What the Gaza conflict means for South Asia

As the latest conflict between Israel and Palestine approaches the two-week mark, it’s worth asking what the crisis means for South Asia, which borders the Middle East

Michael Kugelman May 21, 2021
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Courtesy: Foreign Policy South Asia Brief

As the latest conflict between Israel and Palestine approaches the two-week mark, it’s worth asking what the crisis means for South Asia, which borders the Middle East. India and Nepal have long-standing links to Israel, and Bhutan normalized ties in December 2020. Meanwhile, South Asia’s Muslim-majority countries, especially Pakistan, champion the Palestinian cause.

The conflict, horrific as it is, raises some diplomatic possibilities for India and Pakistan, placing both countries in a position to play a role in helping mitigate the crisis. It also poses bigger security risks within the region, including violent protests and terrorist attacks, than during the last major crisis in the Gaza Strip in 2014.

India’s balancing policy with the Israelis and the Palestinians—it maintains robust relations with both sides—gives it the diplomatic flexibility to engage with them on equal terms. Relations between India and Israel have grown stronger under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with bilateral trade reaching nearly $6 billion in 2018. In 2017, Modi became the first sitting Indian prime minister to visit Israel.

But Foreign Policy’s Sumit Ganguly and Nicolas Blarel argued this week that Modi walks a political tightrope in his relationship with Israel. It’s worth keeping in mind India has also long supported the Palestinian cause, support that hasn’t abated even as its ties with Israel have intensified. In 2018, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit the Palestinian territories too.

Unsurprisingly, India’s ambassador to the United Nations issued a balanced statement on the conflict this week that condemned Palestinian violence and described Israel’s use of force as “retaliatory” while affirming India’s “strong support for the just Palestinian cause” and a two-state solution. By maintaining goodwill with both sides, New Delhi has positioned itself as a potential mediator in the crisis. Last year, the United Nations explored how India could play such a role, sending a delegation to New Delhi to discuss the prospect with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and other senior officials.

India’s diplomatic advantage is stronger than during the 2014 crisis because it has strengthened its ties with Israel significantly. Meanwhile, Pakistan wasn’t as diplomatically active during the 2014 conflict because of pressing issues at home, including a counterterrorism initiative.

Pakistan could now build further support for the plight of the Palestinians, which it often champions in global forums. Unlike its long-standing advocacy on behalf of Kashmiris, the Palestinian issue is likely to get significant traction abroad. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi is already busy. He has spoken to his Palestinian, Egyptian, Saudi, Chinese, Afghan, and U.S. counterparts about the conflict. Earlier this week, he traveled alongside the Palestinian and Turkish foreign ministers to New York for a special U.N. session on the crisis.

The Gaza crisis will also put to rest any lingering speculation that Pakistan could become one of the next countries to normalize ties with Israel. The Pakistani and Israeli foreign ministers met publicly in Turkey in 2005, and informal contacts date to the 1940s, according to researchers. But Pakistan’s official position is it will only recognize Israel when a Palestinian state is established. Given Israel’s current assault on the Gaza Strip, the idea of Islamabad even contemplating formal relations with Israel defies belief.

With no signs of stopping, the current conflict also poses security risks for South Asia. It could spark pro-Palestinian protests by Islamist hard-liners that lead to violence. Protests in the region have so far been peaceful, but Indian security forces still cracked down on pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Kashmir. Pakistan faces a test on Friday. Qureshi has called for nationwide peaceful protests on that day, but they could bring out religious extremists like those who killed four people and wounded hundreds of protesters and police last month.

Terrorism presents another security risk, albeit more remote. Al Qaeda’s media wing released a statement on May 17 calling on Muslims to attack Jews and their allies. This threat is of particular concern for India, Israel’s closest South Asian partner and home to a small Jewish community. More broadly, Israel’s relentless violence against Palestinians could embolden the region’s terrorist groups and inspire attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets. India and Nepal are believed to host the largest number of Israelis in the region.

The threat of terrorist violence in South Asia beyond Afghanistan has receded since the last major Gaza conflict. However, the increased power of social media to spread images of Israeli violence, the proliferation of new hard-line religious parties in the region, and rising Islamophobia heightens the risk of some protests turning violent, especially if the Israeli-Palestinian crisis continues. South Asia isn’t a party to the Gaza conflict, but the region is still vulnerable to its potentially destabilizing effects.

 (Courtesy: Foreign Policy South Asia Brief)