The prosecutor at the International Criminal Court called last week for an end to violence by Israeli forces against Palestinians. At least forty Palestinian protestors have been killed and more than a thousand have been wounded by Israeli forces during the last one month.
Palestine has had a long and tumultuous history at crossroads of religion, culture and politics. The Israel Palestine conflict is an unresolved issue of international politics which dates from the end of the First World War.
During the First World War, Palestine was a part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire sided with Germany and was defeated. It was then dissolved. Its successor, the Republic of Turkey, transferred Palestine to the British Empire. In 1917, British Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour issued what is known as the Balfour Declaration for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.
Mahatma Gandhi wrote in the Harijan “The cry for a national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me. Why should they not, like other peoples on earth, make that country their home where they are born and where they earn their livelihood? 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. Surely it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be delivered to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home. The nobler course would be to insist on a just treatment of the Jews wherever they are born and bred. The Jews born in France are French in precisely the same sense that Christians born in France are French”.
In 1947, the United Nations General Assembly approved a plan to partition Palestinian land and proposed a Jewish State and an Arab State on that land. The Arab State of Palestine included the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and some other territories. The Jewish State of Israel was established in 1948 and several wars between the Israelis and the Arabs followed. In the Six Day War of 1967, Israelis captured and occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Thereafter, Israel tightened its hold over these territories, in spite of international objections which called these seizures illegal.
The United Nations Security Council has condemned repeatedly Israeli depredations in the occupied territories. It did direct Israel to immediately and completely cease all settlements in the occupied territories including East Jerusalem. Amnesty International has held Israel guilty of war crimes and murder of thousands of innocent Palestinians and demolition of their homes. A large number of Israelis support the cause of human rights and political freedom for the Palestinian people. They oppose the current policy of Israel towards the Palestinian territories particularly the occupied territories.
India was the first non-Arab country to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and it was also the first non-Arab country to recognise Palestine as an independent State. A PLO office was set up in New Delhi in 1975 and full diplomatic relations were established in 1980.
In 1987, I submitted a message from Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian people at the United States Headquarters in New York. In his message, our Prime Minister said: "I reiterate the firm and continued support of the Government and people of India to the cause of the Palestinian people and its sole legitimate representative, the Palestine Liberation Organization. The struggle of the people of Palestine has always been considered by the Indian people as being a part of the wider movement against colonial rule and oppression. Ever since the beginning of our freedom movement, support to the Palestinian cause has been a consistent part of India's foreign policy. It is indeed a tragedy that in spite of its arduous and long struggle, the brave Palestinian people remain without a homeland of their own. I take this opportunity to emphasize that delays in seeking a comprehensive and just solution to this problem can only escalate tension and turmoil in the Middle East. A just and lasting solution must include the exercise of the right of self-determination by the Palestinian people and the setting up of an independent State in Palestine. Israel must withdraw from all Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied by it since 1967, including Jerusalem. I pledge India's full support as a member of this important Committee in sparing no effort to work alongside other members in the pursuit of this very important common objective. History has shown that a just cause will triumph, no matter how long and arduous the struggle may be. We have no doubt in our minds and we are confident that the Palestinian cause will achieve complete success. Towards this we pledge our unconditional and total support.”
In 1992, during my tenure in the Ministry of External Affairs, I was asked by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao to ensure the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel so that India could assist the Palestinian cause in a more efficient manner. I met with the PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at his headquarters in Tunis. Chairman Arafat told me that he was confident that India would not vacillate on its commitment to the legitimate demand for an independent Palestine and that he had no objection if we established diplomatic relations with Israel. I then held a meeting with the Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres at the United Nations Headquarters and diplomatic relations with Israel followed. After 1992, India continued its unstinted support to the Palestinian people in their quest for a strong and viable State and provided material as well as technical support to the Palestinian Government in their efforts at nation building.
At present, the Israeli political scene has fallen under the control of pro settler, right wing parties opposed to a Palestinian State. The recent coalitions have been led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is committed to expanding settlements whilst paying lip service to the two State solution. Even Netanyahu’s possible departure from politics in the face of looming corruption charges is not likely to change this reality. The announcement by President Donald Trump that US recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has strengthened the Israeli right wing approach. Palestinian disunity that has emerged between the Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza has further affected the movement for a Palestinian State.
Indo-Israeli relations have witnessed a sharp upswing since the present Government came to power and there has been an unprecedented level of bilateral visits by senior Ministers from India to Israel and vice-versa. In 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook the first ever Prime Ministerial visit from India to Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu visited India last January. Noting that Israel and India have had diplomatic relations for twenty five years and addressing Prime Minister Modi, Netanyahu said: “something different is happening now because of your leadership and because of our partnership”. The joint statement refers to the ties between the two countries as a “strategic relationship”.
Israel ought to comply with international law and the United Nations resolutions and vacate the occupied Palestinian territories of West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. All future agreements between India and Israel should explicitly exclude Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
(The writer is a former Union Minister)