The endless calamity in West Asia

The Jewish state and its toxic right-wing hardly have any tolerance for the plight of Palestinians, but does the Indian public even care any longer about the situation?

Updated - May 21, 2016 07:49 am IST

Published - April 03, 2014 01:31 am IST

Palestine that once was is no more, and what is no more strives to be reborn. When new nations were to be born in the dawn of decolonisation, Palestine vanished from the world map. In its place came Israel, hastily welcomed into the newly created United Nations, which played a part in its formation. Since 1948 the U.N. has attempted in so many ways to atone for Resolution 181, which delivered the land to Israel. Its relief organisation, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) tends to the needs of the Palestinian refugees and its other agencies attempt to document Israel’s routine violation of international law and U.N. resolutions. Each year on the day that Resolution 181 passed, November 29, the U.N. celebrates a Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. The day passes with modest programmes at the local U.N. offices; 2014 is the U.N.’s Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, although the planet can be forgiven for its ignorance. No celebrities have lined up to take “selfies” with signs that proclaim their solidarity, and no news organisations have devoted any time for a discussion of this endless calamity in West Asia. Matters are so grave indeed that the Palestinians are no longer sure that they will retain the 22 per cent of historical Palestine that had been promised to them by the 1993 Oslo Accords, what Edward Said called the “Palestinian Versailles.” The U.N., as midwife, stands aside as Israel prevents the birth of even this moth-eaten state.

If not for the blind support by the United States, Israel would be considered one of the planet’s most undesirable states. Israel has disregarded more U.N. Security Council resolutions that sanction its behaviour than any other state. But with U.S. protection, these resolutions come without any pressure — no sanctions, no retribution, and certainly no threat of humanitarian intervention. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk writes in his December 2013 report that Israeli policy amounts to “segregation and apartheid,” including “continuing excessive use of force by Israeli security forces,” extra-judicial killings that “are part of acts carried out in order to maintain dominance over Palestinians” and a blockade of the Palestinian economy by the use of checkpoints and walls. The most striking part of Mr. Falk’s report is his assertion that Israel is conducting “ethnic cleansing” in the region. “The combined effect of the measures designed to ensure security for Israeli citizens, to facilitate and expand settlements, and it would appear, to annex land,” he writes, “is hafrada (the Hebrew word for separation), discrimination and systematic oppression of, and domination over, the Palestinian people.”

The ‘Jewish State’

On March 24, Mr. Falk delivered his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which is in the process of debating five resolutions that stem from it. One of them — the one the Israelis have taken most seriously — is on the call for member states to urge businesses to take “all necessary steps — including terminating all their business interests in the settlements.” Due to a labour strike by Israeli diplomats, none of its representatives took their seats in the Council. The U.N. resolution is non-binding, although it would still dent the reputation of Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu avoided all talk of Israeli policy and U.N. resolution. He has taken refuge in the charge that all critics of Israel are anti-Semites. “In the past, anti-Semites boycotted Jewish businesses,” he said in February. “Today, they call for the boycott of the Jewish State, and by the way, only the Jewish State.”

Use of the term “Jewish State” has itself come under criticism from another U.N. agency, the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). In its new report, “Arab Integration: A 21st Century Development Imperative (2014),” the Commission notes, “Israel insists on being recognized by the world and the Arabs as an exclusively Jewish State. It imposes this recognition as a condition for reaching a settlement with the Palestinians. This policy is based on the concept of the religious or ethnic purity of States, which brought to humanity the worst crimes and atrocities of the twentieth century.” It is this idea of the Jewish State that fuels the toxic right-wing in Israel — they will not tolerate the return of Palestinian refugees or deliver full rights to Arab Israelis largely because they fear that this would demographically challenge their ability to create a Jewish democracy. In 2003, Mr. Netanyahu said that the Wall built to encage the West Bank would prevent a “demographic spillover” into Israel. The collapse of the “peace process” to deliver a two-state solution threatens to leave the Israelis with only two options — expel the Palestinians to Jordan and Egypt to liquidate the Palestinian question, or absorb the Palestinians into a non-racial one-state of Israel-Palestine. Israeli policy leans toward the former, with the latter its nightmare. On March 26, the Arab League — following ESCWA’s recommendation — passed a resolution that rejected “the call to consider Israel as a Jewish State.” Reminding Israel that its definition of statehood has immense racial connotations has been a salutary task of the U.N. — it has also led to a backlash from the Netanyahu government, unwilling as it is to allow any criticism.

India and Israeli commerce

As U.N. criticism of Israel deepens, and as Israel begins to feel pressure from the European Union and other Arab states for its illegal settlement activity, India has decided to extend its ties to Israel. Ever since India and Israel established full diplomatic ties in 1992, India has cooled its political support for the Palestinians and heated up its imports of Israeli arms. Currently, according to Israeli Defense Ministry data, India imports more than $1.5 billion of the $7 billion of weaponry that Israel exports. It is Israel’s most important customer. India is currently looking at a bid from the Israeli firm Rafael for its Spike anti-tank guided missile. This contract will alone be worth $1 billion.

The arms deals themselves are not always advantageous to India. A list of corruption scandals litters the court records in both Israel and India. A senior Indian diplomat tells me that an Israeli arms dealer once said, “I cannot believe you Indians. We quote you a price and you make the deal. You don’t insist on bargaining for a better price or demanding technology transfer.” India’s domestic arms industry has not lived up to its promises, with the possible exception of the Tejas fighter jet (whose journey began in 1983 and is only now ready to take flight). India has exchanged its dependency on Russian military technology for a new dependency on U.S. and Israeli arms. This should be worrying by itself, aside from the moral question of being one of the major underwriters for the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian lands.

India’s relations with Israel are cemented around commerce, with arms deals at the forefront. Of the two major political parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is far closer to Israel with its hopes for a civilisational and a strategic deal between the countries. The Congress is more pragmatic in its deal-making, although no less committed to a special relationship with Israel. Its opportunism is tempered by India’s reliance upon the Gulf Arabs for its oil. In March 2013, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the Shura Council in Saudi Arabia, “There is no issue more important for peace and stability in the region than the question of Palestine. Far too long the brave people of Palestine have been denied their just, legitimate and inalienable rights, including most of all the establishment of a sovereign, independent and viable Palestinian state.” If these are not mere words, the Indian government might be asked to reconsider its arms purchases from Israel, which pays for the very occupation that Dr. Singh decries. Alone among all the parties is the CPI(M), whose 2014 election manifesto seeks to “extend full support to the cause of a Palestinian state; sever military and security ties with Israel.” The CPI(M) is in line with the mood of the United Nations’ agencies, although it is not clear how close this is to the national temper. Does the public even care any longer about the Palestinians?

It is to stem this doubt about the relevance of the Palestinian cause that the U.N. has declared this the Year of Solidarity. There are two reasons why the current U.N. attempt is already more promising than earlier attempts. For one, the U.N. agencies themselves are much more aggressive about Israeli violations of U.N. resolutions and international law than previously. The tone of the reports and the statements by people like the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay suggest that U.S. protection notwithstanding, Israel is no longer to get preferential treatment. What is good for the goose will have to be good for the gander. Second, a new public awareness of Israeli policies fuels the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, whose Indian branch has begun to protest the participation of Indian artists in Israeli cultural fairs and Indo-Israeli business deals. The BDS movement pushed Oxfam to break its ties with film star Scarlett Johansson for her role to also represent SodaStream, an Israeli firm that is based on seized, settlement land. These protests have begun to assume the kind of force that once propelled the movement against South African apartheid. When they will take on that kind of moral charge, Israel will be in trouble. It will have to cease its occupation and reconsider its treatment of the Palestinians. That is an end that no one wants more than the Palestinians themselves.

(Vijay Prashad is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon.)

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