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India, Pakistan and the Palestine issue

No Pakistani leader has ever visited Palestine.

Harsha Kakar | New Delhi |

The recently concluded conflict in Gaza cannot be termed as a PalestinianIsraeli conflict, as neither the Palestinian authority nor the West Bank was involved. It was Hamas, controlling Gaza, which unleashed a barrage of rockets in retaliation to Israeli police confronting Palestinian teens at the Al-Aqsa mosque and rumours of Israel evicting Arab settlers from Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.

Tensions were simmering for a prolonged duration between Hamas and Israel and the current incidents were just a trigger. Hamas does not recognize the Palestinian authority, which controls the West Bank and is officially designated as the global representatives of Palestine. Hamas, which took over Gaza in a coup in 2007, has been declared a terrorist organization by Israel, US and the EU.

Its power flows from local support, voluntary or enforced. It is funded by Qatar, Iran and Turkey. Most of their rockets are locally manufactured, based on Iranian designs. Hamas employs terrorist tactics, including use of suicide bombers, hit and run attacks, launching rockets from densely populated regions thereby using locals as human shields and targeting civilian population. Gaza human casualties mean nothing for Hamas.

Simultaneously, Israel retaliates on what it terms as Hamas targets, ignoring collateral damage. Thus, on both sides, majority of casualties are non-combatants, including children. Gaza suffers more on account of the greater firepower of Israel and its high population density. The unleashing of rockets by Hamas, most of which were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile system, while some crashed within Gaza, led to strong Israeli counter strikes.

For both sides, this was an opportunity to push their own agendas. Hamas’s intentions in the conflict appeared to be to project its military capability while utilizing the global stage for pressure on Israel to relent and lift its blockade. Israel viewed it as an opportunity to degrade the fighting capability of Hamas, thereby gaining a few years of peace, till the organisation rebuilds. A unilateral ceasefire by Israel would have been termed as a victory by Hamas.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, stated after his conversation with President Biden, that he is, ‘determined to continue with the operation until its aims were met.’ He did not specify Israel’s aims though it implied sufficient degradation of Hamas’ fighting capability including its hideouts, tunnels, cadres, weapon production and storage facilities.

Finally, the ceasefire proposed by Egypt was accepted, after which both sides declared victory. The UNSC only issued a resolution after the ceasefire was declared, mainly due to US backing of Israel. Within the subcontinent, India and Pakistan view the crisis differently. India has ties with both Palestine and Israel. However, India recognizes the Palestinian authority as the legitimate authority and not Hamas. Prime Minister Modi visited Ramallah in the West Bank in February 2018, late President Pranab Mukherjee in October 2015 and the late Sushma Swaraj as External Affairs Minister in January 2016.

None of them entered Gaza. India is funding developmental and educational projects in Palestine. In December 2018, India abstained from voting on a US resolution in the UNGA, condemning rocket attacks by Hamas and declaring it as a terrorist organization, a resolution the US failed to push. The presence of the Palestine ambassador to Pakistan on a stage with known terrorist Hafiz Saeed in December 2017 led to him being recalled on Indian objections. India has balanced its relations with Palestine and Israel and hence has goodwill on both sides.

The Indian statement at the recent UNSC meeting was carefully drafted. Indian permanent representative to the UN, TS Tirumurti, stated, “The indiscriminate rocket firings from Gaza targeting the civilian population in Israel, which we condemn, and the retaliatory strikes into Gaza, have caused immense suffering and resulted in deaths, including women and children.” He added, “I reiterate India’s strong support to the just Palestinian cause and its unwavering commitment to the two-state solution.”

India did not support either openly.  Pakistan, on the other hand has had a hate-love relationship with Palestine. Its erstwhile dictator, Zia Ul Haq, as a Brigadier posted in Jordan, commanded a Jordanian division in an attack on Palestinian camps in September 1970, termed as Black September, leading to the massacre of over 10,000 PLO fighters. It resulted in the exodus of the PLO to Lebanon.

Subsequently, Pakistan commenced supporting Palestine, while suppressing its role in their massacre. Pakistan’s support for Palestine is not on account of religious affinity but selfish reasons. It has exploited the Palestine cause to further its claims on Kashmir, stating both are occupied lands, and that governments are suppressing legitimate demands of the local populace. Most of its leaders have been known to say that Pakistan views the unresolved Palestine issue at par with the Kashmir issue.

So confused has Pakistan been between Kashmir and Palestine that its UN representative, Maleeha Lodhi, addressing the UNGA in 2017 on Kashmir, displayed a picture of Gaza, claiming it to be Kashmir. Comparing Palestine to Kashmir has been the methodology adopted by Pakistan in global forums, including OIC and UN. Comments of Foreign Minister S M Qureshi, in his recent address to the OIC, are similar to what he says on Kashmir. His words, ‘blatant and illegal use of force, flagrant violations of human rights, demanding UN intervention, implementing UN resolutions and committing atrocities,’ are normally used for Kashmir.

No Pakistani leader has ever visited Palestine. Summarily, Pakistan exploits Palestine, rather than possessing genuine concern. Pakistan has no diplomatic ties with Israel. For Pakistan, Israel is an enemy due to its proximity with India. Pakistan media reports even claimed Israeli pilots led the strike on Balakote and that Indian policies in Kashmir are a textbook copy of Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Within Pakistan, there is deep hatred for Israel. Pakistan is aware that its Kashmir policy is in tatters. In the past few decades, despite Chinese pushing, there has been no UN resolution on Kashmir, while 47 have been adopted on the Israel-Palestine issue. Pakistan’s current support to Palestine is based on the failure of its Kashmir policy, rather than a display of genuine concern. It is plain selfish interest.

(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)