Has humanity lost its conscience? Its ability to distinguish between the right and the wrong? Its resolve to uphold justice in the face of the obstinate prevalence of injustice? Its power to end the vicious and endless cycle of violence and counter-violence? Are there no leaders left among the movers and shakers around the globe who are willing to heed Mahatma Gandhi’s exhortation – "An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind?"
The ongoing orgy of killing and destruction between the Israeli government and Hamas, and the real likelihood of it escalating and expanding into a wider conflagration in the region with the involvement of other lethally armed actors near and far, begets these deeply troubling questions.
The Hamas' attack on Israel that killed nearly 1,000 people, mostly innocent and unarmed civilians, cannot be condoned. Never. It deserves to be called out and unequivocally condemned, as an act of terror. The heinousness of its crime is so self-evident that it can find no justification in any court of man or God.
But no crime is without a cause. The cause may not justify a criminal action ─ and in the case of what Hamas did on 7 October, it certainly does not.
But if the cause is not understood, if the historical context is overlooked, neither can we understand why the crime happened nor can its recurrence be prevented.
Tracing The Israel Conflict
There is also another danger in ignoring the root cause of the latest eruption of violence in Israel. Those responsible for the cause can commit a bigger crime and justify their barbaric action by pointing to the earlier crime. This is what the government of Israel is now doing.
It has laid a complete siege on the Gaza Strip, which it had already turned into the world’s largest open-air prison with its land-air-sea blockade since 2007.
It has started carpet-bombing a densely populated Palestinian enclave of 2.3 million people, nearly half of them children.
It has killed and injured a much larger number of innocent people besides destroying their homes and livelihoods. It has done all this in the name of hunting down Hamas terrorists. In effect, it is seeking justification for its barbarity by telling the international community that its action is only a necessary reaction to what Hamas had done.
Treating Palestinians As 'Human Animals'
“We have only started striking Hamas,” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned. “What we will do to our enemies in the coming days will reverberate with them for generations.”
What Israel would do to its “enemies” was spelt out by its Defence Minister Yoav Gallant in chilling terms. “We are imposing a complete siege on Gaza,” he said. "There will be no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel. Everything will be closed. We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly.”
These were not hollow words. They have already been put into action. Building after building in Gaza is being flattened by Israeli airstrikes – and Netanyahu himself has sadistically tweeted video evidence of this destruction on his X account.
Surely, not all of these indiscriminately bombed-out buildings could have been Hamas hideouts. If civilians are being killed and injured, so what? The Israeli government has abandoned all accountability to the international community.
There are, of course, some brave dissenting voices in Israel. The editorial board of Haaretz, the country’s leading newspaper, exhorted on 9 October. “[W]e must wage war and strike at the enemy, but within the confines of the laws of war. Israel must not act the way Hamas does.” But these words have fallen on deaf ears.
As any unprejudiced observer of what is happening in Israel would aver, what Netanyahu and his army are inflicting on the people of Gaza are crimes far worse than those committed by Hamas.
There is a term for it in international law: 'War Crimes’. More specifically, ‘Genocide’.
Netanyahu Is Committing War Crimes
The UN Office on Genocide Prevention defines ‘war crimes’ as follows. “Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, namely, any of the following acts against persons or protected property:
Torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments;
Extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.”
(a) “Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in
(b) “Intentionally directing attacks against civilian objects, that is, objects which are not military objectives”;
(c) “Attacking or bombarding, by whatever means, towns, villages, dwellings or buildings which are undefended and which are not military objectives”…and so on.
Do the Israeli Army’s attacks on the entire captive population of Gaza come under the above definitions of 'war crimes’? They do, without the slightest doubt.
Root Cause of the Conflict: From British Chicanery to American Dishonesty
The moot question is: What should be India’s principled stand on the conflict? The search for an answer must begin with an examination of the original cause of this conflict.
Its genesis lies in the peculiar geopolitical situation that arose after the end of the First World War in 1918. The war itself was the result of an unholy contest among European colonial powers to rapaciously gobble up colonised lands in different parts of the world.
The facts of the matter are indisputable. However, in order to obviate any charge of bias, the best way is to summarise what the United Nations states on its website under the heading ‘The Question of Palestine’.
Palestine was among former Ottoman territories placed under UK administration by the League of Nations in 1922. All of these territories eventually became fully independent States, except Palestine, where the British expressed support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.
This opened the floodgates of Jewish immigration, mainly from Europe, from 1922 to 1947. Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany accelerated the process.
In 1947, the UK turned the Palestine problem over to the UN. The latter proposed partitioning Palestine into two independent States – one Palestinian Arab and the other Jewish. The Jewish State proclaimed its independence as Israel.
However, Israel did not allow the establishment of the Palestinian State. In the 1948 war with neighbouring Arab States, it expanded to 77 percent of the territory of Palestine. Over half of the Palestinian Arab population fled or were expelled.
In the Six-Day War with Arabs in 1967, which Israel won, it occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, which it subsequently annexed. The war brought about a second exodus of Palestinians.
After the 1967 war, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 242 calling for Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied during the war. Israel has refused to abide by it till date.
The United Nations has time and again reiterated its commitment to the ‘Two-States’ solution – Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security within recognized borders, on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, and with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.
Indeed, in 1993 both the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) accepted this solution as part of the Oslo Accords, which had the backing of the United States. But Israeli leaders, especially Netanyahu, have never shown any interest in implementing it.
In doing so, they have received unstinted support from the United States, which provides arms and huge financial aid to Israel each year. Had Washington been fair, honest, and even-handed in its relations with Israelis and Palestinians, this conflict would have been peacefully and amicably resolved long ago.
Assured of unwavering US backing, Israel has chosen aggression over peace and security for itself and the Palestinians. It has continued to expand and consolidate its territorial occupation and forced Palestinians to live in extremely harsh ghettoised conditions of unfreedom and indignity in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
In the ensuing conflicts, there has been a huge asymmetry in casualties on the two sides. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), over 6,400 Palestinians have been killed since 2007 until August of this year – that is before the latest round of violence erupted. In contrast, 308 Israelis were killed in the same period.
Israel has also systematically undermined the influence of moderate forces among Palestinians ─ first PLO and later the Palestine Authority (PA).
It is worth remembering here that the Hamas movement, inspired by Islamist ideology, was born only in 1987 ─ and its birth was facilitated by Israeli obduracy and belligerence on the one hand, and, on the other hand, failure of the UN and the international community to fulfill the legitimate aspirations of freedom-loving Palestinians.
Hamas is certainly wrong in hitting back with terrorist violence. But if we blame only Hamas for triggering the latest phase of violence, and ignore the source of the problem, we would be guilty not only of self-deception but also of aiding the continuation of the conflict.
What Ho Chi Minh and Nelson Mandela Have Said
This basic cause of the problem of Palestine is well known and has been clearly recognised, by leaders of all the anti-imperialist struggles. Ho Chi Minh, hero of Vietnam’s epic victory in the deadly war waged by the USA, said: "The acts of aggression perpetrated by Israel, supported and encouraged by US imperialism, have intensified the prevailing tension in the Middle East. They are, moreover, a violation of the sovereignty of the Arab States, and a serious threat to peace and security in the world and they are an insolent challenge to world opinion.”
Nelson Mandela, the hero of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, said in 1999: "We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians." While on a tour of the United States, where many leaders regarded the Palestine Liberation Organization as a terrorist organisation, he was once asked about his relationship with the PLO. Without any hesitation, he declared: "We identify with the PLO because just like ourselves they are fighting for the right of self-determination."
What Gandhi and Nehru Have Said
In our own country, all the leading lights of India’s freedom struggle supported the Palestinians’ struggle for freedom. For example, Mahatma Gandhi wrote categorially in his newspaper Harijan on 26 November 1938: “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English, or France to the French,”. He further opined: "It is wrong and inhumane to impose the Jews on the Arabs … it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home.”
This does not mean the Mahatma was insensitive to the persecution of the Jews in Europe. “My sympathies are all with the Jews,” he wrote. "They have been the untouchables of Christianity. The parallel between their treatment by the Christians and the treatment of untouchables by Hindus is very close. Religious sanction has been invoked in both cases for the justification of the inhuman treatment meted out to them.”
Commenting on Hitler’s atrocities, he said, “The German persecution of the Jews seems to have no parallel in history.” Despite his sympathies for the Jews, he did not support a Zionist state in Palestine. (Zionism refers to an international movement originally for the establishment of a Jewish religious nation in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel.)
Jawaharlal Nehru’s views on the cause of the conflict strongly echoed those of Mahatma Gandhi. In a press statement he issued in 1936, he showed brilliant scholarly insights into the subject. "[M]y reading of war-time and post-war history shows that there was a gross betrayal of the Arabs by British imperialism… All the Arabs, in Syria, Iraq, Trans-Jordan, and Palestine, smarted under this betrayal, but the position of the Arabs in Palestine was undoubtedly the worst of all. Having been promised freedom and independence repeatedly from 1915 onwards, suddenly they found themselves converted into a mandatory territory with a new burden added on – the promise of the creation of a national home for the Jews – a burden which almost made it impossible for them to realise independence.”
Nehru was prescient in tracing the problem to the chicanery of British imperialists.
"For thirteen hundred years or more, they [Palestinian Arabs] had lived there and all their national and racial interests had taken strong roots there. Palestine was not an empty land fit for colonisation by outsiders. It was a well-populated and full land with little room for large numbers of colonists from abroad. Is it any wonder that the Arabs objected to this intrusion? And their objection grew as they realised that the aim of British imperialism was to make the Arab-Jew problem a permanent obstacle to their independence. We in India have sufficient experience of similar obstacles being placed in the way of our freedom by British imperialism.”
Equally prophetically, Nehru stated:
"The problem of Palestine is thus essentially a nationalist one – a people struggling for independence against imperialist control and exploitation. It is not a racial or religious one. Perhaps, some of our Muslim fellow countrymen extend their sympathy to the Arabs because of the religious bond.” (Emphasis added)
Subsequent developments have proved Nehru right. On one hand, many Muslims worldwide have begun to present the Palestinian struggle for independence as a Muslim issue and have, therefore, called for global Islamic solidarity.
Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon, being Islamist militant organisations, have tapped into this religious sentiment. On the other hand, Islamophobics in India and around the world view the Palestinians’ resistance to Israeli occupation as a manifestation of Muslim aggression, deliberately denying their legitimate demand for national freedom. Their support for Israel is driven by animosity towards Muslims.
BJP Should Recall the Wise Words of Deendayal Upadhyaya and Vajpayee
But it is not only Gandhi and Nehru who denounced Israel’s illegal occupation of Arab land and supported the Palestinian demand for independence. Two prominent leaders of the Sangh Parivar from yester-decades ─ Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya and Atal Bihari Vajpayee ─ also held similar views.
Upadhyaya was a revered leader of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the previous avatar of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP in its constitution has enshrined his treatise ‘Integral Humanism’ as its guiding philosophy. Vajpayee, his trusted associate in the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, later became India’s external affairs minister in the Janata Party government (1977-79) and Prime Minister (1998-2004).
In his autobiography, My Country My Life (page 147), veteran BJP leader LK Advani, who worked closely with Upadhyaya, writes: “When the Arab-Israel war broke out and almost everybody in the Jana Sangh was pro-Israeli, Deendayalji issued a word of caution: ‘We should not become blindly pro-Israeli just because the Congress is blindly pro-Arab. We should not view the world as if it were peopled by angels and devils. We must judge every issue on its own merit.’” (Emphasis added)
When the Janata Party government led by Prime Minister Morarji Desai came into being in March 1977, most people thought India would change its stand on the Israel-Palestine dispute. The reason was obvious. Since the Janata Party had defeated the Congress in the parliamentary elections, it was felt that India’s pro-Palestine policy under the Congress rule would become pro-Israel under the Janata Party rule.
This perception gained ground especially because the new external affairs minister was Vajpayee, who belonged previously to the Jana Sangh, which had the reputation of being a Hindu nationalist party – and "anti-Muslim”, in the eyes of its critics. However, Vajpayee himself made the new government’s stand on the issue unequivocally clear.
Addressing a victory rally in Delhi soon after the Janata Party government was sworn in, he declared: “For permanent peace in the Middle East, Israel must vacate Palestinian land it has illegally occupied.” A video clip of his speech has now gone viral. This is what he said:
“Now that the Janata Party has formed the government, some people are saying that it will side with Israel and not with the Arabs. Respected Morarji bhai (Prime Minister) has already made the government’s position clear on this issue. To remove misconception, I want to say that our government will judge every issue on its merit and demerit. However, in the Middle East, the issue is very clear: Israel must vacate the land of Arab Palestinians it has illegally occupied. A situation where the invader reaps the fruits of his invasion and occupation is unacceptable to us. What is applicable in our case (he is referring to Pakistan’s illegal occupation of a part of Jammu & Kashmir) is also applicable to others. The land of Arabs will have to be vacated. It belongs to Palestinians. Their legitimate rights must be recognized. As far as Israel’s right to exist is concerned, it has been accepted by both America and the Soviet Union, and we too accept it. The international community should find such a solution to the crisis in the Middle East which ends Israel’s occupation and leads to the establishment of permanent peace.”
Modi’s Response Is One-Sided
Recalling this brief history of the Israel-Palestine conflict and its subsequent evolution is necessary because, in the perverted understanding of many supporters of the Narendra Modi government, Palestinians are the villain and Israelis are the victims. Sadly, the Prime Minister himself has taken a one-sided stand on the recent outbreak of violence.
On 7 October, within hours of Hamas firing rockets on Israel, he tweeted stating, “We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour.” This was perhaps, understandable since Israel had not yet begun its retaliatory attacks. But on 10 October, when Israel’s genocidal counter-attack was visible to the entire world, Modi tweeted again:
Right from 1947 to 2023, India has consistently stressed that the 'Two-State solution’ is the only just and practical path to achieve lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. New Delhi has always recognised support for an independent Palestinian State as an "integral" part of its foreign policy.
Indeed, when Modi visited Israel in February 2018, he also went to Palestine. He became the first Indian Prime Minister to do so. In the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, he held talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and said, India hoped to see an “independent Palestinian state living in an environment of peace."
Given this background, Modi’s latest response to the conflict in Israel is completely ill-advised because it is blatantly one-sided. It is perhaps, coloured his widely publicised personal friendship with Netanyahu.
Unprincipled Stand Will Cost India Heavily
India will surely pay a heavy price if the Modi government continues to condemn only Hamas terrorism (which must be condemned), but remains silent on the massacre of innocent Palestinians by the Israeli Army.
Israel’s wanton attack on the civilian population of Gaza has enraged a majority of the international community. If Modi refuses to condemn it, what happens to the claim of his supporters that, thanks to his leadership of G20 in New Delhi last month, the global community is beginning to recognise India as ‘Vishwaguru’ ─ Teacher of the World?
India’s bias towards Israel will isolate it from a majority of the countries in the Global South ─ and this is at a time when India wants to be regarded as a leader of the Global South.
Public memory is not so short as to forget the damage done by the Nupur Sharma episode to Indian diplomacy in the Muslim world. Her derogatory remarks, as a spokesperson of the BJP, about Prophet Mohammed drew angry condemnation from Qatar, Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Turkey, Malaysia Indonesia, and other Muslim countries.
The large Indian diaspora in the Gulf felt threatened. As a result, the Indian government had to publicly dissociate itself from Sharma’s statement, and the BJP had to suspend her from the party.
Will Indians working in Muslim countries feel safe if Israel continues to raze Gaza to the ground without the Modi government condemning it?
4. The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), which was announced with much fanfare during the G20 Summit, has already fallen victim to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Saudi Arabia has indefinitely suspended all talks to normalise its relations with Israel ─ and hopes of their revival are dim in the foreseeable future. IMEC, which is premised on Saudi-Israel cooperation, was billed by some over-enthusiastic pundits as “Modi’s counter to the Belt and Road Initiative” launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping a decade ago.
5. Continuation and escalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict will surely destablise the global economy. India cannot be immune to the resultant rise in oil prices and inflation.
6. Irrespective of what happens next in Israel, Netanyahu’s days in office are numbered. Even before the latest calamitous development, there were daily mass protests in Tel Aviv and other cities with tens of thousands of Israelis slamming his controversial judicial reforms and demanding his resignation. Would Modi want to doggedly back a leader who is unpopular both at home and abroad?
What then is the right course for Modi to follow? Simple. Be principled. Be moral. Condemn both Hamas and Netanyahu.
Simultaneously, along with all the countries in the world, work for an immediate end to the conflict, rush humanitarian aid to the battered Palestinian people in Gaza, and force Israel to accept the 'Two-State’ solution ─ the only guarantor of enduring peace and security for all Israelis, all Palestinians and all their neighbours.
(The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is the founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at email@example.com. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)