What Pro-Palestinian Protests Mean for Pakistan
The Israel-Hamas war presents a conundrum for Islamabad.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Pro-Palestinian protests rock Pakistan, India’s Supreme Court declines to legalize same-sex marriage, and Beijing marks 10 years of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Pakistan’s Palestine Problem
Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, pro-Palestinian protests have proliferated across Pakistan. Large rallies held by Islamist parties and civil society have drawn support from across the political spectrum.
This reaction is expected in a nation rife with anti-Israel sentiment and Islamist groups with strong mobilization power that champion the Palestinian cause. Government officials haven’t held back, either: On Sunday, interim Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani accused Israel of committing genocide in Gaza.
But this public response presents a conundrum for Islamabad. With many Pakistanis unhappy about state repression and the economic crisis, Islamabad benefits politically from the masses directing their ire toward an external grievance. However, this public venting, if it becomes more hostile, risks upsetting Islamabad’s relations with key Western and Gulf partners.
Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership has fueled public anger in recent months by struggling to curb inflation and by cracking down hard on the opposition. In August, the government arrested and jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan, arguably Pakistan’s most popular politician. The protests offer an especially important safety valve. (In this regard, Pakistani officials did themselves no favors when they arrested some people participating in pro-Palestinian protests in Islamabad after they displayed images of Khan.)
Yet Pakistan must be careful. Since Khan—a strident critic of the West—was ousted from power in a parliamentary no-confidence vote last year, officials have sought to improve relations with the West, mainly for economic reasons. The European Union and United States are top export destinations and potential sources of economic aid. Washington exerts influence over Pakistan’s key multilateral donors, including the International Monetary Fund.
Protesters have already started to move beyond expressions of solidarity with Palestinians. Some demonstrators have taken a more hostile stance against the West. At a Sunday rally in Karachi held by Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), one of Pakistan’s largest religious parties, JI leader Siraj-ul-Haq warned that “we will lay siege to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad” if U.S. President Joe Biden “continues to support Israel.” Further escalations in the war could intensify such sentiment.
Other protesters have openly embraced Hamas. Last weekend, Khaled Meshaal, who leads Hamas’s diaspora activities, appeared via video at a massive protest in Peshawar hosted by Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), a party that served in Pakistan’s most recent ruling coalition. JUI-F head Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who has proclaimed the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel a “historic success,” vowed to send aid to Hamas and insisted that “we are ready to join the fight.” On Saturday, Rehman held an in-person meeting with another Hamas leader, Naji Zaheer.
These developments could worry not only the West but also Pakistan’s Arab partners, which don’t trust Iran-aligned Hamas. Islamabad recently disclosed that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, already key Pakistani energy suppliers, have pledged to invest $50 billion in Pakistan. This is why the country’s military, which enjoys influence over hard-line religious parties, could eventually urge them to dial down their activism.
The silver lining for Islamabad is that the war has put further Israeli normalization agreements on ice. After the 2020 Abraham Accords, which normalized relations among Israel and several of its Arab neighbors, Pakistan was reportedly pressured to recognize Israel. That pressure was expected to intensify if close ally Saudi Arabia followed suit—a prospect that is now unlikely anytime soon. Although Pakistan has a history of informal engagement with Israel—cultural activities, intelligence sharing, even a 2005 public meeting of their foreign ministers—Islamabad refuses to recognize Israel until there is a Palestinian state.
Pakistan’s commitment to the Palestinian cause isn’t merely rhetorical; it has provided financial backing to Palestinian governments—including Hamas—and humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians, including a new package announced this week.
A long, brutal Israeli assault on Gaza would take the heat off Islamabad on the normalization front. But it would also complicate Islamabad’s attempts to balance the domestic political benefits of anti-Israel sentiment with the risks it could pose to key foreign-policy interests.
What We’re Following
India’s Supreme Court defers same-sex marriage decision. In a blow to India’s LGBTQ+ community, the country’s top court on Tuesday declined to legalize same-sex marriage, arguing that the decision must fall to Parliament. Some campaigners for LGBTQ+ rights believe there is still reason to be hopeful for a better outcome down the road, but others worry that India’s legislature will have little incentive to follow the court’s guidance.
The ruling came after several years of progress in advancing LGBTQ+ rights in India, including a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2018 that overturned a colonial-era law criminalizing gay sex and broadened constitutional rights for the LGBTQ+ community. Over the past decade, prominent public figures have come out as gay, and polls have showed a wider acceptance of LGBTQ+ rights in the country. However, religious figures and the Modi government have continued to oppose legal recognition of same-sex marriage.
Beijing marks 10 years of BRI. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Beijing hosted a high-level summit to mark the 10-year anniversary of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive transport and connectivity corridor that has left a deep imprint on South Asia. The celebration comes at a moment of uncertainty for the BRI, which has faced roadblocks in recent years due to economic stress in both China and countries that have received BRI investments. Beijing now wants to refashion the project to focus more on smaller-scale investments that revolve around clean energy, health care, and digital technologies.
The BRI’s record in South Asia is mixed. India rejected the project from the start because it runs through disputed Pakistan-administered territory that New Delhi claims as its own. Pakistan is home to one of the BRI’s flagship projects, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Yet CPEC has lost momentum amid Pakistan’s economic woes and Beijing’s growing concerns about security threats to its assets and personnel in the country. Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Nepal have formally signed on to the BRI and welcomed Chinese infrastructure projects even as they have sought to elevate commercial ties with India. Sri Lanka is home to one of the most controversial BRI projects—a port in Hambantota that Colombo leased to Beijing for 99 years, which many Sei Lankans view as a major blow to their country’s sovereignty.
Meanwhile, in May, the Taliban and Beijing reached an agreement to extend the BRI to Afghanistan; Haji Nooruddin Azizi, the Taliban’s minister for commerce and industry, is one of the South Asian leaders attending the BRI forum—a clear sign of Beijing’s willingness to deepen ties with the militant group that controls Afghanistan.
FP’s Most Read This Week
- The Geopolitics of Palestine, Explained by Allison Meakem
- Modi’s Comments on Israel-Gaza War Signal Shift by Sumit Ganguly and Nicolas Blarel
- Why the Israeli Hostages Face Grim Prospects by Tal Alroy
Under the Radar
On Oct. 14, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe proposed an unconventional solution to the Israel-Hamas war at the Geopolitical Cartographer, a research organization in Colombo. In his speech, he called for a four-state solution involving Gaza, Palestine, Lebanon, and Israel. He didn’t elaborate on what this would look like, simply saying it’s time “to think anew.”
It’s unclear why Wickremesinghe made this proposal. He doesn’t have any formal background in diplomacy. Additionally, Sri Lanka has long embraced a two-state solution—a position Colombo’s Foreign Affairs Ministry reiterated in an Oct. 8 statement. In all likelihood, this was simply a case of Wickremesinghe speaking frankly about the difficulties of achieving peace in the Middle East. His remarks serve as a reminder that there are officials in states such as Sri Lanka, which have good relations with both Israel and the Palestinians, who believe a two-state solution is no longer viable—and that it’s time to pursue new and unconventional pathways to solve the conflict.
A Pakistan Today editorial laments the Cricket World Cup thrashing that Pakistan’s team took from archrival India in their much-anticipated showdown in Ahmedabad, India, on Saturday: “Winning and losing are indeed part of the game, but the lack of fight shown in resisting the Indian bowling attack made it particularly painful.”
Commentator Anand K. Sahay warns in the Wire that New Delhi’s expressions of solidarity with Israel and “one-sided … response” to the Israel-Hamas war won’t be received well by many neighbors. It is “likely to raise questions in West Asia/the Middle East, especially among its people if not in all of its monarchies and governments, as well as within India itself,” he writes.
Researchers Mohammad Younus, Tshering Lhamo, and Tshoki Zangmo, writing in Kuensel, warn that remittances to Bhutan are declining even though Bhutanese migration overseas is increasing. “By proactively crafting policies that encourage and facilitate the flow of remittances, Bhutan can tap into this growing trend to boost its economy,” they argue.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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