EVEN while blaming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his administration for Israel’s intelligence and security failure which led to the Hamas terror attack on October 7, the country rallied around the government. The Israeli political class closed ranks at a time of an unprecedented national emergency. While seeking parliamentary approval for the formation of an ‘emergency unity government’, Netanyahu said October 7 was “the most horrible day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust”. Hamas killed nearly 1,400 people, overwhelmingly civilians, including women, children and the aged. It took 229 hostages to Gaza. Hence, what Netanyahu said was correct. While the majority of the countries may indicate that the severity of the Israeli response is unjustified, an overwhelming majority of Israelis are with the political class in its desire to finish off Hamas and its ‘military’ infrastructure in Gaza.
Arab countries which have normalised ties with Israel have been compelled to condemn it for its lack of concern for Gaza’s civilians.
Immediately after the Hamas attack, the Israel Defence Forces began intensive bombing of Gaza. This has led to the loss of over 8,000 lives so far. Israel has also cut off energy supplies and is allowing only a minimum quantity of food to enter Gaza. In addition, it has told the people living in northern Gaza as well as Gaza City to move south. On October 27, Israeli ground forces entered Gaza, though in a limited way. However, a day later, Netanyahu told the Israeli people that the next phase of the war will now begin and cautioned them that it will be long and difficult.
At this stage, the Israeli government is asserting that it is also acting to rescue the hostages. It would appear that Israeli thinking is that the toll its action is taking on the lives of ordinary Gazans would compel Hamas to release the hostages either by itself or because of the pressure of the Gaza people. Countries such as Qatar and Egypt are negotiating between Hamas and Israel for the release of the hostages. It is difficult to visualise that Hamas would release all the hostages for they are a ‘shield’. The Israeli authorities are in a dilemma because the families of the hostages are putting pressure on them. Hamas seems to have demanded that Israel should release the Palestinians in its custody. In the past, Israel has released a large number of Palestinians to secure the freedom of a single Israeli soldier. But now, the stakes are different.
There is a perception in some parts of the Arab and Islamic world and in some other countries, too, that because of Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestinian land and its lack of interest in pursuing a two-state solution, the Hamas attack was understandable. Indeed, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, while briefing the UN Security Council last week, went to the extent of saying that Hamas’ October 7 action did not happen in a vacuum. However, a wide section of international public opinion asserts that whatever Israel may have been guilty of in its policies and actions towards the Palestinians, the Hamas attack was a terrorist act and completely unjustified.
The interplay of these factors was witnessed during the vote on the UN General Assembly resolution moved by Jordan on the ‘Protection of civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations’ on October 27. It was supported by 121 countries and opposed by 14, while 44, including India, abstained. The resolution called for “an immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities”. It did not name Hamas or Israel; however, by asking that humanitarian law be respected and the people of Gaza be allowed access to aid and not be displaced from their places of stay, the resolution was clearly directed against Israel. This was despite its call for the release of civilians held illegally — an obvious reference to the Israeli hostages in Gaza.
Significantly, it was not only the Arab and Islamic countries, besides Russia and China, which demanded that Israel should now show restraint and abandon its current path. Among those countries which voted for the resolution were France, a permanent UNSC member and a prominent European Union country. It broke ranks not only with its NATO ally, the US, which opposed the resolution, but also with Britain, which abstained. It would not be wrong to say that the resolution split many groups and regions — the EU, North and South America, the African Union, ASEAN and South Asia.
Israel has the complete backing of the Biden administration. It is apparent that the Jewish lobby in America is influencing Biden a year ahead of the presidential election. More importantly, while the Biden administration would be concerned that some US nationals are among the hostages, it shares Israel’s determination that Hamas should be eliminated. The US will, therefore, continue to provide Israel diplomatic cover at the UN Security Council by exercising its veto, as it has done already, on any resolution which seeks to put the brakes on Israel’s Gaza war.
The Arab countries which have normalised relations with Israel have been compelled to condemn it for the lack of concern it is showing for the civilian population in Gaza. All Arab countries have voted for the resolution. However, it remains to be seen if these countries, especially the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, will break relations with Israel.
India made a statement explaining its abstention. It rightly focused on terrorism and the need for restraint, diplomacy and dialogue. It emphasised respect for humanitarian law and mentioned its support for a two-state solution. However, being the only country in South Asia to not support the resolution, it will reinforce the perception in many Arab countries that India has now become pro-Israel and is showing a lack of concern for the Palestinians. That may not be so, but India has to be mindful that while it has an interest in its relationship with Israel, it has enormous stakes in the Arab world too.
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