Narendra Modi on Saturday became the first Indian prime minister to visit the occupied West Bank where he held talks with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas as part of a Middle East tour. The visit, which came weeks after Modi hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was seen as an Indian effort to balance its strengthening ties with Israel.
"I have once again assured President Abbas that India is bound by a promise to take care of the Palestinian people's interests," Modi said following a meeting with the Palestinian leader. "India hopes that soon Palestine will become a free country in a peaceful manner."
Modi and his entourage had flown in by helicopter from Jordan, landing near Abbas's Ramallah headquarters and laying a wreath at the mausoleum of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. New Delhi has long backed the Palestinian territories' quest for nationhood and Modi has voiced support for an independent state existing peacefully alongside Israel.
After a bilateral meeting, Abbas gave the Indian leader a medal "in recognition of his wise leadership" and "efforts to promote the historic relations between the State of Palestine and the Republic of India." Speaking alongside Modi, Abbas said they had discussed "bringing the political process out of the deadlock due to the continued Israeli occupation of our land and the political impasse following (US President Donald) Trump's decision on Jerusalem and the refugees". Trump last month shocked the Palestinians by breaking with decades of US policy and recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The US president is also withholding tens of millions of dollars from UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.
"We count on India's role as an international force of great prestige and weight," Abbas said, noting "its rising power at the strategic and economic levels" that could "contribute to the achievement of a just peace in our region". The Indian leader said his country "hopes for peace and stability in this region". "We believe a permanent solution to Palestine is possible through dialogue. Only diplomacy and farsightedness can break the cycle of violence and free it from the baggage of the past," Modi said.
"India and Palestine's historic relations have stood the test of time. Palestinian interests have always got our support and remained at the top in our foreign policy." Modi became the first Indian prime minister ever to visit Israel in July last year, with the two states signing deals on cybersecurity and energy.
India's refusal to back US moves to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital disappointed the Jewish state but was consistent with its support for the Palestinians. Modi was later taking off for Jordan for the rest of his three-day tour, which will also take him to Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The Gulf is a critical region for New Delhi. India sources more than half its oil and energy supplies from the region, and around nine million Indians live and work there, sending home billions of dollars in remittances annually.