By Danish Ahmad Khan
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has become India’s first premier to pay a historic visit to Palestine. The short 3-hour visit to Palestine’s de facto capital Ramallah has come only three weeks after the first ever 6-day visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to India.
PM Modi’s brief maiden visit to Palestine is not without wonders. It is undoubtedly not only symbolic but of great significance too. His trip has all the characteristics of making it straight to the history books. Instead of traveling to Ramallah via Israel as has been usually practiced earlier by Indian heads of state, Prime Minister Narendra Modi instead decided to make his Palestine visit “exclusive” and “independent”. The PM traveled directly to Ramallah to meet Palestinian leaders in a helicopter provided by the Jordanian government and escorted by helicopters from the Israeli Air Force. The then President Pranab Mukherjee during his visit to Israel in 2015 had traveled to Ramallah by road from Israeli capital Tel Aviv for an overnight stay. Mr. Modi has become the first Indian prime minister to visit Palestine after recognizing it for nearly three decades.
PM Modi’s arrival and signing of agreements
Soon after his arrival on his first ever official visit to Palestine on Saturday, February 10, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was received by his Palestinian counterpart Rami Hamdallah. Shortly after landing Modi said that this historic visit will be a harbinger of stronger bilateral ties and cooperation between the two countries and its people.
Prime Minister Modi soon after landing headed to the Mausoleum of the iconic Palestinian leader and “Father of the Nation” Yasser Arafat and laid a wreath at his grave. He was accompanied by Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Yasser Arafat’s mausoleum is located adjacent to the Presidential compound Muqata’a, and was unveiled on November 10, 2007. The Prime Minister also briefly visited the Arafat Museum situated adjacent to the mausoleum.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was later received by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during an official ceremony at the presidential compound Muqata’a in Ramallah prior to the start of official talks. The PM inspected guard of honour and exchanged hugs with the President. PM Modi was also greeted by religious leaders of Al-Aqsa Mosque and Archbishop of Catholic Church Poulos Marcuzzo at the Muqata’a.
PM Modi and President Abbas held official talks inside the presidential office and bilateral agreements were signed between the two countries in the presence of the two leaders. The agreements signed are worth US$50 million. The agreements include setting up of a super speciality hospital worth US$30 million in Beit Sahur and construction of a centre for empowering women worth US$5 million. The education sector also saw the signing of three agreements worth US$5 million. The agreement among others also includes procuring of machinery and equipment for the National Printing Press in Ramallah.
Before concluding his visit and flying to Jordanian capital Amman in a chopper, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Mahmoud Abbas along with Indian and Palestinian officials shared lunch and pleasantries. While addressing the press conference the 82-year-old Palestinian President described India as a “very respected country in the international arena”. President Abbas said that he looks India as a steadfast and longstanding partner and has a crucial role to play to help Israel and Palestine reach a final agreement by creating a multilateral forum of negotiations between the two countries.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his address assured President Mahmoud Abbas that India holds Palestinian people’s interests dear to its heart and is committed to the Palestinian cause and sees it as a sovereign nation in future peacefully co-existing alongside Israel. Fervently hoping for the return of peace in the region, PM Modi said, “We know that it’s not easy, but we should keep striving because a lot is at stake.”
PM Modi conferred top Palestinian honour
Adding yet another first to his credit, Narendra Modi has become the first ever Indian Prime Minister to be conferred with the top Palestinian honour the “Grand Collar of the State of Palestine”. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas presented him the award in recognition of his contribution to strengthening the decades old relationship between India and Palestine.
The Grand Collar award citation read, “in recognition of his wise leadership, lofty national and international stature, in appreciation of his efforts to promote historic relations between Palestine and India; in acknowledgement of his support to our people’s right to freedom so that peace prevails in region.”
The “Grand Collar of the State of Palestine” is the highest order presented to foreign dignitaries. The significance of the award to Prime Minister Narendra Modi can be gauged from the fact that Indian prime ministers belonging to Congress Party, namely Jawaharlal Nehru, Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, were deprived of this top Palestinian honour despite their staunch support to the cause of independent Palestine.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in fact deserved this top Palestinian award in many ways. PM Modi has charted an independent diplomatic course free from any sort of pressure or coercion. He stood his ground during his prime ministerial tenure and demonstrated a bold, significant, far-reaching diplomatic stand to de-hyphenate Israel-Palestine ties. Treating both Israel and Palestine as “independent” and “exclusive” partners, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done the unthinkable which other Indian prime ministers couldn’t during their respective tenures.
PM Modi’s remarkable Middle East diplomacy
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi first announced his standalone visit to Israel skipping Palestine from his itinerary which other India prime ministers never dared to, the Indian people, particularly Muslims, thought that his right wing Hindutva agenda has started unfolding by embracing Israel as a strategic partner and dumping Palestine for good. But true to his unwavering, admirable persona, PM Modi has always stumped his critics back home. This is evident with the recent standalone visit of Prime Minister Modi to Palestine skipping Israel from his itinerary, which though he had earlier visited exclusively in July 2017, the first ever by an Indian Prime Minister. It is therefore no wonder that PM Modi has virtually found no opposition from Indian Muslims regarding his independent Middle East diplomatic maneuvers, which he has led from the front. By and large, Indian Muslims this time round did not stage much protests during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to India, and few protests staged were muted though.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Middle East diplomacy has been remarkable indeed and seen his stamp of approval all along. Despite being staunch ally both of Israel and United States, PM Modi chose to stand his ground on India’s commitment to the Palestinian cause. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump were both enraged with India’s stand to side with 128 nations in the United Nations General Assembly and vote against Trump’s unilateral decision to declare Jerusalem as the capital of Israel instead of Tel Aviv. However, Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the future capital of sovereign Palestine. If India had wanted then it could have abstained from voting in order to please Israel and the US. But PM Modi’s deft handling has stood him in good stead and smooth ties continue with all the three nations – Israel, Palestine and USA.
Not only this, India’s ties with Middle East countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and UAE, are presently in an excellent phase under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Along with his brief standalone visit to Palestine, Prime Minister is currently visiting other Middle East nations as well including Jordan, UAE and Oman, all of whom maintain good trade and bilateral relations with India. It may be noted that PM Modi is visiting UAE for the second time.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has undoubtedly proved to be a wizard when it comes to handling diplomatic affairs of India. With several first to his credit, PM Modi has once again put his signature of boldness with aplomb in whatever he does.
[Danish Ahmad Khan, currently based at New Delhi, is Founder-Editor of IndianMuslimObserver.com – India’s First Online Muslim Newspaper. He can be contacted at [email protected]]