. India was one of the first countries to recognize Palestine as a state in 1988. In contrast, India only established normal diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992.

However, India’s withdrawal of unconditional support for Palestine can be marked with India’s abstention from a 2015 U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution condemning Israel’s air strikes in Gaza as war crimes. This move came in the light of steadily strengthening ties between India and Israel, particularly in the fields of defense and economic cooperation. 

Israel is India’s fourth-largest arms supplier and the two countries elevated their ties to a strategic partnership in 2017. Indian companies and local governments have also been actively expanding economic exchanges. Modi’s state visit to Israel in 2017, a first for an Indian prime minister, overtly signaled India’s realignment in West Asia.

A number of governments have called attention to what they view as excessive civilian casualties and alleged human rights violations by Israel in the last few weeks. Does any of your research help explain why India might be reluctant to do so?

My research has shown that states with insurgencies are reluctant to hold individual countries accountable for alleged human rights violations. States often suppress insurgencies at home using methods that violate their international human rights commitments. They are therefore hesitant to condemn other countries’ alleged violations for the fear of being reciprocally called out for their own human rights track record. This reluctance to call out other states for human rights transgressions shows up in the voting patterns at the UNHRC, our research finds. 

India is a country that has been dealing with insurgencies since its independence in 1947. And India historically has avoided singling out other countries. In 2011, India justified its abstention on a UNHRC resolution that censured Syria by saying, “India’s traditional position on country-specific resolutions is well-known. We do not regard spotlighting and finger-pointing at a country for human right violations as helpful.” This policy also strongly aligns with the ethos of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) that India spearheaded. 

Non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries, a principle adopted to ward off colonial interference, is one of the central tenets of India’s foreign policy. That’s because the trauma of colonialism has left a long-lasting mark on India’s desire for independent foreign policy-making and the pursuit of mutual non-intervention in inter-state relations.

The main exception to this policy of not targeting individual countries for human rights issues has been for cases that India categorized as colonialism and apartheid. For example, India co-sponsored a UNGA resolution criticizing South Africa’s apartheid policies in 1952. In 2006, India joined other NAM members to condemn Israel’s military action against Palestinians and asserted that “Israel, the occupying Power, [should] immediately cease all such violations of international law, including international humanitarian and human rights law.” In other words, India felt comfortable holding Israel accountable for human rights issues because Israel-Palestine relations fell within the rubric of colonization in Indian foreign policy.

Since 2015, however, India has sought to separate policies related to Israel from the broader Israel-Palestine conflict. India has gradually eased away from the language of colonization when discussing policies towards Israel. So in 2023, it is not surprising that India is reticent about condemning Israel for alleged human rights abuses. These violations – in the Indian government’s view – no longer fall within the framework of colonialism.

What are you on the lookout for, as India continues to respond to the conflict?

There are two issues to keep an eye out for in the coming weeks – global reactions and domestic reactions to India’s position. The U.S. and the E.U. criticized India’s abstention vote on the Ukraine crisis in March 2022. But India’s abstention last week on Israel-Palestine has not received any negative comment since it does not oppose the U.S. position. In contrast, India was the only South Asian country not to vote in favor of the ceasefire and has broken ranks with most NAM countries on this vote. So expect to see some criticism of India’s abstention from Global South countries. And it will be interesting to see whether India’s support for Israel will be interpreted as a signal of greater alignment with the U.S. on the world stage.

On the domestic level, reactions to the Indian government’s position have been mixed. Supporters of Modi’s BJP-led government see this as an example of Indian leadership being tough on terrorism. Opposition party leaders, though, have condemned India’s current stance and have called the abstention shameful, criticizing Israel’s response as disproportionate

While foreign policy may not be the most salient issue for local and national elections, the BJP spokesperson has accused the opposition of leveraging this topic for vote-bank politics. [Clary note: In India, vote-bank politics refers to allegations that party positions seek to appeal to specific ethnic or religious communities. In this case, it refers to the fact that many opposition parties have garnered more support from Muslim voters than does the BJP, India’s ruling party.] 

It is worth observing whether the ruling and opposition parties will use the Israel-Palestine conflict to feed the narratives that suit their respective agendas for the upcoming 2024 national elections, especially if the current conflict does not de-escalate soon.