In 1993, according to a recent article in the Guardian by Pankaj Mishra, current Israeli President Shimon Peres met with BJP leader LK Advani and advised him that the best way to secure long-term Indian control over Kashmir was by settling non-Kashmiri Indians there. This neatly encapsulates the differences in Israeli and Indian policies when it comes to their occupied/disputed territories. Given the obvious injustice involved in maintaining control over a territory against the will of its population, it’s sometimes difficult to take a step back and ask why Israel and India have been so stubborn about maintaining their control of Palestine/Kashmir despite the conflict this causes. But if we are to assess future prospects for Kashmir/Palestine, we have to address the question head-on.
The strategic benefits of controlling the West Bank are clear. Israel is a small country surrounded by countries that remain committed to its destruction. Technological advances have reduced the importance of land as a military asset, but the consequences of Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, from where Hamas and other terrorist organisations are free to fire rockets at Israeli civilians, proves that – in the absence of peace – the easiest way to prevent attacks from hostile territory is by controlling it. You don’t have to buy in to the notion of ‘Auschwitz borders’ to understand that the further away the enemy is the better. Add in the West Bank’s considerable water resources, not to mention the possibility of alleviating the pressures of over-population by settling civilians there, and you can understand why successive Israeli governments have been keen to remain in control of the territory despite the obvious problem that its population has always been hostile to the idea of Israeli control.
A country as vast and highly populated as India doesn’t have the same existential fears as Israel. But Kashmir also holds huge strategic importance. India has fought three wars with Pakistan over the territory, and there is the ever present threat of China in Aksai Chin. While these places are relatively distant from Kashmiri population centres, the valley remains crucial for guaranteeing the supply of troops to Ladakh. An India without Kashmir would be far more vulnerable to military attack from China or Pakistan, and – like the West Bank – Kashmir is also vital for India’s water supply.
So who will hold out longer? Unlike India, Israel has come to the decision that the price it has to pay for controlling a hostile population isn’t worth it. This isn’t necessarily to say that the Israeli government is ready to give the Palestinians the sovereignty they are demanding, but there is increasing consensus across the political spectrum that Israel needs to get out from as much of the West Bank as possible. As for India, despite inchoate signs that the Kashmiri militancy of the mid-nineties is giving way to more popular-based non-violent protests, much like the ‘White Intifada’ that has broken out over the West Bank in recent years, India has given no sign that it would be prepared to tolerate Kashmir leaving the Union.
The primary reason that India will be able to maintain control over Kashmir for the foreseeable future, while Israeli rule over the Palestinians will surely end sooner or later, is that the Indians have never taken Peres’s advice. In fact, they’ve done the opposite. The Indian government understands that allowing non-Kashmiris to settle in the valley would introduce a dangerous new dimension to the conflict, which is why non-Kashmiri Indians are forbidden to own property in the valley. It is no coincidence that some of the largest protests against Indian rule in recent years have been triggered by the Amarnath Shrine Board’s land acquisitions.
Civilian settlers exponentially increase the likelihood of conflict. As long as the occupying force remains in the background, with cultural and economic freedoms guaranteed, it should be relatively easy to maintain control painlessly. But civilian settlement increases the chances of flashpoints. Even with the best intentions, the army is always likely to take the side of the settlers; this in turn increases the likelihood of human rights abuses. Of course, the horrors of the nineties show that the Indian army didn’t need the help of settlers to alienate the local population. But the situation would have been far worse had the government listened to Peres. By avoiding the settlement trap, India has strengthened its hand in Kashmir. By falling into it, Israel has all but guaranteed that it will lose a vital strategic asset.