India wants Israel to be mindful of Gaza civilian deaths

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar says conflict in West Asia needs a permanent, long-term fix; he reiterates India’s call for two-state solution

February 17, 2024 09:09 pm | Updated February 18, 2024 11:48 am IST - LONDON

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, centre, speaks with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar as German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock looks on during a panel discussion at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany on February 17, 2024.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, centre, speaks with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar as German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock looks on during a panel discussion at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany on February 17, 2024. | Photo Credit: AP

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar reiterated India’s call for a two-state solution to permanently resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. He also said that Israel should have been mindful of civilian casualties in its (ongoing) response to Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, while calling that attack “terrorism”.

“No caveats, no justification, no explanation. It was terrorism,” Mr. Jaishankar said during a panel discussion with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and German counterpart, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

“It is important that Israel should be, should have been, very mindful of civilian casualties,” Mr. Jaishankar said, adding that Israel has an obligation to observe international humanitarian law. He called for the return of Israeli hostages taken by Hamas and for the opening of a “sustainable humanitarian corridor” to provide relief in Gaza, where, as per the region’s Health Ministry, at least 28,000 civilians — many of them children — have been killed in Israel’s retaliation for Hamas’s October 7 assault. At least 2.2 million people have been displaced since mid-December.

Also read: Why are conflicts spreading in West Asia? | Explained

The conflict in West Asia needs a “permanent” and “long-term” fix, Mr. Jaishankar said, reiterating India’s call for a two-state solution.

“And I think today many more countries in the world... feel not just that the two-state solution is necessary, but it is more urgent than it was before,” he said.

Images of Mr. Jaishankar interacting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during the conference surfaced on social media on Saturday. Mr. Wang’s session was just before Mr. Jaishankar’s panel discussion and apparently the two Ministers had an interaction between the sessions.

During his panel discussion, Mr. Jaishankar defended India’s foreign policy, which some, especially in the West, have implied is overly transactional. He was asked by the moderator, Rhoula Khalaf, Editor-in-Chief of the Financial Times, if India’s foreign policy could be accurately described as based on a “multiple choice mindset”.

Specifically, he was asked about India buying Russian oil in the context of the U.S.-India bilateral relationship, and whether the U.S. was comfortable with India doing whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted.

“If I’m smart enough to have multiple options, you should be admiring me, you shouldn’t be criticising,” Mr. Jaishankar said to laughter from the audience and the panel. The Minister said he did not think having an apparent breadth of choice was problematic for India’s partners, pointing to his U.S. or German counterparts.

Countries have different pulls and pressures and different histories, as well as different states of development, Mr. Jaishankar said, adding that he did not want an impression to form that Indian foreign policy was “purely and unsentimentally transactional”.

“So I agree very much with what Tony [Antony Blinken] said, which is good partners provide choices. Smart partners take some of those choices,” Mr. Jaishankar said, noting that sometimes, however, choices are passed up on.

India’s purchase of oil from Moscow had been under the scanner in the months following February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Especially scrutinised was how New Delhi and Washington navigated their close and growing partnership despite the U.S. being the main driver behind Western economic and trade sanctions on Russia, and Moscow and New Delhi sharing close ties.

India and West’s partnership ‘extremely strong’ 

Mr. Jaishankar suggested India is a bridge between the West and other BRICS countries (a grouping originally comprised of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) as he emphasised the difference between being non-West and anti-West, saying India was non-Western but had an “extremely strong” relationship with the West that was getting even better. This is not the first time the Minister has made this distinction between anti-West and non-West.

Mr. Blinken echoed Mr. Jaishankar’s views, saying the multiplicity and complexity of global challenges required countries to work with each other on a non-exclusive basis. The U.S. would work at the first instance with fellow democracies, Mr. Blinken said, adding, however, that it was willing to work with any country to resolve particular problems in the context of a “rules-based order”.

Watch | Israel-Hamas | As conflict spreads, where does India stand?

Jaishankar, Blinken discuss West Asia, Red Sea

On Friday, Mr. Jaishankar held bilateral discussions with Mr. Blinken on the sidelines of the conference. The two Ministers discussed work to “ensure lasting peace and security” in West Asia, as per a readout from the State Department.

They also discussed the crisis in the Red Sea, with Mr. Blinken highlighting India and the U.S.’s “mutually reinforcing“ approaches to maritime security and the maintenance of stability in the Red Sea, where Houthi rebels in Yemen have attacked ships following the heightened conflict between Hamas and Israel.

India has stationed warships east of the Red Sea and has served as a first responder in some of these attacks. On Friday, the State Department announced that Houthis had fired missiles at a British tanker carrying crude oil to India.

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