India Politics 
The Perils of Social Media Messaging on the Israel-Hamas conflict

VIVEK KATJU / The Tribune, India | 18/10/2023

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INDIA’S response to the Hamas terror attack starkly shows the changing nature of its diplomatic practice and articulation. These transformations are driven partly by the pressures exerted by the media, both mainstream and social, which have diminished response times of the political leadership as well as diplomats to evolving regional or global crises. At the same time, the predilection of the top leadership to take to social media, even as events are unfolding, is also a major factor.

Leaders’ social media comments on global issues should be so crafted that they do not raise doubts about basic policy positions.

The problem is that while sometimes these social media comments are innocuous, on other occasions they give rise to confusion, especially in the case of complex issues with long histories. It is, therefore, essential that those who manage the social media accounts of the top leadership are aware of the complexities of foreign policymaking and the need for nuanced diplomatic comments.

The October 7 Hamas attack threw Israel’s intelligence and military establishment into complete confusion for many hours. The New York Times, which has always had deep access in the Israeli governmental system, noted in a report: “The speed, precision and scale of the Hamas attack had thrown the Israeli military into disarray...” The report stated that Hamas fighters overwhelmed eight Israeli military bases. They also neutralised an intelligence centre near Gaza, thereby compromising the army’s ‘communications and surveillance’ systems. The terror attack killed 1,300 Israelis, including 286 military personnel. This number included those who fought the Hamas fighters. Around 150 Israelis and people of other nationalities were abducted and taken to Gaza by Hamas.

With communications down amid the confusion caused by an unprecedented attack, the Israeli authorities would have come to know the details of the destruction caused by Hamas only by the evening of October 7. If this was the situation within Israel, the outside world naturally had an incomplete picture of what was happening. Therefore, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on the Hamas attack at 4.44 pm on October 7, he and his advisers would have mainly gone by media reports and such information that the Indian embassy in Tel Aviv and India’s contacts in Israel and elsewhere could have provided. Despite the limited information that would have been available to him, the PM decided to tweet. He expressed shock at the attack and stressed: “We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour.”

This expression of solidarity was correct because of Hamas’ savagery. While the tweet was fine as an expression against terrorism, the problem was that its narrow focus and brevity made it difficult for the diplomatic community and analysts to comprehend if it signalled a modified Indian approach to India’s position on the larger Israel-Palestine issue. This was particularly so because unlike some Western countries, India has not designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

This incomprehension about Indian policy continued because after the tweet, India made no comment on the situation, which was becoming increasingly clear from the morning of October 8, for the next three days. On October 10, Modi again tweeted after receiving a phone call from Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Modi emphasised: “People of India stand firmly with Israel at this difficult hour. India strongly and unequivocally condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.” This tweet, too, did not really go beyond Modi’s first one. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) issued a brief press statement, essentially reproducing the content of the tweet. Thus, the confusion on India’s stand on the Israel-Palestine issue was not removed by the tweet or the statement.

If anything, the confusion increased because by October 10, Israel’s response to the Hamas attack had led to hundreds of civilian deaths in Gaza. Besides, the Indian statement, unlike those of many Arab and other countries, did not caution against an Israeli response that would cause a humanitarian disaster in Gaza. As India’s focus was only on Hamas’ terrorism, questions on India’s broader policy on the Israel-Palestine relations became more urgent after October 10, but there were no answers from Indian officials.

The fact is that once the Prime Minister tweets, it becomes very difficult for diplomats or even ministers to clarify broader policy positions to avoid a dilution of the PM’s message or intention. In the ‘old’ Indian diplomatic tradition, statements were made by the MEA. That left space for modifications, clarifications and even reversals without the political leadership, let alone the PM, getting publicly involved. All this ensured that any confusion could be addressed at the diplomatic level and it left the PM to make carefully crafted statements which took all aspects of a situation and Indian interests into account.

The broader questions were finally cleared at the media briefing given by the MEA spokesperson on October 12. He correctly reiterated that the October 7 incident was a terror attack and condemned it, but did not take a position on the designation of Hamas as a terrorist organisation. He said that issue was for the ‘relevant’ authorities. On the Palestine issue, the spokesperson said: “Our policy in this regard is long-standing and consistent. India has always advocated the resumption of direct negotiations towards establishing a sovereign, independent state of Palestine, living within secure and recognised borders, side by side at peace with Israel. I think that position remains the same.” Significantly, he also said: “There is a (sic) universal obligation, I think, to observe international humanitarian law.”

It is doubtful if Israel would have been happy with these clarifications. Naturally, they would have been cleared at the highest levels of the government. India has to condemn terrorism and Israel has helped it at critical times. There is, therefore, no doubt that the Israeli relationship is important, but India has very significant interests in West Asia and they cannot be ignored.

If leaders cannot avoid social media comments on global issues, they should be so crafted that they do not raise doubts about basic policy positions even while stressing, as in this case, India’s strong position on terrorism.

This article was first published in The Tribune, India

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