The Vajpayee government has gratuitously pushed a grossly partisan, sectarian foreign policy agenda by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to visit India between September 9 and 11. The significance of Mr Sharon's presence in India on September 11 is obvious, indeed 'in your face:' the present government, wedded to Hindutva, wants to underscore its solidarity with the Sharon regime in the common 'fight against terrorism.'
Nothing could be more morally untenable and politically ill-conceived. As we see below, Mr Sharon is no consistent opponent of terrorism, but himself guilty of obnoxious forms of terrorism against the Palestinian people. All citizens and organisations committed to justice must demand that New Delhi withdraw the invitation to Mr Sharon.
To demand this is not to support extremist or anti-Semitic positions against Israel or to condone indiscriminate violence against its citizens through methods like Hamas-style suicide-bombings. Rather, it is to apply a consistent standard in dealing with the Palestine-Israel conflict -- one of the gravest crises of our time. Such a standard isn't visible in the Vajpayee government's remarkably awkward attempt to 'balance' its tilt towards Israel by inviting Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Sha'ath to India. This looks like terribly clumsy afterthought.
One must appreciate the exceptional, abnormal nature of India's invitation to Mr Sharon. Today, when Israel is waging war on the occupied territories, most nations wouldn't even think of dignifying Mr Sharon. He would certainly not be welcome in continental Europe. Even the US and the UK, which he recently visited, publicly rebuked him for some of his actions.
There are three reasons why Mr Sharon must be considered an undesirable guest. First, his right-wing Likud party has taken the most extreme stand against Palestinian nationhood. Second, he deserves to be tried as a war criminal for the Sabra and Chatilla massacres of 1982. And third, his government represents the biggest obstacle to peace in the Middle East and the greatest block even in the so-called Road Map sponsored by the US, European Union, Russia and the United Nations, but drawn up mainly by Washington.
To get the relevant facts straight, Israel was created in 1948 to right a historic wrong -- the expulsion and persecution of the Jewish people. But the way it was formed wrongfully deprived the Palestinians of 78 percent of the land under the earlier colonial British Mandate and rendered large numbers stateless and homeless. The remaining 22 percent of the land was made up of the Gaza strip along the Mediterranean coast, the West Bank along the Jordan River, and East Jerusalem.
In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel took over all these areas. They have since been under its military occupation. Likud staunchly justifies the occupation in the name of Biblical-era 'Greater Israel.' When it came to power in 1977, it vigorously promoted the illegal settlement of the Jewish colonies in the occupied territories.
The settlements compound the injustice of occupation. Today, there are over 400,000 settlers, half of them in East Jerusalem. Their number is growing. The settlements violate international law. Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention explicitly prohibits an occupying power from transferring any part of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies. The occupation has been declared illegal by numerous Security Council resolutions. Yet, Israel has done nothing to vacate it thanks to the protection it receives from the US, which has strong Zionist lobbies in the American Jewish Committee and other organisations.
The Palestinians have fought determinedly against the occupation. For years, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the Palestinian National Council (parliament-in-exile) refused to recognise Israel as a moral or legal entity. But in 1988, in a huge compromise, BPNC voted for a two-state solution which would create a Palestinian state with only 22 percent of the land. The Palestinians want peace, dignity and the right for refugees to return to their homes: there are more Palestinians living in the diaspora than in the occupied territories (3.2 million) or within Israel (a million).
Likud strongly opposes any progress towards a two-state solution, although, according to opinion polls, a majority of Israelis don't want to hold on to the occupied territories. The first Palestinian uprising or intifada (1988-93) generated enormous pressure on Israel and the US to make concessions. That's how the Oslo 'peace' process began. But the PLO came to the table in a weak position. It was isolated in the Arab world because of its support for Iraq during 1991 Gulf war. Governments like Kuwait bankrupted it. The Oslo process was an unmitigated disaster because Israel cheated on its commitments.
Mr Sharon has blood on his hands. As defence minister in 1982, he launched an unprovoked war on Lebanon (where the PLO had taken refuge), which killed 17,000 civilians and destroyed 40,000 homes. The excuse was an assassination attempt on Israel's ambassador in London, although it was conducted by a PLO rival.
In September 1982, Mr Sharon arranged for the anti-Palestinian Phalangist Christian militia to enter the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps near Beirut. The area was then fully under Israeli control. Even the US ambassador to Israel was appalled. He told the Israelis: 'You must stop the massacres. They are obscene... They are killing children. You are in absolute control of the area and therefore responsible...'
Mr Sharon had to resign after the post-massacre furore. A high-level inquiry headed by Israel's chief justice held that Mr Sharon failed to take basic precautions to protect innocent civilians; 'these blunders constitute the non-fulfilment of a duty.' A 2001 BBC documentary The Accused contains graphic details of Mr Sharon's disgraceful role in Lebanon.
The same year, 23 survivors of the massacres lodged a case in Belgium accusing Mr Sharon and other officials of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Regrettably, these cases are likely to fall through. Under American pressure, Belgium is changing its legal system and abolishing universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity.
Third, Mr Sharon has played an extremely negative role in the recent past. He opposed the Oslo accords, even though these favoured Israel. The second intifada was triggered by his highly provocative walk in September 2000 on the holy Haram al-Sharif site in East Jerusalem. Under him, Israel has pursued targeted assassination and ruthless repression, by relying on tanks, helicopter gunships, laser-guided weapons, and F-16s carrying 2000-pound bombs. He is more culpable than Hamas for the collapse of the ceasefire on August 21, triggered off by a missile striking killing senior Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab.
As for the Road Map, Mr Sharon did his best to delay its publication, and has since done everything to sabotage its implementation by raising as many as 14 objections to it. The map is tilted in Israel's favour and imposes heavier obligations upon the Palestinians.
But Mr Sharon is loath to grant statehood to Palestine by 2005, as the map demands. So he is prolonging negotiations on issues like refugees and prisoners. He has released less than 400 of the 6,000 Palestinian prisoners Israel holds. Likudnik Israel is guilty of rampant human rights violations. Its Shin Bet security agency has recently admitted to holding Palestinian prisoners incommunicado for weeks at a secret detention centre in violation of international law. The prisoners are blindfolded and kept in black, windowless cells. When they ask where they are, they are told: 'on the moon.'
Perhaps Mr Sharon's most despicable recent move is to build a high wall between Israel and the West Bank, while continuing with blockades which annually cost the Palestinians between $2 billion or 3 billion in lost income. The 8 metre-high wall will be 650 km long, compared to the 3.6-metre high, 155 km long Berlin Wall. In places, it is as wide as 150 metres.
Mr Sharon is pushing Israel towards a form of apartheid. Its parliament has just passed a law that would force Palestinians who marry Israelis to live separate lives or move out of Israel. The law would prevent Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who marry Israeli Arabs from obtaining residence permits in Israel. This mocks cruelly at democracy, 'pluralism, tolerance and equal opportunity' -- virtues which India's National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra sees as common between the US, India and Israel!
Mr Mishra advocates an 'Axis of Virtue' between them to combat terrorism. This is a dangerous proposal inspired by a demonised perception of Islam. It's also related to the Sangh Parivar's deep admiration for Israel's militarised, tough-as-nails, society and its anti-Arab policies in which it sees a reflection of its own anti-Muslim prejudice.
The Vajpayee government is bringing ignominy and shame upon itself by honouring a fanatical leader like Mr Sharon. It is reneging on India's long-standing commitment to Palestinian nationhood and peace in the troubled West Asia-North Africa region. Worse, it is becoming complicit in the perpetration of greater injustice upon the Palestinians. Such betrayal of India's own agenda of decolonisation and peace certainly won't go down well with the public with its sharp sense of justice. The public must speak up.