Israel and Hamas are fighting an intense war. It has global repercussions and India has a lot to worry about. New Delhi is walking a diplomatic tightrope as it has a traditional relationship with Palestine and a growing friendship with Israel. That’s not all. Among its first concerns are Indians stranded in Israel – there are 18,000 – and their safety matters. At the centre of this volatile situation is India’s ambassador to Israel, Sanjeev Kumar Singla.
In times of conflict in a foreign land, every nation’s big priority is securing the safety of its people. Embassies have a big role to play and they are led by the ambassador, who is their country’s official representative in the host nation.
We take a look at how Singla is standing in for New Delhi in this testing time.
Rescuing Indians in Israel
India on Friday announced the launch of Operation Ajay to rescue its nationals stranded in Israel, as rocket attacks from Gaza continue to hit its cities days after Hamas’ unprecedented assault. The Indian government is paying (and praying) for the return of its citizens.
The rescue operation is massive, keeping in mind the sheer number of Indians caught in the middle of the conflict. They include students, IT professionals and caregivers. But how does India decide who will be ferried first?
The passengers are picked on a “first come first serve” basis. A drive was launched at the Indian embassy in Tel Aviv to register at the mission’s database, according to a report in NDTV.
The first flight to Israel under Operation Ajay landed in New Delhi on Friday morning. It was carrying 212 Indians, who were relieved to be back home. More such flights will follow in days to come.
The Indian embassy under the guidance of Singla has been working round the clock, keeping in touch with those stuck in Israel.
The Embassy has been working constantly to help our fellow citizens in Israel through a 24-hour helpline. Please remain calm & vigilant & follow the security advisories.
— India in Israel (@indemtel) October 11, 2023
“We are thankful to India… Most of the students were a little bit panicked. Suddenly we saw some notification and links for every Indian citizen through the embassy of India which boosted our morale,” Shubham Kumar, a student in Israel, told news agency PTI.
“We felt like the embassy of India is connected with us, which was a kind of relief to us. And then we got all the arrangements,” he added.
Since the conflict broke out, Singla has been monitoring the situation closely and regularly keeping in touch with the Indian diaspora in Israel. The Indian embassy was quick to activate 24/7 helpline numbers (+972-35226748 and +972-543278392) to keep all communication channels with its nationals open. Indian citizens in Israel who need assistance or wish to register with the embassy can also reach out to officials via email ([email protected]).
Indian envoy Sanjeev Singla poses with Indian nationals before the board the flight to New Delhi. Image courtesy: @indemtel/X
In a video message posted on X, Singla said, “To our fellow Indian citizens in Israel. This is to assure you that the embassy is working constantly for your safety and welfare. All of us are going through very difficult times, but please do remain calm and vigilant and follow the local security guidelines,” he added.
“We are here to help you, and we thank many of you who have sent so many messages of appreciation to us. We are monitoring the situation closely, and please stay tuned for any updates…Jai Hind,” the envoy said further in his video message.
Message from Ambassador Sanjeev Singla to the members of Indian community in Israel 👇🏻 pic.twitter.com/FKUqJZykeF
— India in Israel (@indemtel) October 11, 2023
The embassy has issued an important advisory to Indian citizens in Israel, requesting them to remain vigilant, observe safety protocols exercise caution, and stay close to safety shelters as advised by the local government authorities.
Rikki, a woman of Indian origin in Israel, was thankful to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “We are thankful to PM Modi that he is supporting us. He’s doing a lot of things for us, for Israel and for our community in India. And we think that the things that he is doing for us, it’s very strong,” she was stated as quoting by ANI.
The diplomatic challenge
The war poses a big diplomatic challenge for India. New Delhi’s traditional position on the conflict was reiterated by the Ministry of External Affairs, as it backed an independent Palestine in a statement on Thursday. However, hours after the Hamas assault on Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed deep shock at the “terrorist attacks”.
The PM has over the year invested in the relationship with Israel. And one key cog in his growing friendship is the Indian envoy.
Singla was appointed Indian ambassador to Israel in October 2019, during PM Modi’s second term in office. He leads a team of seven officers in the embassy in Tel Aviv. This is his second stint in the country. He served in the Indian embassy between November 2013 and July 14.
Between the two appointments, he worked closely with the prime minister as his private secretary.
An Indian family evacuated from Israel talks to the media upon their arrival at the airport, in New Delhi, Friday. AP
The Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer is known among his peers as an “expert” on Israel and other countries in West Asia. A senior IFS officer, who worked with Singla in the MEA, told News18 that Singla has contributed “significantly” to shaping India’s diplomatic and strategic ties with Israel.
India and Israel’s strategic partnership took new strides after PM Modi visited the country in 2017. There has been increased cooperation in defence, innovation and knowledge.
“PM Modi sensed that the partnership (with Israel) will evolve into an important one. He wanted an officer with whom he can communicate and who could implement his ideas, contributing to the (India-Israel) diplomacy to a great extent. That is why he picked Singla, who was then serving as his private secretary and had a brief experience in the embassy in Israel too,” a retired IFS officer to News18.
Israelis run to take cover as a siren sounds a warning of incoming rockets fired from the Gaza strip, in Ashkelon, on Thursday. AP
Life as a career diplomat
Singla is a 1997-batch IFS officer. He has served in Indian missions in several capacities. One of his first appointments was in Paris, France in September 199. He has also served in Dhaka and Geneva.
The diplomat worked on the US desk in the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi, as the deputy chief of protocol and as director at the foreign secretary’s office.
Singla has had a long diplomatic career. His role in Israel is among the most challenging yet. But he has got India’s back.
With inputs from agencies