New Delhi, October 15 (IANS) Geopolitical trends over the last two decades since 9/11 have, among other things, included a constant rise of Islamic radicals in the Muslim world with their propensity to resort to ‘faith based’ terror, reappearance of Cold War ‘with a difference’- this time it is between the US-led West on one side and Xi Jinping’s China aspiring to become the second superpower, on the other- and a new kind of impact of the prolonged Ukraine-Russia war that was creating a sharper divide between the democratic world and the autocratic regimes.
On a totality of consideration of these developments, India has done well to condemn outright the large scale terror attack of Hamas on Israel on the dawn of October 7 and express sympathy and solidarity with Israel for the huge civilian casualties suffered by it.
The ‘terrorist’ character of the elaborately planned cross-border attack on Israel by Hamas can not be defended on political grounds of Israeli ‘high-handedness’ in Gaza and West Bank and the long history of ‘wars’ and violent clashes between Israel and Palestine.
The attack is Israel’s 9/11 or 26/11 in terms of mobilisation of militants and war material, timing of the offensive to coincide with the weeklong celebration of Sukkot, the nation’s most important festival and use of the big scale rocket firing from Gaza as a ‘cover’ by the terrorists to physically cross into Israel to cause devastation in the border belt by indiscriminately targeting the civilian population including women and children and even taking them hostage in large numbers.
The question of whether Israel was caught napping has come up. The Benjamin Netanyahu-led government would be looking into that but on the face of it looks like a failure of human Intelligence considering the fact, in particular, that thousands of residents of Gaza came to Israel for work every day.
Over-reliance on technical Intelligence in an intensely human situation, a degree of complacency accruing from the advent of a political leadership that loudly proclaimed a highly aggressive approach towards Palestinians and a deficient understanding of the spread of ‘radicalisation’ in the Muslim world, apparently led to an underestimation of the supreme importance of human sources of Intelligence.
Terrorism is a covertly planned attack and technical surveillance of communications of the leaders of terror outfits, by itself may not provide a clue to what was in the offing.
However, in the execution of a large plan like the one made by Hamas, information has to flow down from the top to the individuals carrying it out and somewhere the human access should have been able to deliver the required Intelligence.
It is relevant to examine the background of Hamas and its extremist character.
Hamas was originally in the class of Islamist organisations represented by Ikhwanul Musalmeen (Muslim Brotherhood) that had begun in Syria and Egypt to oppose the pro- Left and secular regimes of Hafiz al- Assad and Gamal Abdul Nasser and call for establishment of an Islamic rule. It termed Quran as the best Constitution and professed that sovereignty belongs only to Allah.
Its political stance pleased the West. Its descendant in South Asia was the Jamaat-e-Islami founded by Maulana Abul Ala Maudoodi which remained in the good books of the British in the run up to Independence and became an advocate of the Sharia- based rule in Pakistan. Jamaat became the main instrument of Nizam-e-Mustafa declared by Gen. Ziaul Haq.
Hamas was established in Palestine in the 80s as an off-spring of Palestinian Branch of Muslim Brotherhood with its ideological affiliation with the Jamaat as well and intrinsic opposition to the secular Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) led by Yassir Arafat.
Pakistan meanwhile had led the anti-Soviet armed campaign in Afghanistan on the war cry of Jihad using the Jamaat’s Hizbul Mujahideen (HuM) and Saudi funded Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) as its main weapons. Al Qaeda and its affiliate Taliban also joined in at the instance of Pakistan and when the first Emirate was established at Kabul in 1996 with the full support of Pakistan, all outfits wedded to Islam were happy. Pakistan managed to get recognition of the Emirate from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who were otherwise quite distrustful of radicals.
Mullah Omar, the Emir of Afghanistan, was a close relative of Osama bin Laden. It so happened that the Taliban being the product of the ‘Wahhabi’ revolt of the 19th Century against the British on the Indian subcontinent, carried an anti-West legacy and soon ran into a conflict with the US. The latter was compelled to work for the ouster of the Kabul Emirate and that laid the ground work for 9/11.
Pakistan wedded to Islamic fundamentalism and having no real conflict with Islamic radicals of Al Qaeda and Taliban had to be coerced into joining the US- led ‘ War on terror’. A developing rapport between the Islamic regime and the radicals in Pakistan because of the appeal that the revivalist call of the latter to go back to the puritan Islam of the days of Pious Caliphs, held for Muslims generally, spread of ‘radicalisation’ in countries such as Yemen, Qatar, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Malaysia and Afghanistan besides Pakistan and a shrinking of influence of Saudi Arabia in the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) because of its continuing deep alliance with US, have been the glaring features of the Muslim world ever since.
The unleashing of terrorist violence by Hamas has to be seen in the backdrop of the growing radicalisation in the Muslim world that takes into its sweep of indoctrination not only discontented youth but even the thinking Muslims by spreading the belief that deviation from the ‘golden period’ of Islam was responsible for all the ills of the Muslim societies. The radicals alleged that the overbearing policies of US and its allies put Islam in danger and that the situation demanded recourse to jihad.
Increasing control of Israel the closest ally of US, on Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem which is the third holiest place for Muslims -- adjoining the Western Wall on Temple Mount, the holiest site of Jews -- has made it easy for Hamas to make it a fight for ‘faith’. Exclusivism of Islam and the pull of supremacy that this faith exercised on its followers carried the potential for creating a ‘war of religions’. Politically this is generating a sentiment against the US-led West and marking out countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, who had been keeping up good relations with the US-as the opponents of radicalisation. The announcement of India-Saudi Arabia-US sponsored West Asia-Europe economic corridor ,projected as a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative of China, has strengthened the influence of US in this region to the chagrin of radicals and opened the prospect of Chinese stepping up support for the latter.
It was already seen how China struck a give-and-take with Taliban in Afghanistan. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has come out with vocal support for Israel while Russia in a muted response, has indicated that it favoured peaceful negotiation that would safeguard the interests of Palestinians. Eruption of violence in Palestine could open a second front for the West to take care of. In a bird’s eye view the geopolitical divide between US-led West representing the democratic order and the world of autocratic regimes could be getting stronger. India’s natural place is with the former particularly because of the reality of Sino-Pak axis working against India and the threat of cross border terrorism involving both radicals and other Pak-ISI linked militant outfits showing no signs of decline.
The reemergence of Israel- Palestine issue following the terror attack of Hamas- which was the most violent in the last 50 years- has produced the familiar dichotomy of views expressed by the leaders of Muslim community in India and elsewhere. Those finding fault with Israel for creating conditions that led to the attack, discard outright the suggestion made by US and others that there should be two states- Palestine and Israel- in the region. They advised India not to ‘weaken’ its friendship with the Arab world but disregarded the fact that India’s relations with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt are now elevated to the level of strategic partnership. The world today needs international relations based not on considerations of religion but of global security and economic advancement. The Delhi summit of G20 under India’s Presidency clearly established this vision.
Terrorism driven by the motivation rooted in notions of supremacism of ‘faith’ can be deadly and can never be supported as a means for achieving political settlements. India while maintaining the line that there should be no talks with terrorists could support a settlement between Israel and Palestinians that ensured economic well being of the latter and evolved a peaceful way in which religious sentiments of both sides were respected on the disputed Al Aqsa -Western Wall access issues. The attack of Hamas however, could be the beginning of a prolonged armed conflict as it relied on mobilising mujahideen capable of fighting on their own and an assurance of sustained supply of arms and ammunition from interested quarters.The course of events over the next few days would throw light on this. The US-led West would be stretched as it responds to the needs of Israel in handling the messy territory of Gaza and West Bank in the face of a support action by Hazbollah militants against Israel. Shia extremism under the Ayatollahs of Iran is against US and Western Capitalism and is on the same side of the fence as Sunni radicals in so far as their hostility towards West was concerned. China has been able to develop enough influence on Iran to try to initiate a process of rapprochement between that country and Saudi Arabia- basically to strengthen Chinese foothold in the region. Saudi Arabia may be running a system based on religious extremism but its readiness to work out an accord with Israel mooted by US separates it from the Shia and Sunni radicals who were acquiring control of substantial parts of the so called Muslim world. Islamic militants had taken on the powerful Soviet army in Afghanistan once and they could hold on against Israel in an asymmetric warfare mode. Some 150 Israelis kept by them as hostages would be used by Hamas as bargain chips at some point of time. In the Indian context, it may be recalled, that Harkatul Ansar -a group of radicals of Taliban background -had appeared in Kashmir for the first time in 1993 and kidnapped Western tourists to hold them as hostage posing a new challenge for India’s security and Intelligence set up. The Israel- Hamas conflict may proceed on an unchartered course. Already some 2500 people on both sides lost their lives and nearly 4000 were injured in the first three days of the conflict.
India is firm against acts of terrorism but it would be interested in a settlement of the political dispute between Palestinians and Israel. A major issue would be to evolve an adjustment about worship at Al Aqsa mosque being allowed in a regulated manner while the identity of Temple Mount was secured without any reservations from the Arab side. Ukraine- Russia confrontation was triggered by conflict of political ideology but Hamas- Israel violent face off is primarily anchored on causes concerned more with religion than with political identities of Palestine and Israel. These developments can adversely affect both global security and world economy. India’s dictum that ‘this is not an era of war’ should be heeded and restoration of peace between Israel and Palestinian Authority negotiated on the basis of acceptance of the idea of two states living in peaceful coexistence.
Projection of Islam as a peace-loving religion is put to test and it has to be seen if Israel’s existence would be acknowledged by the Muslim world paving the way for the enlargement of Abraham Accord presently being worked out between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel. There is precedence of Qatar having hosted the talks between Taliban and US on matters relating to Afghanistan. Egypt is a Sunni country with a distinct Shia imprint of the Fatimid empire and it is also suitably positioned to join in the negotiations for peace in Palestine.
Exclusivism of faith that Islamic radicals are promoting in different parts of the world would not help- representative forums in the Muslim world needed to come forth to make the proposition that Islamic states were willing to live in harmony with non- Muslim neighbours.
(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)