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Gaza conflict enters Indian-Israeli homes

Barack Refael Degorker and Paz Eliyahu. Photo Credit: Israel Defence Forces

New Delhi, July 28: Moshe Degorker doesn’t usually host guests on weekday afternoons, but today his home in central Israel’s Gan Yavne town was filled with grieving family members and friends. Many of them had names that, like Moshe’s, reveal links to Maharashtra or other parts of India.

Degorker’s 27-year-old son, Barack Refael, is one of two Indian-origin Israeli soldiers killed in the past week in explosions from Hamas rockets. The other is 22-year-old Paz Eliyahu, who died in an explosion last Wednesday.

In a cynical war that has claimed over 1,000 lives, mostly Palestinian, and reduced large parts of Gaza’s cities to rubble, the death of two Indian-Israelis may to some appear little more than a sad statistical blip.

But it is these two deaths that have yanked the war into the homes of the tiny but close-knit Indian-origin community in Israel that numbers an estimated 85,000. As with most Indian diaspora groups, it keeps one eye sharply trained on India.

“This has really hit us hard,” Nissim Moses, the president of the Indian Jewish Heritage Centre, said. “No one abroad really understands.”

The two deaths have turned on its head one major argument that has driven Indian foreign policy in West Asia in a post-Cold War era when New Delhi has embraced pragmatism alongside moralistic positions it once took.

Over 7 million Indian expatriates work in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Iraq, Bahrain and the UAE. Their safety and the remittances they send back have increasingly influenced how India looks at the region. Tensions in West Asia, including in Palestine, are viewed as potential triggers for unrest or violence that could engulf Indian expatriates in the region.

But the two deaths with the clearest links to India so far in the current round of Hamas-Israel fighting are in Israel.

Indian Jews began settling in Israel soon after its creation in 1948, with major waves in the 1950s and 1960s. They belong to three major regions in India --- the Bene Israel Jews from Maharashtra, the Cochin and Paradesi Jews from Kerala, and the Bnei Menashe Jews from Manipur and Mizoram who have mostly gone to Israel over the past two decades.

Israel has mandatory military conscription, so barring ill-health, lack of motivation, religious beliefs and a few other reasons, all boys and girls above 18 are expected to serve in the Israel Defence Forces. Boys serve for a minimum of three years, and girls for two years. At age 35, they can again be called up for the reserve force.

“Most Indian-origin Jews in Israel are today second-generation immigrants, and about 90 per cent of us have served in the Israel Defence Forces,” Benny Walter, the 67-year-old head of the Central Organisation of Indian Jews in Israel told The Telegraph.

Moses, a historian who is researching the Indian-Israeli community, said a total of 115 Indian-origin Israeli nationals had died since 1948 either fighting wars or in terror attacks.

These include Refael, a sergeant who was struck by a mortar shell in the Gaza strip, and Paz, a paratrooper with the rank of a lieutenant.

“I’m sorry, I just can’t speak,” Moshe Degorker told this newspaper over telephone from his home, as friends comforted him. “I just can’t.”

The community has also been following India’s position on the violence, which has left them with mixed emotions.

“It’s really good that the Indian government refused to criticise Israel in Parliament,” Moses said, referring to foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s refusal to allow a resolution against Tel Aviv that several parliamentarians wanted.

And India’s vote at the UN human rights agency against Israel last week, Moses said, was reflective of an old mindset that would change under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “I see absolutely no reason why India and Israel can’t be best friends,” he said.

But others like Walter said they were unhappy about India’s UN vote against Israel. “We were quite disappointed,” Walter said. “It’s a real pity.”

Walter, who settled in Israel in 1966 and served 22 years in the military, usually organises fairs and meetings for the Indian-Israeli community in the summer months when children have leave from school. Those plans have all had to be cancelled.

His three sons have all completed their mandatory military service --- the youngest one just finished. “That’s certainly a relief,” Walter said, pausing momentarily before betraying the uncertainty that is a way of life in a region that has not known peace for decades. “But they could be called up again for the reserve force. There’s no escaping it.”