Game of Arms behind the Farce

Coming out of the pro-Israel closet, India has ended up becoming the biggest customer of its ‘field-tested’ defence weaponry

Sabika Zehra Delhi 

Less than two weeks before Israel launched its ongoing Operation ‘Protective Edge’ against Hamas in Gaza, India’s Defence Secretary RK Mathur had gone on a three-day visit to Tel Aviv to discuss military deals, including a key missile development programme and procurement of two more Airborne early Warning and Control Systems  (AWACS) aircrafts. Though there is little contention of the fact that India has been systematically strengthening its strategic relations with Israel, a similar consistency is not evident in its policy posture with the Palestinians. As a result, an intense public and scholarly debate has sparked over the past few years regarding India’s growing alliance with Israel and its transforming stance over the Palestinian issue. The pro-Israeli lobby in India argues that the shift in the orientation of Indian foreign policy is inevitable, realist, pragmatic and balanced, based on the transforming national interests and ever-changing political atmosphere of the Middle East. The critics, however, accuse succeeding Indian governments of a diplomatic double standard, abandonment of India’s independent foreign policy and deviation from the Nehruvian stand on the Palestinian issue. These critics are making an implicit assumption that India did in fact, once, take a historic, independent and principled stand in favour of the Palestinian people. 

All pretense of maintaining even a pro-Palestinian rhetoric evaporated when the Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, initially refused to permit discussion on the situation in Gaza in the Indian Parliament on 15 July 2014. She dismissed the demand as being ‘uncalled for’ owing to India’s friendly relations with both Israel and Palestine. In addition to this contradictory posture, the Ministry of External Affairs issued an ambiguous statement expressing concern at the “steep escalation of violence between Israel and Palestine, particularly heavy air strikes on Gaza resulting in tragic loss of civilian lives and heavy damage to property. At the same time, India is alarmed at the cross border provocations resulting from rocket attacks against targets in parts of Israel. India calls upon both sides to exercise maximum restraint and avoid taking actions that may further exacerbate the situation and threaten the peace and security of the region.” 

The death toll in Gaza has since exceeded 1,500 and majority of those killed are civilians, primarily women and children. Approximately, 6,500 Palestinians have been wounded since Israel began incessant air strikes. The total number of people displaced constitutes almost 25 per cent of the population of Gaza – 1.8 million in the last census. 

The BJP-led government was criticised for acting as a silent ‘spectator’ even as hundreds of Palestinians were being massacred in Israeli attacks. Swaraj contested the criticism by saying that there had been “absolutely no change in India’s policy towards Palestine” and that India supports the Palestinian cause while maintaining cordial relations with Israel. 

In an interesting turn of events post PM Narendra Modi’s visit to Brasilia, India, along with 29 other countries (including BRICS), voted in favour of the UN Human Rights Council Resolution demanding an independent inquiry into purported violations of human rights’ laws by the state of Israel in occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, on 23July. The implications of such a resolution can be assessed by the continuing atrocities by the Israeli Defense Forces. Israeli warplanes abrogated international humanitarian law by bombing UNRWA schools in the southern city of Rafah. Since its inception in 2006, UNHRC has criticised Israel on 33 different occasions. Ironically, year 2014, which was dubbed as the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People in the UN resolution A/RES/12, has proved to be one of the deadliest years in the history of the Palestinian plight. 

Lovers in Arms

Rafael, an Israeli arms company, had presented a Bollywood-styled video advertisement at the 2009 Aero India trade show in Bangalore that sums up a tasteless, yet fairly accurate parody of the present-day Indo-Israel relations. It features an Israeli man donning a leather jacket dancing with a woman dressed in gaudy Indian clothes, around missiles decorated with flowers. He sings a song promising to defend, shield and protect the lady as she croons to stay with him forever, offering him her heart. Rafael had secured $1 billion dollar contract that year to provide India with surface-to-air missile systems. Along the lines of the metaphor, former Israeli ambassador to India, Alon Ushpiz, hailed the relationship between these two countries as one in which two intimate partners who trust each other start thinking of challenges and solutions together.

As early as 1947, Nehru accepted, on the suggestions of KM Panikker and Raja Rao, technical assistance offered by Israel. This led to a series of discussions and offers between the two countries that resulted in India seeking agricultural assistance from Israel in 1949. Several other such instances of covert relations between Israel and India are evident. In 1962, the two countries signed an agreement for nuclear cooperation. The next year, Israeli General David Shaltiel visited India and signed a secret agreement that pledged supply of arms and training to India from Israel. India also supplied spare parts of Mystere and Ouragan planes and AMX 13 tanks to the Israeli armored division in Sinai during the 1967 Arab-Israel war, when even Europeans nations like France had imposed embargos on supply of arms to Israel. Soon after Israel’s attack and annexation of Arab territories during the conflict, Indian Defence Minister Swaran Singh praised Israel for its successful offensive attack and for mobilising its force in less than 24 hours. Gary Bass, quoting official papers of Indira Gandhi aid and diplomat PN Haksar in his recent book The Blood Telegram, corroborates that Israel also secretly provided India weapons and trainers in the 1971 war. 

This link was established during the premiership of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. While the ties between India and Israel were secretly deepening, India also furthered its international image as a consistent champion of the rights of the Palestinians, with Indira Gandhi calling PLO leader Yasser Arafat her brother. India played along with a façade of pro-Palestinian rhetoric and recognised the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), granting it an office in New Delhi in 1975. Another revelation of the intrinsic links in Indian and Israeli intelligence agencies surfaced after Morarji Desai became Prime Minister in 1977 and invited then Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan. Dayan’s diplomatic visit to India negates the assumption that India did not conduct full diplomatic relations with Israel until the end of Cold war. Since the time of its inception in 1968, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of India, has had a close association with its Israeli counterpart, Mossad.

Disclosure under Neo-liberalism

Following the end of Cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union, India’s foreign policy experienced a dramatic change and India’s relationship with Israel ceased to be a covert affair. The disappearance of the USSR not only implied that India had lost a trustworthy supporter on the international diplomatic front but also its prominent arms supplier. To make matters worse, a balance of payment crisis hit Indian economy in 1991 with severe shortage of foreign exchange reserves. It had also become evident that the era of US supremacy was commencing. India had to urgently revise its policy posture and engage with the US in order to keep its ambitions alive. Supporting the Arab states, which were technologically far outstripped by Israel, was not serving India’s interest. The Organization of Islamic Countries repeatedly called for resolution on the Kashmir issue through referendums and India’s support over the Israeli-Palestinian issue was not being reciprocated to the question of Kashmir. 

One assured way of engaging the US was through improved relations with Israel. India moved towards complete disclosure of its associations with Israel and sought to officially normalise the diplomatic relations between the two countries. Finally, in January 1992, the Congress government of Narasimha Rao in India declared the establishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel. Successive Indian governments, the centrist Congress-led coalitions or the far-right BJP-led coalitions, have worked towards strengthening India’s relations with Israel. The right-wing Hindu ultra-nationalists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and other influential public figures such as Subramanian Swamy propound deep-rooted similarities between Hindutva and the Zionist ideology. They consider Israel’s Middle East policy as exemplary and laud Israel for “effectively and ruthlessly countering terror” in the region. 

Two of the main areas of collaboration between Israel and India were defence trade and counter-terrorism. In March 1992, Israel established its embassy in Delhi and invited the Israeli defense industrialists to discuss bilateral arms trade policies. When India conducted nuclear tests in 1998, invoking US sanctions, Israeli firms moved in to replace the supplies. Israel also offered prompt operational support to India during the Kargil war of 1999. It provided unmanned aerial vehicles to locate and identify the positions held by Pakistanis. It also supplied ammunition, artillery and night vision equipment that played a key role in strengthening India’s defence. Along with a sudden increase in diplomatic visits and exchange between the two countries, India’s criticism of Israeli policies and actions against the Palestinian people also became significantly muted and balanced. In the aftermath of the Intifada in 2000, the Vajpayee government issued a statement condemning both sides of the conflict for “wanton killing”. India’s measurement of the victims and the perpetrators using the same yardstick infuriated the Arabs diplomats.

Today, India has become the biggest market for Israeli arms. Israel provides India with missile radar [1]; border monitoring equipment and other similar high-tech military hardware. As depicted in Graph 1, Volume of India’s trade with Israel in Arms and Ammunitions (HS code 93) went from approximately $500 million in 2009 to almost $3.8 billion in 2013. Graph 2 indicates the rising share of Israeli military industry to fulfill India’s growing demand. In 2013, Israel contributed to almost 70.6 per cent of total arms imports by India. Israel has emerged as India’s largest arms supplier, with bilateral arms trade over the last decade estimated at $13 billion. 2013 witnessed major developments in India-Israel defence cooperation, most of which involved enhancing arms trade and furthering joint projects. India’s former Air Force Commander, Air Marshal NAK. Browne visited Israel last year to discuss upgrading of cooperation, especially in the area of drones. His visit was reciprocated by the Israeli Chief of Ground Force Command, Major General Guy Zur, and he introduced ‘Counter-terrorism’ as other portals for cooperation, in addition to joint military training and exchanges, R&D projects, and arms deals, between the two countries. India is also paying for Israeli-made air-to-air missiles, along with other precision-guided munitions, and is pushing for more joint missile projects.

India has been considering buying Israel’s Iron Dome and negotiating over David Sling missile defence systems. India was initially hesitant to invest in the Iron Dome thinking it would not be useful given the country’s large size, however, Israel has offered to share the technology behind the system. If the deals go through, Israeli military industry and defence research and development would benefit tremendously as it depends largely on arms sales for funding. There is also a joint-venture between India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Israeli Aerospace Industry (IAI) for development of long and medium-range surface-to-surface air missiles. Furthermore, India and Israel have agreed to collaborate in the production of high-tech systems related to command and control, battlefield management, sensors, and weapons for Indian troops at an estimated cost of $3 billion. Two major deals that have consolidated the defence trade between these two countries are: procurement of 262 Barak-1 missiles worth nearly $143 million and approval issued by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) for the procurement of nearly 15 Heron Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) from Israel.

Drawing inferences

Defence trade estimates show that Israel is the world’s 7th largest exporter and the largest exporter per capita wise. In 2010, approximately 80 per cent of Israel’s military production was exported, generating massive revenue of almost $8 billion. Revenue from export of military equipment and technology provides a vital source of funding for the Israeli government and the military, thereby, sponsoring the continued occupation and oppression of the Palestinians. Israel sells its military technology under the label ‘field tested’, meaning the technology has been tested during ‘live’ assaults on the Palestinian citizens, a majority of whom are children. Attacks on Palestinians serve as exhibitions in which Israelis are able to showcase their new and ‘improved’ tools of tyranny. Israel uses armed UAVs or drones to carry out the carpet bombings of occupied Palestinian territories to eradicate the Palestinians. Israeli companies like Elbit Systems and Israeli Aerospace Industries have emerged as the world’s largest suppliers of drones. In addition to arms trade, Israel’s military research and development is funded by joint military research projects sponsored by countries like USA, EU member states and India. Helping Israel to develop new weapons denotes direct complicity in Israel’s war crimes. 

In 2007, Major General Yossin-Ben-Hanan, Head of Israel’s Foreign Defence Export department, told The Economic Times that India was its biggest customer. India has continued to buy Israeli equipment but both governments are cautious in releasing the data. Israel’s economy has been well-sustained because of relentless backing from its arms sales sector. Israeli Arms industry nourishes 150 defence firms, which employs 60,000 people and generates revenues over $4 billion. 

Selling arms is central to the Israeli economy, and selling arms to India has become essential at any cost. As the purchase of arms from Israel by India increases, the military occupation of Palestinian land by Israel is seen to rise. The import of arms to India helps Israel’s government-owned arms industry to manufacture weaponry cheaply for Israeli army. India has thus become complicit in the oppression and occupation of the Palestinians by subsidising Israel’s defence industry. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: AUGUST 2014