Can Doval's Israel visit lead to a ceasefire during Ramadan?

Story by  Aditi Bhaduri | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 12-03-2024
PM Benjamin Netanyahu meeting NSA Ajit Doval in Jerusalem (X)
PM Benjamin Netanyahu meeting NSA Ajit Doval in Jerusalem (X)


Aditi Bhaduri 

The month of Ramadan has just begun. For Muslims around the world, it is a month of fasting, piety, and reflection. According to Islamic tradition, it is the month when the Holy Quran, the Muslim scripture, was revealed to Islam's prophet Mohammed some 1400 years ago. Healthy, able-bodied Muslims fast during the month from dawn to sunset. Fasting is accompanied by charity, a cornerstone of Islam, towards others, especially the weak, the ill, the dispossessed, and the hungry. In India, it is no different. And, like much of the Muslim world, Indian Muslims too have Gaza in their minds and prayers.  

Since the brutal Hamas attacks on Israel and hostage-taking on 7 October 2023, Gaza has been facing Israel's military wrath, with ordinary civilians bearing the brunt. Almost 30,000 civilians are reported dead, with at least one-third being women and children. Towns and villages have been flattened, and thousands of people displaced and forced to flee to Rafah in the south. Egypt has closed the border with the Gaza Strip on the south, washed by the Mediterranean on the west, and hemmed in by Israel on the north and east, residents of the strip have nowhere to go. 

Since Israel began its military operation "Iron Swords" there has been no letup save for a brief pause in November last year to allow in humanitarian aid. So dire is the situation that 100 people were killed about two weeks ago when a humanitarian convoy began distributing food. Some reports say a stampede had ensued, so desperate were people for aid, that Israeli soldiers opened fire. India had expressed deep shock at the loss of lives then. A ceasefire was expected during Ramadan but obduracy on both warring sides - Hamas and Israel - has prevented one till now.

That is why the current visit of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval to Israel is so relevant and important. On Monday, 11 March, he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. Netanyahu updated him on recent developments in the fighting in the Gaza Strip. The sides also discussed the effort to release the hostages and the issue of humanitarian assistance. Present at the meeting was also the Director of the National Security Council, the Prime Minister's Foreign Policy Advisor, and the Indian Ambassador to Israel.

Israeli forces in Gaza (X)

Doval's visit highlights the global concerns about the situation in the region. Doval is no stranger to either Israel or the Muslim world. He is the architect of India's West Asian security and foreign policy, deftly balancing relations with Israel, the Arab world, and Iran. Both Israel and Gulf countries have become indispensable partners for India in counter-terrorism. Having been one of the worst victims of terrorism, India understands Israel's concerns well.

In fact, who can forget Mumbai 2008 where both Israelis and Indians were targets of Pakistani terrorists? Almost a hundred Israeli hostages are still in Hamas captivity. No doubt this will be one of the topics under discussion. At a time when patience with Hamas is running thin even amongst the group's patrons, he will also focus equally on the humanitarian aspects for the civilians of Gaza. 

While Doval knows the Muslim world well, India is also home to the world's second-largest Muslim community in the world. Naturally, there are concerns for Gaza, especially during Ramadan. Moreover, even while pursuing close, much-needed bilateral ties with Israel, India has always stood by the Palestinian cause, and espoused the two-state solution- Israel and Palestine living side by side with each other in peace and security - as the only viable solution to the more than seven decades conflict. There is no dichotomy or contradiction in it.

This was clear when Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the Hamas terror attack on Israeli civilians on October 7, 2023. India also voted for a ceasefire and humanitarian pause in Israel's attacks on the strip in the United Nations Security Council. India has also been delivering humanitarian aid, including medicines, to Gaza since the war began.

Furthermore, even as some Western countries like the UK decided to suspend aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) on allegations of complicity with Hamas attacks, India stepped up its commitment to UNRWA. India has released $ 5 million to the organization reeling with a humanitarian crisis on its hands.

A building damaged in Western Rafa in an Israeli airstrike (X)

Simultaneously, both Modi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar have been in constant communication with their Palestinian and Israeli counterparts on the situation unfolding in the region. This establishes India's concerns for both sides of the conflict. 

Doval's current visit also reflects India's concerns about the people of Gaza during the month of Ramadan. India is Israel’s all-weather friend, and this puts it in a position to both understand Israel's position and impress on India's concerns. And it simultaneously wants a pause in the violence and for much-needed aid to reach Gaza.

It would like the war to stop, a ceasefire to be in place, the Israeli hostages to be released, Hamas to be deranged, and both sides back to the negotiating table. On 10 January, India's permanent representative, Ruchira Kamboj succinctly outlined India's position on the conflict at the UN General Assembly meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question: “The message that India has conveyed since the start of this conflict is clear & consistent…a peaceful resolution of the conflict through dialogue & diplomacy is the only way forward...”

How significant Doval's visit to Israel is can be gauged from the fact that he did not meet only his Israeli counterpart but Prime Minister Netanyahu too. He is expected to visit Israel again soon. Can India prevail upon the sides for a cessation of violence?

ALSO READDoval, Netanyahu discuss possibilities of ceasefire in Gaza

India's unique strength is its much-cherished strategic autonomy. This gives it leverage with all sides. For instance, the recent reports that the US had to lean on India and China to avert a possible nuclear strike by Russia on any Ukrainian target. This owed a large part to the personal chemistry that Modi has with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as also to the deep defense and counter-terror links that India under NSA Doval has forged with the sides.

Working quietly, away from the media's eyes, and without any fanfare India has played a valuable behind-the-scenes role to avert a major catastrophe that would risk sacking the international community. There is great potential for India to play a mediatory role in the West Asian conflict too, because the people of both Israel and Palestine are dear to it. And what better time than the month of Ramadan, which is all about mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation?