The gruesome conflict between Israel and Hamas is having a cascading effect on South and West Asia’s security environments, especially in relation to the Islamic world. Amidst this hostile situation, several countries have responded to the conflict, highlighting their relationship with Israel and their stand on recognizing Palestine. The range of responses from different countries outlines their respective positions within the Islamic world. Of all the Asian governments responding to the conflict, the outlook of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan have particular relevance.
Religious identity has been an important determining factor behind both countries’ security engagements in the Middle East, and in this respect, their unequivocal support for Palestine. Pakistan being the only Muslim-majority nuclear power and one of the founding members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has a history of playing a vital leadership role in the Islamic World. In 1988, Pakistan recognized the State of Palestine and since then has been a staunch advocate of the two-state solution. The Taliban leadership, on the other hand, has shared certain ideological linkages with Hamas in the past and is consistent with its support for the statehood of Palestine. Given the geopolitical and security implications of Pakistan and Afghanistan’s engagements in the Middle East and in particular with Palestine, it is pertinent to examine Islamabad and Kabul’s responses to the current crisis.
The official press release from Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs aligns with Islamabad’s stance on a two-state resolution for the broader Israel-Palestine conflict and echoes the relevant resolutions of the United Nations and the OIC. Pakistan has also committed to sending humanitarian aid to Gaza. As of now, two consignments of 100 tons and 90 tons of hygiene kits, food packages, and medical kits, respectively have been sent. Furthermore, since the outbreak of the conflict, the Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamait Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl), Majlis Wahadat-e-Muslimeen, and several civil societies and religious groups have conducted processions in Islamabad, Karachi, and other parts of the country, condemning what they term Israel’s aggression and rallying behind support for Palestinian civilians.
In comparison to responses from other Asian Islamic countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, Pakistan’s current response is more measured and highlights a softer tone towards Israel’s military actions against Hamas.
The response from Pakistan’s military has been “unequivocal moral, political, and diplomatic support” towards the Palestinian people. Additionally, during their meeting with Palestine’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Ahmad Jawad Rabei, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) underlined Islamabad’s pro-Palestine stance, advocating a contiguous state of Palestine per pre-1967 borders as well as with Al-Quds Al-Sharif as its capital. Furthermore, by mentioning the cause of the conflict as an outcome of “unabated repression, continued human rights violations, and state-sponsored sacrilege of Al-Aqsa Mosque,” the COAS sought to downplay the importance of the immediate trigger for Israel’s military response – the massive terror attack on Israel by Hamas.
The comments from the caretaker PM Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar on the conflict during an interview depict a two-tiered understanding of the conflict from Pakistan. First, he says that the nature of the conflict between Israel and Palestine is a conflict between an oppressor and the oppressed. Second, there is a continuity in Pakistan equating Palestine with Kashmir and cognizing how both disputes have been a primary factor behind the ‘radicalization’ of the Islamic world. PM Kakar also underlined that there is no change in Pakistan’s policy of support for Palestine.
However, in comparison to responses from other Asian Islamic countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, Pakistan’s current response is more measured and highlights a softer tone towards Israel’s military actions against Hamas. For instance, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has been a vocal critic of Israel, calling on the United Nations Security Council to convene an emergency session for the cessation of violence.
In contrast, Pakistan’s initial response uses a more measured tone towards the conflict. Although it is in continuity with Pakistan’s longstanding antagonism towards Israel, the current response is softer as it lacks the historical weightage of Jinnah’s vision of Palestine and the importance given to the issue by previous administrations. The PTI administration was critical of the Arab World and OIC and rejected pressure to recognize Israel. The intricacies of Western support for Israel may be a factor hindering the government from taking a harsher stance. Amidst the economic bailout from the International Monetary Fund and economic assistance from Washington, political leadership in Islamabad may want to take a softer tone to maintain cordial ties with the West.
Support for Palestine has been a cornerstone of Islamabad’s worldview. While the Abraham Accords and rapprochement between the Arab States and Israel could have been an opportunity for Islamabad to revisit the question of recognizing Israel, the ongoing conflict diminishes any possibilities of normalization. However, Pakistan’s relatively softer stance highlights tensions in the country’s engagement with the Islamic World and the West, despite public opinion favoring Palestine.
The Taliban claims to take a human rights-centered approach to the conflict, stating that Israel has violated Palestinian rights and the sanctity of al-Aqsa and other mosques in Gaza. Despite international condemnation of the Taliban’s human rights record, the Taliban has argued that the international community has been hypocritical by raising the issue of human rights violations in Afghanistan but not doing the same for Palestine. The Taliban criticized the international community for “hypocrisy” after the recent strike on al-Mamadany Hospital and for “overtly courting Israel” in the ongoing crisis. In a series of tweets, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred to Israel’s strikes as a “genocide” — a deeply loaded term in the historical context of the Holocaust. The tweets also emphasized the need for Islamic countries and the OIC to play an active role in the cessation of violence and the protection of the rights of Palestinians
The Taliban’s response to the conflict is based on two factors. First, since its resurgence in August 2021, it has made several attempts to garner legitimacy and recognition within the international community, particularly in the Islamic world. Afghanistan is not part of the OIC due to concerns over women’s rights and the ban on women’s education. Therefore, Kabul’s stance might help it garner legitimacy within the Islamic world as well as the OIC.
Despite international condemnation of the Taliban’s human rights record, the Taliban has argued that the international community has been hypocritical by raising the issue of human rights violations in Afghanistan but not doing the same for Palestine.
Second, in a quest to stabilize Afghanistan’s economy and sovereignty, the Taliban is forging ties with Iran, a long-time supporter of the Palestinian cause. In February 2023, Iran agreed to hand over the Afghan embassy in Tehran to the Taliban leadership. In May 2023, the first trial run of the Khawaf-Herat railway line between Iran and Afghanistan was completed. Furthermore, from April to July 2023, trade between Iran and Afghanistan stood at USD $512 million. Subsequently, the Taliban’s unequivocal support of Palestine and its right to self-determination becomes crucial in securing Iran’s continued economic and strategic support.
The current responses from both Pakistan and Afghanistan largely align with their past attitudes toward Israel and Palestine and with the positions that both countries want to assume in the Islamic world. The current conflict does not leave room for the normalization of ties between Israel and Pakistan. However, the coupling of the entrenched sentimental value for Palestine within Pakistan’s citizenry with a need to balance Pakistan’s relationship with the West will continue to complicate Islamabad’s rhetoric around the conflict. For the Taliban leadership in Kabul, the quest for recognition and legitimacy within the Islamic world will continue to determine its outlook and antagonistic behavior towards Israel. Moreover, Afghanistan’s proximity to and dependency on Tehran will compel Kabul to unequivocally support Palestine.
Editors’ note: a pre-final version of this article was posted in error and has been updated to reflect the final text.
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Image 1: Pro-Palestine Rally via Montecruz Foto.
Image 2: Pro-Palestine Rally via Flickr.