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Delhi backs plan Hamas rejected

New Delhi, July 21: India has for the first time backed an Egyptian proposal for an Israel-Palestine ceasefire that Hamas leaders have rejected, effectively blaming the militia that rules the Gaza strip for the escalating violence that has killed over 500 civilians, almost all Arabs.

Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s public support today for the Egyptian blueprint is the clearest position India has yet taken on Israel’s latest military offensive in Gaza that began on July 8.

“Everyone had agreed to it (the Egyptian ceasefire proposal), but Hamas rejected it,” Swaraj told the Rajya Sabha. “That (Egyptian ceasefire) proposal is still on the table, and the sense of the House should be to ask all parties involved to accept the ceasefire.”

Swaraj’s statement came after the back-channel negotiations India had attempted with Hamas, through allies in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), to convince the militant group to accept a ceasefire appeared to have failed, senior officials confirmed to The Telegraph.

The recent offensive — Israel calls it Operation Protective Edge — follows a chain of events that began with the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers in June, and the retaliatory killing of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy.

As Hamas began firing rockets into Israel on July 7, Israel launched serial missile attacks on Gaza, forcing thousands to flee their homes and killing over 500, including several children, according to the United Nations.

On July 8, Egypt — traditionally the single most influential peace broker in the Israel-Arab conflict — proposed the ceasefire plan that mimics a proposal it had offered during an earlier escalation of violence in 2012.

As in 2012, Israel, the Arab League, the PLO, and the permanent members of the UN Security Council — the US, UK, France, China and Russia — accepted the Egyptian plan.

But unlike 2012, the militant Hamas today is a part of the unity government that rules Palestine — with Fatah, the political wing of the PLO, in power in the West Bank and the Hamas backing the government in Gaza.

In a relatively smaller military operation in June, Israel had re-arrested several Hamas leaders it had earlier freed under a truce agreement. When it was presented with the Egyptian proposal, Hamas rejected it, demanding the arrested leaders be released again — a demand Israel has rebuffed.

India, after consultations with the US, began attempts at communicating with the Gaza government through its mission there and in the West Bank, and using allies in the PLO — whom India was the first non-Arab state to recognise — as conduits.

But as with efforts by the US, European Union, Iran and multiple Arab states, India’s attempts appear to have failed to convince Hamas to consider the Egyptian ceasefire plan.

The back-channel talks were a key reason why the Narendra Modi government — desperate to strengthen ties with Israel while not appearing to dump its decades-old support for a Palestine state — was keen to delay a Parliament discussion on the violence, officials said.

“Had a ceasefire been worked out, anyhow, it would have made our task of juggling relations with Israel and the Palestinian cause easier,” an official said.

With no ceasefire on the anvil, a Parliament discussion could no longer be avoided but the Modi government, officials said, decided to gamble on public perception by voicing support for the Egypt peace plan.

By pointing to Hamas’s rejection of a ceasefire — something China and Russia have not done explicitly — and refusing calls for a Parliament resolution, the government risked suggestions of picking Israel over Palestine.

But by backing the ceasefire plan, the government can bemoan the death of hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza — and quote peacenik poets as Sushma did today in the House — while at the same time effectively accepting Israel’s argument that Hamas, and not Tel Aviv, is to blame.