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Revisiting Pakistan’s Response To Israel–Palestine Conflict. Should Pakistan Play A More Assertive Role?

The Israel–Palestine conflict has once again captured headlines on dailies around the globe. Social media platforms are bustling with posts and tweets, TV channels carry statement after statement from politicians while diplomats in the major power centres of the world are going into overdrive trying to avoid further escalation. Where Pakistan is not directly affected by the conflict in terms of national security or economic interests, the conflict strikes a deep tone with the people of Pakistan. This, combined with Pakistan’s weak standing in the global arena, more pressing internal issues and absence of a clear policy on Israel –has made the issue more of a litmus test in theatrics and cosmetic treatment of the issue rather than effective efforts to bring about a proposed solution to the conflict.

Contrary to popular belief in Pakistan, the Israel–Palestine conflict is not a conflict between two religions, rather it is a conflict between two nationalisms – Palestinian nationalism and Zionism. It is evident from the fact that nearly 50, 000 Palestinian Christians live in the West bank and Gaza strip. Where the support for Palestinian nationalism from the neighboring Arab countries of the Middle East has ideological grounds on the basis of Arab nationalism, overwhelming support from Pakistan has no such basis to rest on. Similarly, there is no significant Palestinian diaspora residing in Pakistan, lobbying the local media and population for the Palestinian cause. Cultural exchange between Palestine and Pakistan is also negligible, and diplomatic relations are nothing to write home about.

The only factor that hooks the Pakistani public to the Palestinian cause is a strong sense of Islamic nationalism and Pan Islamic solidarity. The Muslims of the subcontinent have a history of taking sides in political conflicts on the basis of Islamic sensitivities. At the end of the First World War, Muslim consciousness took the shape of the Khilafat movement in support of the last Ottoman Caliph. Similarly, Pakistan Army veterans still recall with pride their peacekeeping roles in the Bosnian war. One could go so far as to claim that where many in India view Kashmir as a territorial dispute between Pakistan and India, Pakistanis overwhelmingly identify the dispute in terms of the majority Muslim identity of the Kashmiris.

Add this to the fact that the conflict rages on in the Holy land, proclaimed as such in the Quran as well, and involves Al Aqsa mosque amongst other holy places for Muslims, the public sympathy for Palestine is unlikely to become disengaged anytime soon.

In this backdrop, every sitting government in Pakistan faces considerable pressure to react fervently to any escalation in the conflict. The steps taken always lack in substance, but the apparent theatrics are enough to placate the public every time an escalation comes about. This renders the Pakistani policy towards the conflict extremely ineffective, and spectacularly shallow; as it is not only reactive in nature, but also confined to small foreign policy aims of mobilizing the impotent OIC or tabling a resolution to the United Nations as a signatory state.

Measuring Pakistan’s Response: Advantages outweigh the disadvantages

Looking forward, no end to the conflict between Israel and Palestine is imminent. After the current escalation dies down, the conflict will be allowed to simmer away, until increasing high handedness by the Israeli authorities brings about another escalation. Pakistan must take this time to revisit her response to the conflict, and emerge with clear policy goals in line with the aspiration of her populace. Any talks or pressures to grant recognisation to the Israel, without the creation of a viable Palestinian state, should be rebuffed unconditionally.

Simultaneously, Pakistan should take the lead amongst the remaining Muslim countries, and clearly outline the conditions that need to be met for Pakistan to recognize the Israel as a legitimate member of the International order. The first condition must be the establishment of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as her capital, along the lines prevalent before the six day war. The Palestinian refugees scattered by the Nakba should be granted a right to return. The practice of state sponsored settler colonialism should not only be halted, but also reversed from the West Bank.

Once these conditions are decided upon, Pakistan should take other Muslim countries, yet to recognize Israel, into confidence and bring them onto the same page. Saudi Arabia must be afforded a key leading role in this effort. At first glance, such an effort seems idealistic as it is highly unlikely that Israel changes course on the emergence of such demands from a Muslim block. However, this effort is imperative to set a mutually agreed upon standard for any recognitions furthered by Muslim countries to Israel in the future. It will also provide Muslim countries around the world a principled position to avert pressure from influential western circles, if and when they are compelled to follow the UAE, Sudan, Bahrain and Morroco into developing diplomatic ties with Israel.

Similarly, Pakistan must strive to arrange cultural exchanges between the Palestinians and Pakistanis. A Palestinian culture week can be celebrated where Palestinian diaspora abroad and residents from Palestine can be invited to Pakistan. If a nation remains alive culturally and traditionally, all attempts at its extinction and displacement are ultimately frustrated. For even when the nation is beaten, dispersed and fragmented; culture affords mutually shared points for the nation to converge back upon.

A more assertive, effective and positive role in the Israel–Palestine conflict can bring numerous advantages to Pakistan as well. First, it will strengthen Pakistan’s position on Kashmir as a flag bearer of Muslim Nationalism, and may well attract Indian Occupied Kashmiri Muslims more towards Pakistani nationalism in contrast to Kashmiri nationalism. Secondly, it will allow Pakistan to emerge as a more influential player in the Middle East and Arab countries, in turn dehyphenating Pakistan from Afghanistan on global tables of foreign policy. Thirdly, it will unite the Pakistani public in a sense of strong Muslim nationalism, in turn helping to ameliorate the ethnic and linguistic divides existing across the nation.

The obvious disadvantages to a more assertive role in this conflict seem to be further cooling of ties with the United States of America and strengthening of ties between Israel and India. Though these are considerable threats, one must take into consideration that Pakistan America ties are already going through a low ebb. And if there is one lesson Pakistan can take from her history with the USA, it is that ties maintained in the absence of converging interests are always unsustainable. The increasing policy of Chinese containment has already brought the USA closer to India, while Pakistan has slipped further away. A positively assertive role in the Palestine–Israel conflict is unlikely to make any significant changes to the current relationship.

Moving towards the end, it is to be noted that the most important outcome a more proactive and assertive policy on Palestine promises that it will greatly boost Palestinian morale in face of growing Israeli oppression and repression. Where the Abraham Accords have espoused a sense of betrayal and disappointment in the Palestinian people, effective representation of the Palestinian aspirations by fellow Muslim countries will allay Palestinian fears of isolation and strengthen the Palestinian spirit in the face of increasing discrimination and hardship.

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Naya Daur