Israel-Palestine: Old Conflict in a New Context

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The Palestine-Israel conflict signifies one of the oldest disputes rooted in religious claims and has seen many transactional phases in which the two sides received endorsement from different quarters. It is presently caught in an amalgamation of three strands — clash of ‘faiths’, differing geopolitical alignments and the state of intra-Palestinian rivalry between Hamas and the PLO, writes D.C. PATHAK

The recent spell of violence lasting eleven days in which rockets fired on Israel from Hamas-controlled Gaza and the deadlier missile offensive of Israel that demolished entire buildings on the other side resulting in loss of some 250 civilian lives including children — mostly Palestinians — was the culmination of a simmering conflict in East Jerusalem around the Al Aqsa mosque sparked off by the action of Israel Police in not letting the local Muslims assemble at the mosque in course of Ramadan.

The conflict between Hamas and Israel is fundamentally about the claim on what is the third most important religious site for Muslims after Mecca and Medina and the Temple Mount, the holiest place in Judaism — both located in the same premises. It is on the mediation of Egypt that Hamas and Israel accepted a cease-fire — even as the UNSC failed to bring about any agreement despite several meetings, on account of differences amongst the members on familiar political lines. The whole episode is yet another warning that a conflict on religion had the potential of precipitating a ‘war’.

US President Joe Biden, in a response aimed at promoting reconciliation, has promised financial aid for the rehabilitation of Palestinians, particularly in Gaza and firmly supported the idea of two states as the final solution of the longstanding problem in Palestine. He has reiterated the US decision to reopen its Consulate at Jerusalem. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has since met President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority at Jerusalem to assure him of the American stand that justice had to be meted out to Palestinians, emphasise the need for Palestinian unity and call for a peaceful political solution without recourse to acts of terrorism.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian Intelligence Minister Abbas Kamel

The Biden Presidency is adopting an even-handed approach while retaining its special equation with Israel. India has also chipped in with its support for the two-state resolution but unlike in the past it does not show any pro-Palestine tint. That the ceasefire could at best be a fickle truce was manifest in the fresh trouble that blew out between Israel Police and Muslims gathered at the Mosque for Friday prayers on May21, hours after the agreement was made public.

The Palestine-Israel conflict signifies one of the oldest disputes rooted in religious claims and has seen many transactional phases in which the two sides received endorsement from different quarters. It is presently caught in an amalgamation of three strands — clash of ‘faiths’, differing geopolitical alignments and the state of intra-Palestinian rivalry between Hamas and the PLO. The problem has touched a new milestone as the present paradigms point to a mix that was not seen before.

In the play of religion, the familiar tussle between the secular nationalism of PLO and the rising hold of Hamas — an offspring of Muslim Brotherhood with its deep commitment to the establishment of an Islamic state in Palestine — had been a prime determinant of the developments there in the era of Cold War. Hasan al-Banna, the Islamic thinker who established Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria in 1928, was driven by the desire to replace the regimes there with an Islamic rule that would base itself on the puritanic message of Quran.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (R) meets with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi in Cairo, Egypt (Str_Xinhua_IANS)

The Muslim Brotherhood disapproved of the idea of nationalism itself and when the Baathist leaders of Syria and Egypt, Hafez al-Assad and Nasser, aligned themselves with the Soviet camp it launched Jehad against them — with direct and indirect endorsement of the US. Banna put forth the thesis that an Islamic state was a ‘reformed’ entity that could live in ‘competition not conflict’ with a Western democratic state. There had been since then a Western tilt towards Hamas at the cost of the PLO.

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When Nasser hanged Sayyid Qutb, leader of the Brotherhood, Syed Ramadan, his deputy, had managed to get away and he was kept with Western help at an Islamic Centre at Geneva by Maulana Abul Ala Maudoodi, an admirer of Banna who had earlier set up Jamaat-e-Islami at Lahore in 1941 with the same mission as of Brotherhood — for the Indian subcontinent. More recently, when Muslim Brotherhood used the Egyptian revolution of 2011 against the Hosni Mubarak regime to install Mohammad Morsi as President, the US was happy.

His successor Gen. el Sisi restrained Brotherhood at home but remained on the right side of the US and had an outreach to both Hamas and Israel because of his advocacy of two-state solution in Palestine. He was able to mediate for the current cease-fire that elicited a lot of appreciation from President Biden too.

Palestinian protesters carry away a fellow protester injured in clashes with Israeli security forces in the West Bank village of Beit Dajan. (Photo by Ayman Nobani_Xinhua)

The equation of the US-led West with Muslim Brotherhood that existed in the Cold War scaled down steadily because of the path of competitive extremism that the latter chose in parallel to Islamic radicals — who were the sole target of the US-led West in the ‘war on terror’ resulting from 9/11 — possibly because of the desire not to lose ground to the latter. Islamic radicals of Al Qaeda-Taliban combine and ISIS, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, carried the historical legacy of an inborn enmity towards the West.

There is consequently a three-way division in the Muslim world as of now — Islamic radical forces with their acolytes spread across geographical boundaries, Saudi Arabia and UAE at the helm of OIC being totally in the US camp and an emerging group of Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia and Qatar which had no problem with either radical Islam or Muslim Brotherhood and was not willing to toe the American line in geopolitics.

Anti US sentiment and hostility towards Israel led Iran to help Hamas with arms while the Russia-China combine, upholding the cause of Palestine right through the Cold War, extended support to PLO and President Abbas of Palestinian Authority. Russia did not, however, want any escalation and its foreign minister was in touch with US and UN to stop the conflict.

China had a similar position but was more explicit about Israel halting its aggression first. In an interesting turn of alignments, the Muslim world is getting ‘politically’ divided between pro-US countries led by Saudi Arabia-UAE axis who are opposed to radicalisation and others who were accommodative towards Islamic radicals and extremists and were not willing to toe the American line. The latter, significantly, are now on the right side of the China-Russia camp, politically.

Thick smoke rises above buildings in Gaza City, following several Israeli airstrikes. (Photo Mohammed Talatene_dpa_IANS)

President Biden views the world through the lens of human rights and is apparently not bothered so much with ideological and religious divides, which explains his line of moderation towards the ‘threat’ of radicalisation, silence on Pakistan — a country viewed by the international community as a harborer of Islamic militants — and endorsement of the politically guided two-state solution in Palestine without relaxing on the staunch defence of Israel. What would not go unnoticed by India is Biden’s refusal to call Islamic terrorists or to decry Pakistan’s military alliance with China that had a strategic ‘give and take’ basis. As an upshot of these shifts, Hamas and PLO may hopefully be pushed towards political reconciliation and coexistence with Israel.

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The world had been moving fast towards faith-based ‘wars’ and it is to be seen if the trend of a visible shift towards a ‘political’ bipolarity between US and China would remain free of the added aggravation of a religious conflict. Unfortunately, in our side of the globe the Sino-Pak alliance represents this dangerous mix and India has to formulate a strategy that enables it to handle Islamic militants set upon India by Pakistan while the country negotiates its own position as an independent global power on the emerging world scene.

India has to maintain a close relationship with the US as the lead player of the democratic world, be an active part of the multilateral group like QUAD for the security of the Indo-Pacific against Chinese incursions, deal with the two hostile neighbours on the borders, keep up the policy of punishing Pakistan for any mischief in Kashmir or elsewhere and counter its manipulations in Afghanistan and finally use its own political and economic strength and influence to emerge as a major power on the global stage in general and in South Asia in particular.

A threat specific to India is from the unhindered plans of Pakistan, encouraged by Sino-Pak alliance — to use radicals and extremists for its ‘proxy war’ against India. It got affiliates of Al Qaeda and ISIS to make their appearance in Kashmir and could draw in elements of Hamas, wedded to Jamaat-e-Islami’s doctrine of Islamic state, to join the subversive forces there as well.

Internationally, Pakistan is gaining from the support of Turkey, Malaysia and Qatar on Indo-Pak issues including the Kashmir ‘dispute’ and the emerging scene in Afghanistan. The Biden administration continues to presume that Pakistan was still a useful ally because of its potential as an influencer with regard to Taliban — that would ease the process of withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Considering the level of violence Afghan Taliban has maintained even after the Doha agreement, it seems US is willing to pull out of Afghanistan anyway and leave the Ashraf Ghani government to sort matters out with the Taliban. Pakistan will like to secure the ‘strategic depth’ it was seeking in Afghanistan all through these years of conflict there. India has to handle the challenge in South Asia largely on its own.

(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)

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