Geopolitics

Bridging Realities: South Asia's Strategic Position Amidst the Israel-Palestine Crossroads
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 10 Jan , 2024

Introduction 

On October 7, 2023, an unforeseen event transpired as Hamas launched 5,000 rockets at Israel within a concise 20-minute timeframe, and simultanously launched a ground assault against Israeli military posts and civilian settlements, thereby causing a substantial disruption to the prevailing peace initiatives in West Asia. The nations of West Asia had long been immersed in protracted peace negotiations with Israel, a process facilitated by American mediation. However, the extremist actions undertaken by Hamas in the form of a terrorist attack have resulted in a regressive impact on diplomatic endeavours, setting back the progress achieved over several years. This violent incident, which claimed the lives of 1,200 Israeli citizens, including 10 Nepali citizens, has introduced a critical impediment to the pursuit of regional stability and the advancement of peaceful coexistence.

As anticipated, the Israeli army launched a comprehensive counterattack on the Gaza Strip at its full capacity. Till now (January 5, 2024), 22,000 people have been killed in this all-out attack by Israel. The bodies of many people are still buried under the buildings fallen in Israeli air strikes, and the Palestine Authority has no definite data on them. In tandem with the human toll, the economic landscape has witnessed a decline, evident in the faltering stock markets of Gulf countries at the commencement of the Israeli military operation. Moreover, the same situation happened with crude oil and Israel’s economy. According to reports, Israel’s economy has shrunk by 11%. The  ramifications of the Israel-Hamas conflict extend beyond West Asia, exerting a global impact, and South Asia is not exempt from its consequences.

Each nation in the South Asian region articulated its respective political and diplomatic interests, offering distinct perspectives on the Israel-Hamas conflict to the global audience. Consequently, South Asian states demonstrated a perceived division concerning the Israel-Palestine issue. A cursory examination reveals that with the exception of Maldives and Bangladesh, the majority of South Asian countries adopted a conciliatory stance in addressing the complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

South Asia’s response 

The rocket attack orchestrated by Hamas resulted in the tragic loss of 10 Nepalese citizens who were students of Sudur Paschim University of western Nepal. It is noteworthy that Nepal-Israel relations, established in 1960, have a longstanding history. Despite global hesitancy in establishing ties with the newly formed Israel, Nepal not only initiated diplomatic relations but also witnessed official visits from then-Prime Minister BP Koirala and King Mahendra Shah. It is imperative to underscore that Nepal unequivocally condemns the Hamas-led attack. Nepal does not recognize Hamas and remains committed to the pursuit of the two-state solution for lasting peace. Nepal advocates for diplomatic resolutions to disputes and urges Israel to exercise restraint on humanitarian grounds in its dealings with Palestine.

Sri Lanka appears to be aligning its position with that of Nepal on the Israel-Palestine matter. Consistently endorsing the two-state solution, Sri Lanka has historically voted in favor of Palestine during discussions on the Israel-Palestine issue at the United Nations General Assembly. This established tradition is evident once again in the current situation, where the Sri Lankan government maintains its consistent support for Palestine, underscoring its commitment to the two-state solution.

Conversely, among the Muslim-majority nations in South Asia, specifically Bangladesh, Maldives, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, there is unanimous support for Palestine. Notably, Maldives and Bangladesh have adopted assertive positions against Israel, reflecting a more stringent stance on the issue. In contrast, Pakistan and Afghanistan have employed a relatively measured rhetoric, conveying a softer tone in their respective responses to Israel during this particular instance.

On the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Maldives’ newly elected President Mohammed Muizzu said that “On behalf of the people of the Maldives, I strongly support the full sovereignty of the State of Palestine and their legitimate right to live in peace.” Adding to this, the Government of Maldives said that “Maldives strongly condemns Israel’s war against Palestine, and Israel’s brutal occupation and mass torture against innocent Palestinian civilians by Israeli Defense Forces. The deliberate actions amount to war crimes and are a complete violation of international humanitarian law. The Maldives calls on the International Criminal Court to investigate possible war crimes committed by Israel against the Palestinian people.”

Employing a language akin to its counterparts, Bangladesh attributed sole responsibility to Israel for the ongoing conflict. The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, AK Abdul Momen, characterized Israel’s armed forces as “occupation forces” and criticized the decisions made by Israel as “barbaric.” Minister Momen explicitly labeled Israel’s actions as constituting genocide and crimes against humanity, asserting the imperative need for their immediate cessation due to their unacceptable nature.

Simultaneously, Minister Momen emphasized the principled stance of Bangladesh in advocating for the two-state solution as the exclusive pathway to attain peace in the Gulf region. He urged the Israeli military and government to revert to the pre-1967 status quo as a means to foster a conducive environment for diplomatic resolution.

It is worth noting that Bangladesh has had deep relations with Palestine since the beginning. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, people from then-East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) took part in the war on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood. At Presently, Bangladesh consistently provides humanitarian aid and financial assistance to Palestine, supplemented by government-sponsored scholarships for Palestinian students.

Bangladesh is one of the rapidly advancing economies in the world which is heavily dependent on the oil of Gulf countries. According to the Bangladesh Central Bank data, two-thirds of the total migration of Bangladeshi people takes place in the Gulf countries alone, which not only enhance Bangladesh’s soft power but are also a source of huge amount of foreign exchange.

In contrast, Pakistan and Afghanistan exercised restraint and employed diplomatic language in their responses to Israel. The Pakistani caretaker Prime Minister expressed concern about the evolving dynamics in West Asia, advocating for the two-state solution as a means to preserve human values, peace, and harmony. He further said that to establish peace, Israel must return to the pre-1967 situation.

The measured approach adopted by the Pakistani government is attributed, in part, to the economic challenges facing the country. Additionally, the political ramifications of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s engagements during the Russia-Ukraine war, particularly his discussions with Putin in the Kremlin, have influenced the current administration to tread cautiously, learning from past experiences. Nevertheless, a contrasting scenario is evident in public demonstrations within Pakistan, where sizable rallies in support of Palestine are being organized. This is being used by the opposition political parties of Pakistan for their own political dividends. Keep in mind that general elections are going to be held in Pakistan in the coming February 2024 and the Israel-Palestine issue will continue to make headlines in Pakistani politics.

Afghanistan, a neighboring country of Pakistan, has adopted a cautious stance on a particular issue, refraining from making assertive statements. The Taliban government does not want to upset the American camp at any cost. It expects its recognition from the Western countries so that diplomatic relations can be re-established with the Western countries. According to some reporters, Afghan fighters wanted to fight in the war on behalf of Hamas. But all such reports were denied by the Afghan government and it was also added that the government does not support any such activity.

In the context of regional dynamics, where most South Asian countries align with specific camps, India and Nepal have adhered to a balanced and non-aligned foreign policy.  Prime Minister Modi addressed the October attack by Hamas as a terrorist attack on Israel and talked about standing with Israel in this difficult situation. The Indian government’s support towards Israel is evident from the fact that when South Africa in the BRICS Plus meeting demanded the ICC to investigate Israel’s war crimes, Prime Minister Modi distanced himself from the meeting wherein this virtual meeting Heads of other nations were present.

In this series, on October 27, India abstained from voting along with Germany, UK, Japan and other states on the resolution brought by Jordan in the United Nations General Assembly, which advocates a ceasefire between Israel and Palestine. Subsequently, Many Indian citizens wrote letters to the Israeli Ambassador demanding to fight the war on behalf of Israel. However, the Ambassador thanked the Indians and said that they are capable of fighting their own wars. It would not be an exaggeration if it is said that the feeling and ease that Indians have towards Israel would hardly be there for any other country in the world.

Some political experts believe that the reason behind the changed attitude of the Indian government is the existence of a staunch Hindu government in India which is led by Narendra Modi. But if India’s Israel-Palestine policy is studied in depth, this illusion will be broken.

Primarily, the Government of India maintains a steadfast opposition to any form of terrorist attacks, irrespective of the affected country or region. It is essential to note that India and Israel have forged strategic partnerships characterized by extensive military collaborations. Secondly, although India classified the Hamas attack as a terrorist act, it refrained from officially designating Hamas as a terrorist organization, despite considerable pressure from Western nations. Third, on October 27, India supported Israel by abstaining from the General Assembly. But in the coming month, when the resolution on unauthorized Israeli settlements and the resolution on December 13 talked about ceasefire, the Indian government put human values at the forefront and voted in favor of Palestine. Lastly, the Government of India has proactively intensified relief efforts by dispatching 70 tonnes of medicines, including a substantial 16.5 tonnes specifically allocated for Palestinian relief camps, underscoring its commitment to humanitarian assistance.

South Asia’s response to the United Nation general assembly on the Isreal-Palestine conflict

S. No. Resolution No. and Name Dated Afghanistan Bangladesh Bhutan India Maldives Nepal Pakistan Sri Lanka
1 United Nations General Assembly Resolution ES-10/21 on Protection of civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations 27 October 2023 YES YES YES ABSTINED YES YES YES YES
2 United Nations General Assembly Resolution [A/C.4/78/L.15] on Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and the occupied Syrian Golan 11 November 2023 YES YES YES YES YES ABSTINED YES YES
3 United Nations General Assembly Resolution [A/ES-10/L.27] on Protection of civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations 12 December 2023 YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES

The analysis of the aforementioned information suggests that the foreign policy approach of the Indian Government towards Palestine exhibits coherence and comprehensiveness. However, the deepening ties between India and Israel can be attributed to strategic considerations and global ambitions rather than reflecting an inherently antagonistic stance towards Palestine. Hence, characterizing India’s amicable relations with Israel as detrimental to its relations with Palestine appears to be an oversimplification.

Conclusion

Among the eight countries of South Asia, where four countries do not have any kind of diplomatic relations with Israel, there are also countries like Nepal which had established their diplomatic relations with Israel long ago, as well as countries like Bhutan which established diplomatic relations with Israel in the year 2020 and is keeping itself far away from the Israel-Palestine issue.

Many workers from South Asia are involved in Gulf countries and Gulf countries also include major crude oil producing countries. Thus, any kind of crisis in the Gulf countries is bound to have a deep impact on the South Asian nations. Collective efforts by South Asian nations could potentially mitigate the impact of such crises.  However internecine conflict and religion-based foreign policy have not only exacerbated the negative effects of the crisis but also created deeper divisions among South Asian nations. It is possible that the war will end in the coming few months, but the diplomatic progress that was made between the Muslim majority countries of West Asia and Israel has again come to zero. This conflict will have a deep impact on the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor Project (IMEC) proposed during the G-20, which would have benefited the entire South Asia.

Certainly, a majority of nations worldwide have aligned themselves with specific groups in addressing this dispute. The realization of the two-nation solution and the prospect of sustainable peace hinge significantly on global community involvement. A collective effort from the international community is imperative for the resolution of this conflict and the cultivation of a conducive environment for future peace initiatives. Consequently, it is suggested that nations, including those in South Asia, exert pressure on Israel to revert to the pre-1967 situation and dismantle all unauthorized settlements. Diplomatic endeavors should be undertaken to foster consensus among Gulf nations in support of the United Nations-proposed Two Nation Solution. Only through such concerted efforts can a semblance of peace be envisaged in West Asia, allowing for a shift towards human development initiatives rather than being entangled in the complexities of terrorism and fundamentalism.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Nikhil Sahu

is Ph.D. Research Scholar & Research Assistant at the Nepal Embassy, New Delhi.

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