Within hours of the massacre of Israeli citizens by Hamas fighters last Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted India’s solidarity with Israel. While the histories of their conflicts and the scale of violence have been very different, India has faced terror attacks all too often to not feel the pain in Israel where teenagers at a concert, children in a park, grandparents at home, and even babies in cribs were gunned down, amidst other atrocities Hamas carried out, including taking dozens hostage. The sentiments were repeated when Mr. Modi spoke to Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, condemning terrorism in all its forms. India’s second big concern has been the safety of its citizens, especially as Israel began retaliatory strikes on Gaza. Around 18,000 Indians work or study in Israel, in addition to about 85,000 Israelis of Indian origin (from Maharashtra, Manipur, Mizoram, Kerala, and West Bengal). The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has chartered flights to bring them home. New Delhi has also added nuance to the initial position, with the MEA delivering the government’s first formal statement. While repeating the condemnation of the Hamas attacks, the statement reminded Israel about the “universal obligation to observe international humanitarian law”, as it carries out “global responsibility to fight the menace of terrorism....” In addition, the MEA reiterated its “long-standing and consistent” position on the Palestine issue.
The statement is a reminder of the tightrope India has walked since 1992, when New Delhi established full diplomatic ties with Israel, while continuing to support the Palestinian cause. There has been a shift towards Israel’s position, given increasingly close bilateral relations, trade, technological assistance, military procurement, and counter-terrorism cooperation. In 2017, Mr. Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel, while in 2018, Mr. Netanyahu visited India. However, Mr. Modi was also the first Indian Prime Minister to make an official visit to Palestine. In 2017, India voted against the U.S. and Israel for an attempt to declare unilaterally all of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. The policy lines New Delhi is continuing to draw seem clear: to abhor terrorism, but not to condone indiscriminate reprisal bombings, even as it holds its consistent position on Palestine. No claim to righting historical grievances can possibly be used by Hamas to explain its inhuman attacks on Israel. However, a responsible state cannot behave like an insurgent group, and Israel’s latest demand, that more than a million Gaza residents must evacuate as it continues to pound the city and plans a possible ground offensive, will make Delhi’s challenge at balancing policy even more complex.