On the morning of 24 August, Sunday, Maphaz Yousef woke up to the news of Israeli missiles killing dozens of people in her neighbourhood in another round of attacks. Living in New Delhi, thousands of kilometres away from her home in Gaza, she could not do much except mourn and cry. She frantically called up her mother back in Palestine, and was relieved that her family was safe. Maphaz had moved to New Delhi eight months ago after marrying an Indian who she had met in Gaza in 2011.
Palestinians living in New Delhi have been on the tenterhooks in the past one-and-half months that have seen a major escalation in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Most of them keep looking at computer screens all day for updates on the list of those killed — people they call “martyrs of the freedom struggle”. All along, they hope that the list doesn’t include any of their relatives.
More than 2,000 people, including around 170 Israeli soldiers, have so far died in the violence since 9 July, when Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, aimed at wiping out the militant organisations Hamas and Islamic Jihad completely. The list of those injured runs into thousands. Moreover, the livelihoods and homes of thousands of civilians have been destroyed as part of the “collateral damage”.
For many Palestinians living in New Delhi, the Israeli operations have caused severe distress and desolation as they helplessly watch footage of missiles landing on the densely-populated residential areas in Gaza. They may be safe from the missiles, but that does not detract from the huge sense of loss they carry in their hearts. Many of them had chosen India as a country where they could live in peace and hope to return someday to their homeland.
“I preferred to come here as India has always stood with the struggling people of our country. It has always extended help to our suffering people and its leaders enjoy good rapport with the leaders of Palestine,” says Dr Aladdin, a dentist who has been based in New Delhi since 1992, when he travelled to India on a student visa.
Dr Aladdin has no childhood memories of Palestine as he was very young when his family migrated to Egypt. Yet he wants to visit his homeland at least once. “I go to bed every night thinking about my country and its subjugated people,” he says, adding that he is grateful to the Indian government for allowing him to lead a secure life with his family here.
Ibrahim, another native of Gaza, who is engaged in medical tourism and is closely associated with Palestinians coming to India for treatment, recalls that Gaza was more or less peaceful when he came to New Delhi in 2006. He clarifies, though, that Palestine has never seen consistent peace since it was bifurcated on 14 May 1948. While of his compatriots still hope that their homeland will see freedom and peace one day, the constant bloodletting has made Ibrahim pessimistic.
“I have no hopes from Israel,” says Ibrahim. “I don’t think there will be any change until the big players of world politics wish for a permanent and dignified solution that can end the suffering of the people. But why would they when they do not see the life of a Palestinian as being equal to that of an Israeli? On the other hand, everyone in my country wants to die. Kids who should be playing soccer, throw stones to stop Israeli tanks and bulldozers. What kind of life is this?”
Ibrahim recalls an incident from his days in Gaza as an example of the many horrific events he had witnessed: “One evening during Ramzan in 2005, I was with a few friends on a road in a controlled area when we came across an Israeli soldier who was aiming his gun at us. We closed our eyes and started reciting our last prayer, but realised later that it was only an attempt to traumatise us psychologically, a part of Israeli strategy.”
The recent onslaught is not one of its kind in a region that has grown used to the unending conflict, which has been marked by successive Israeli military campaigns to curb the activities of Palestinian militant outfits like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
In the winter of 2008, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had launched an attack on the Hamas called Operation Castled. The stated aim was to wipe out the outfit. Like the latest attacks, then too the death toll had been huge, forcing a lot of people to flee their homes and seek shelter in other parts of the world, mostly Europe, Arab countries and India.
This exodus of the Palestinian population is not a recent phenomenon but has been persistent since the early years of the conflict. India has provided shelter to these Palestinians, owing to the historical relations between the two countries.
The Indian freedom struggle has always been a source of inspiration for Palestinians, especially those living in India. They look up to the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, who was an ardent advocate of the rights of Palestinians. One of Gandhi’s editorials in Harijan expresses his firm position on the Palestine question. “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs… Surely, it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs, so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home,” he wrote.
However, the dilution of the Indian position following the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 has been a cause of worry for the Palestinians. But they still hope that India’s relations with Israel will not be built at the cost of the people of Palestine.
“Despite its growing relations with Israel in the recent decades, India still votes in favour of Palestine in international fora,” Adli Sadeq, representative of the Palestinian Authority in New Delhi, told TEHELKA. As an example, he points out that India recently voted in favour of a resolution condemning the recent violence in Gaza at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Sadeq recalls how India’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, had refused to be swayed by Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s plea to recognise the Jewish State of Israel. In fact, Nehru had initially chosen not to reply to Ben-Gurion’s letters asking for India’s support and had done so only after pressures from the West. In his reply, he had given four strong arguments as to why India could not support the Jewish State. One of the arguments centred on India’s reluctance to accept a State built on the basis of religion, especially as the country had seen the effect of the Two-Nation Theory that led to Partition.
Such episodes from the past give Palestinians the faith that India will continue to support them and oppose the “expansionist policy” of Israel, even when a majority of the Arab rulers have turned a blind eye to their miseries.
However, AK Ramakrishnan, a professor at the Centre for West Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, says that the current Indian position on Palestine is riddled with contradictions. “While India votes in favour of Palestine at international fora, it refuses to have a debate on the issue in Parliament and also robustly engages with Israel,” he remarks.
On the future of Palestine, Ramakrishnan believes that “no solution can be foreseen without positive overtures from the global powers that have maintained relations with Israel”.
It’s 14 August, the day before India celebrates its freedom from British rule. Palestinians living here see in India’s freedom glimpses of what a “free Palestine” could look like. “I hope there will be a day when our kids too run through the streets of free Palestine with Palestinian flags in hand, a day when the fear of tanks, bulldozers and missiles will be a mere memory,” says Maphaz. “One day, we will have the right to return to our homeland.”