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April 23, 2024

Research Paper: Exploring India’s Foreign Policy and Relations with Israel amid the Israel-Palestine Conflict

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By: Yash Gajmal

India-Israel flags: source Internet

Introduction

Despite being relatively small and still in its early stages, Israel has played a significant role in India’s foreign policy discussions, both pre and post-normalization of relations. The decision to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel in January 1992 marked one of India’s major foreign policy responses to the post-Cold War era. While the Cold War’s Euro-centric bloc politics didn’t directly hinder formal relations between the two nations, the global shift at the end of the Cold War allowed India to reconsider its longstanding policy of recognizing Israel without formal normalization. Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, breaking away from the traditional Nehruvian approach, embraced change while emphasizing continuity in India’s stance. The international order underwent significant transformations, coinciding with positive developments in the Middle East, paving the way for India to complete the normalization process that had commenced when Jawaharlal Nehru recognized Israel on September 17, 1950.

The Initial Strain: India-Israel Relations

For the first forty years after gaining independence, India hesitated to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel, driven largely by historical political considerations dating back to the 1920s. Indian nationalists, aligning with Arab counterparts in the fight against imperialism, took a pro-Arab stance on the Palestinian question, as reflected in Mahatma Gandhi’s 1938 statement that emphasized Palestine belonging to Arabs. Despite this unsympathetic position toward Jewish aspirations in Palestine, Indian culture historically lacked the anti-Semitism prevalent in Christian Europe, and Jewish people were accommodated socially and culturally. However, the political opposition to the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine persisted among Indian nationalists.

The formalization of India’s position occurred in 1947 during its tenure on the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine. India opposed the majority’s partition plan for Palestine and voted against it in the UN General Assembly in 1947. Furthermore, India resisted Israel’s admission to the UN. Nevertheless, changing global dynamics, Israel’s growing recognition by other nations, and its eventual admission to the UN prompted India to reconsider its stance. In September 1950, India formally recognized Israel, signifying a notable shift in diplomatic relations.

Maulana Azad, a prominent leader in the Congress Party, is often attributed by scholars, both Indian and foreign, for obstructing diplomatic relations with Israel. Citing potential diplomatic repercussions in the Arab world and considering the sentiments of the Indian Muslim population, Azad deferred normalization, according to these scholars. The Suez Crisis in 1956, marked by Israeli collaboration with Britain and France, formally ended any prospects of normalization. The recurring stance from India became ‘the time is not ripe’ for normalization, and the absence of relations served as a key instrument to advance Indian interests in the Middle East.

Periodic regional violence and competition with Pakistan led India to play a leading role in anti-Israeli resolutions in international forums like the United Nations and the Non-Aligned Movement. In a notable instance in November 1975, India voted for a controversial UNGA resolution equating Zionism with racism. With Rajiv Gandhi assuming office, there was a favourable disposition towards re-examining relations with Israel. Despite hosting Jewish delegations and engaging with friends of Israel in the United States, progress remained minimal. It became evident that significant changes in the international system, particularly the dismantling of ideological barriers at the end of the Cold War, were necessary for a shift in India’s non-relations policy towards Israel.

Normalization and after

After the normalization of relations, India and Israel have witnessed various political visits, official exchanges, and increased interactions, with a prevailing domestic consensus supporting normalization. Even critics of Israel’s policies rarely advocate a return to the pre-1992 stance. The economic ties between the two countries have significantly strengthened, with Israel becoming a major trading partner in the Middle East. Bilateral trade, which was under US$ 100 million in 1990, surpassed the billion-dollar mark by the end of the decade and exceeded US$ 5 billion in 2010. Joint ventures in agriculture, irrigation, science and technology, and medicine have flourished, and both nations are actively pursuing a free trade agreement to enhance economic relations.

At the end of the Cold War, India’s defense establishment faced a number of problems, primarily due to the sudden disappearance of the USSR, its principal arms supplier. This was also the period when there was heightened cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Indo-Israeli collaboration spans counter-terrorism, border management, upgrading of Soviet inventories, surveillance, small arms and ammunition, missile defense, and early warning systems. By 2009, Israel had become India’s second-largest arms supplier after Russia. The 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, targeting Israeli-Jewish interests, underscored the shared vulnerability of democratic nations to religious fanaticism. Israel benefits not only from India’s defense modernization but also from advancements in satellite technology, as demonstrated by India’s successful launch of an Israeli satellite into orbit in February 2008.

Three Phases of India-Israel Relations

After the Cold War ended, two key events unfolded. The Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid, starting in October 1991, signalled a shift towards seeking a political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict through negotiations. Simultaneously, the Iraqi invasion and annexation of Kuwait undermined the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its leader Yasser Arafat, weakening their political and diplomatic support from oil-rich Arab countries.

In this changing landscape, major powers, including India, aimed to be part of the evolving peace process. India’s previous strategy, based on a zero-sum approach, linked non-relations with Israel to its pro-Arab Middle East policy. This meant that even minimal relations, maintained with other countries despite hostilities, were viewed as diluting support for the Palestinians. During this phase, India actively supported anti-Israel resolutions in various international forums.

The second phase, marked by the January 1992 decision to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, emerged as a response to the evolving dynamics. The Madrid conference and the Palestinians’ willingness to negotiate with Israel prompted India to reconsider its traditional Middle East stance. For the first time, India saw relations with Israel and the Palestinians as parallel, not exclusive processes. Normalization signalled the recognition that maintaining formal relations with both parties was both possible and necessary for India to play a relevant role in the Middle East peace process.

In the initial years after establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, India aimed to balance its ties with both Israel and the Palestinians. However, this balance did not lead to any change in India’s traditional stance on core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as Palestinian statehood, Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied since 1967, and opposition to Jewish settlements in these territories.

While India’s voting pattern in international forums has remained consistent, noticeable shifts have occurred. India has become more balanced in responding to violence in the Middle East, moving away from squarely blaming Israel for all issues. India now shows an understanding of Israel’s security concerns and accommodates its interests. During events like the Second Lebanon War in 2006, India criticized actions by groups like Hezbollah. Additionally, in 2001, India refused to endorse the revival of the ‘Zionism is racism’ debate during the Durban Conference against racism.

The third phase, starting in 2004 when the Congress Party returned to power, witnessed a more complex approach towards Israel. India delinked bilateral relations from the peace process, allowing for closer ties despite serious differences over issues like Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, borders, and Palestinian statehood. By maintaining traditional support for the Palestinians, India retained goodwill in the Arab world and domestic constituencies. This strategy enabled India to simultaneously pursue strong political and security relations with Israel, making Israel the second-largest supplier of defense equipment to India after Russia. In essence, while political differences hindered normalization until 1992, since 2004, these differences ironically facilitated closer ties between India and Israel.

Patterns in India-Israel ties

After the normalization of relations between India and Israel, two notable patterns have emerged in their bilateral ties. Firstly, state governments in India have played a crucial role, distinct from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). State governments, focusing on economic issues and social welfare, have forged stronger economic ties with Israel. While some states, like Kerala, consider the Arab-Israeli conflict during elections, others prioritize economic partnerships. This shift has reduced the national-level political impact of the conflict, as state governments primarily focus on tangible issues like agriculture, irrigation, and infrastructure, seeking benefits from Israeli expertise.

Secondly, professional ministries within the Indian government, particularly the military-security establishment, have gained importance. Professionalism, rather than politics, has become a key driver in decision-making, especially in military imports. Agriculture is another area where Israeli expertise in high-yielding crops, farming technology, and water management has been sought. The involvement of these ministries, along with state governments, has led to a more professional and less politically influenced approach, particularly in agriculture and defense.

Education has also gained prominence as both countries aim to promote academic cooperation. A three-year India-Israel Joint Research Agreement was signed in 2012 to collaborate in arts, humanities, medicine, and social sciences.

While the MEA continues to play a role, its significance has diminished, primarily focusing on multilateralism and the peace process, where both countries have limited agreement. In areas like military security, agriculture, and education, the MEA acts more as a facilitator than a leader. These dynamic highlights the evolving nature of Indo-Israeli relations and the shift from traditional diplomatic channels.

The decision in 1992 challenged a long-standing belief that opposition from the Muslim population in India prevented leaders from establishing full diplomatic ties with Israel. While some thought that Indian Muslims were against normalizing relations, this link between domestic Muslim sentiment and anti-Israel policy is not entirely accurate. When the BJP-led NDA was in power during 1999 and 2004, many attributed India’s growing proximity with Israel to the anti-Muslim agenda of the Hindutva elements. Even Maulana Azad’s opposition in 1952 was thought to be influenced by perceived domestic Muslim resistance. However, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, in 2004, acknowledged that India’s Israel policy had become entangled with domestic politics, inadvertently creating an unspoken obstacle to India’s West Asian policy.

The decision to normalize relations in 1992 revealed the weakness of this argument as open Muslim opposition to Rao’s decision was minimal and only sporadic during Middle East upheavals. Since then, there has been a noticeable shift in the Muslim community’s attitude toward Israel, evident in increased contacts, visits, and meetings with Israeli dignitaries. While not everyone in the Muslim community is pleased with normalized relations, opinions are no longer uniform, and some sections are willing to consider Israel differently and engage with it.

External influence on India-Israel bilateral ties

External responses to the normalization and subsequent strengthening of bilateral relations have been mostly positive, with several key players influencing this dynamic, namely the United States, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, and China, in that order.

United States – Both before and after normalization, Washington has sought to encourage various Indian governments and leaders to reassess and modify their traditional hesitance towards Israel. This approach was evident during Nehru’s era. Between 1950 and 1992, the U.S. made efforts to rectify the situation of recognizing Israel without establishing formal relations. During Rajiv Gandhi’s term, India actively engaged with influential pro-Israel groups in the United States. The announcement of normalization was linked to the U.S., coinciding with Prime Minister Rao’s visit to the UN Security Council summit in New York. However, some criticized the decision, arguing that establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel under American pressure was unwise.

The positive role of the United States in fostering Indo-Israeli relations was acknowledged by Prime Minister Vajpayee’s National Security Adviser, Brajesh Mishra. He observed that “India, Israel, and the US have some fundamental similarities. We are all democracies, sharing a common vision of pluralism, tolerance and equal opportunity. Stronger India-US relations and India-Israel relations have a natural logic”. While this statement stirred controversy, especially among opponents of Israel, it reflected a pragmatic understanding of political realities. Israel has been one of the few Middle East issues where post-Cold War American policy has benefited India, in contrast to its policies concerning Iraq and Iran, which complicated India’s efforts to pursue friendly ties with the latter two countries.

Egypt – President Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt was a notable critic of normalization. Even though Palestinian leader Arafat was more understanding of India’s choice, the Egyptian leader was less accommodative. As part of his efforts to rehabilitate Egypt’s image in the Arab world following its peace agreement with Israel, Mubarak has maintained a cold peace with Israel. The end of the Cold War, the Madrid conference, and the Oslo accords did not alter Mubarak’s position of Egypt being the sole interlocutor between Israel and the outside world.

Iran – The Islamic Republic of Iran has been pragmatic vis-à vis India Israeli relations. It was vocal in expressing its disapproval of Rao’s decision but did not go beyond that. Tehran was also looking for friends to end its isolation and was reaching out various countries, including India. Beginning with the visit of Prime Minister Rao to Tehran in September 1993. Indo-Iranian relations flourished and soon Iran emerged as a key to India’s political, economic, and, above all, energy interests. Iran has never raised the issue of Indo-Israel ties while dealing with New Delhi. The difficulties facing Indo-Iranian relations are not linked to Israel but are due to greater influence and interference from the United States.

Pakistan – Pakistan has played a significant role in shaping India’s Israel policy since the 1920s, tracing its roots to the Khilafat struggle between the Congress Party and the Muslim League. This rivalry continued post-Partition, evolving into the Indo-Pakistan competition, particularly in the Middle East. In 1952, Azad identified Pakistan and the sentiments of Indian Muslims as obstacles to normalizing relations with Israel.

The controversial remark of the Israeli Consular General was, he said: “[Indian politicians] are afraid of the Arabs, they are afraid that Iraq will cancel their contracts, Saudi Arabia will stop accepting labourers. India is always asking for a floor at the UN and other international forums to denounce Israel and prove to the Arabs that you are doing more than Pakistan. That way you think you will impress the Arabs.”

Prolonged Indian competition with Pakistan for Arab support has resulted in New Delhi adopting a pronouncedly anti-Israeli posture. Such an approach was logical and even inevitable. Limited international leverage, especially after its conflict with China in 1962, and dependence upon foreign economic support led to India seeking to befriend the Arabs through the political route. This was compounded by its growing dependence upon the region for energy supplies. If Pakistan was exhibiting its ‘Islamic’ credentials, India was using the Palestinian card to befriend the Arabs. The timing of India’s decision- to normalize relations with Israel also coincided with the diminishing influence of the Palestinian factor in inter-Arab relations. Thus, the Congress-Muslim League rivalry of the nationalist phase was replaced by the Indo-Pakistan rivalry that most visibly played out in the Middle East.

Post-Cold War, India’s economic ascendance reduced Pakistan’s role in shaping its foreign relations with the Islamic world. The period after 1992 saw improved relations between India and key Middle Eastern countries, not just Israel, due to India’s growing economic strength and influence in the international energy market. Indeed, one could argue that delinking Pakistan from its Middle East policy has enabled India to forge closer ties not only with Israel but also the region’s principal players such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Change and continuity in India’s Palestine policy

Historically, India has been a firm supporter of the Palestine cause. And even when India’s relationship with Israel flourished in the past three decades, New Delhi has maintained a careful balance between its new partnership and historical commitment towards Palestine. In recent years, there have been questions on whether India is abandoning this balance and tilting towards the Jewish state in a changing West Asia, where even Arab nations have been ready to sidestep the Palestine question for better bilateral ties with Israel.

Immediately after the October 7 Hamas attack in Israel, in which at least 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a post on X, said he was “deeply shocked by the news of [the] terrorist attack”. He said, “We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour.”

Mr. Modi, who became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel in 2017, has a good personal chemistry with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Supporters of Mr. Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hardly conceal their admiration towards Israel’s aggressive security model. On October 26, 2023, barely three weeks after the Hamas attack, India abstained from a vote at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) that called for an “immediate, durable and sustainable humanitarian truce” in Gaza. India explained its stand by saying that there was no explicit condemnation of the October 07, 2023, “terror attack in the resolution”. All these factors suggested that India’s historical policy towards Palestine was undergoing a paradigm shift.

Evolving approach in India’s Palestine policy

India’s Palestine policy has evolved over the years. When the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution to partition Palestine into a Jewish state, an Arab state and an international city (Jerusalem) in November 1947, India, along with Pakistan and the Arab bloc, voted against it. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had compared the settler Zionists in historical Palestine to the Muslim League of undivided India. His position was that India, having gone through the horrors of Partition, should not support the partition of Palestine. But when the state of Israel was declared in May 1948, India swiftly adopted a pragmatic line: in 1950, it recognised Israel, but stopped short of establishing full diplomatic relations. Throughout the Cold War, India, an advocate of Third World autonomy, was one of the most vocal supporters of the Palestine cause.

After it established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, bilateral ties between New Delhi and Tel Aviv began to deepen and broaden. But India publicly maintained its support for “a negotiated solution, resulting in a sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, living within secure and recognized borders, side by side at peace with Israel, as endorsed in the Arab Peace Initiative, the Quartet Road map and relevant UNSC Resolutions” – this means that India supported the creation of a Palestine state with East Jerusalem as its capital and based on the 1967 borders.

This position has evolved further after Mr. Modi became Prime Minister. In February 2018, when he visited Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, he called for dialogue to find a permanent solution to the crisis, but stopped short of saying anything on the status of Jerusalem or borders. It does not mean that India supports Israel’s claim over the whole of Jerusalem (New Delhi voted against the U.S. decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital), but it will not talk about the contentious issues such as the capital and border any more, while remaining a partner of Israel and a supporter of the two-state solution. Realpolitik displaces the moral content of India’s Palestine policy.

After October 07, 2023, a close analysis of India’s voting record at the UN and the statements made by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) suggests that this position of balancing has not changed. It is neither a strong moral critic, like Brazil or South Africa, of the way Israel is conducting the war, nor a mute spectator or enabler of Israel, like the United States or the United Kingdom.

A few days after Mr. Modi’s tweet declaring solidarity with Israel over the “terror attack”, the MEA stated that India backed “a sovereign, independent viable state of Palestine”. After its first abstention, there were at least four votes at the UNGA on Israel. On November 12, 2023, India voted in favour of a resolution that condemned Israeli settlements “in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem and the occupied Syrian Golan”. Two weeks later, New Delhi voted in favour of another resolution that expressed “deep concern” over Israel’s continuing occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights. On December 12, 2023, India supported a resolution that called for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire”. And on December 19, 2023, it voted for the Palestinian right to self-determination.

The voting record speaks for itself. One cannot have a two-state solution if Israeli settlements continue in Palestinian territories. And the only path towards a solution is diplomacy, not war, as there is no balance of power between Israel, the mightiest military in West Asia, and the Palestinian militants. So, in essence, if one supports the two state-solution, there should be a call for an immediate end to violence, support dialogue, condemn settlements and, in principle, back the Palestinian right to self-determination. This is what India has done, unlike the U.S., which claims to be supporting the two-state solution while voting against all resolutions at the UN and refusing to back the ceasefire call.

India’s interests

The support for the Palestine cause, even if limited, is rooted in tangible national interests. Israel’s ongoing offensive in Gaza, which has killed over 30,000 people, wounded some 70,000 and displaced nearly 90% of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million, is one of the gravest humanitarian tragedies of the 21st century. Israel, despite this rogue behaviour, manages to avoid the wrath of the international laws and system mainly because of the unconditional support it enjoys from the U.S. But America’s support for Israel and Tel Aviv’s disregard for Palestinian lives and international laws have created strong reactions in the Global South. South Africa took Israel to the International Court of Justice, while Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva accuses Israel of committing “genocide” in Gaza. China has repeatedly called for a ceasefire, while Russia is hosting different Palestinian factions, including Hamas.

India, which aspires to be a leader of the Global South, cannot ignore these voices and sentiments. That is why External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said at the Munich Security Conference last month that Israel “should be and should have been mindful of the civilian casualties in Gaza”, which is India’s sharpest criticism of the Israel war till now.

The October 7 attack and Israel’s retaliatory war have also turned the strategic clock in the region back. Before October 7, India was gearing up to work in the post-Abraham Accords strategic reality through its cooperation with the Arabs, Israelis and Americans. But further Arab-Israel reconciliation is now on hold. The U.S.’s reputation stands as tarnished as that of Israel. If Saudi-Israel normalisation is not taking place, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) will have to wait. If the crisis persists and Houthis continue to target vessels in the Red Sea, it would create lasting economic pains for India. A prolonged war in Gaza would also enhance risks of a wider conflict in the region, involving Iran, Israel and America, who are all India’s partners. An immediate end to the war, restoration of order and stability in West Asia and a permanent fix to the Palestine question are as much in India’s interests as anybody else’s in West Asia. This should be the guiding core of India’s Act West policy.

Rediscovering Palestinian statehood

The cat is out of the bag. Well, it has been out of the bag all the time but no one noticed it till now. The Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has not only declared publicly that for years he has been working against a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but he has also gone on to say that Israel needs “control over the entire area west of Jordan”. Does this sound familiar? Yes, that was the line which the world condemned Hamas for chanting – from the Jordan river to the sea. Those chanting it have been dubbed anti-Semitic and have been met with an iron fist. But now, such a plan for total Israeli control is reported to have been presented by Mr. Netanyahu to his cabinet.

There was soon another bombshell, this time for Israel. The British Foreign Secretary, David Cameron said that the United Kingdom was willing to recognise a Palestinian state before a deal with Israel since the outcome of talks to arrive at a two-state solution could take years. France has also joined the U.K. in this. Will the United States be far behind then?

The Global South’s stand on Israel’s war in Gaza

While a majority of the speakers at the hearings at ICJ are from the Global South led by Brazil and South Africa, all P-5 members of the UN Security council submitted comments, although Israel chose not to participate. India was not among the speakers, but its neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh were strongly critical of Israel’s actions. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki gave a three-hour high-powered submission in which he said Israeli governments had left only three choices for Palestinians: “displacement, subjugation or death”, calling their actions: “ethnic cleansing, apartheid or genocide.” The U.S., U.K. and allies began submissions with condemnations of the October 7 attack in which more than 1,100 were killed in Israel. Ireland, however, has diverged quite dramatically from the West and the European Union in its criticism of Israel’s actions, countering arguments on the “right to self-defence” by saying that international law “limits the use of force in self-defence to no more than what is necessary and proportionate”. Brazil’s ambassador in particular called for the ICJ to pronounce Israel’s actions of confiscating land, demolishing Palestinian homes, establishing Israeli settlements, and constructing the West Bank barrier wall as illegal.

Brazil’s President Lula da Silva has been openly critical of “Zionism” in the past. For instance, he refused to visit the grave of Theodor Herzl during a visit to Jerusalem in 2010. Last week, Israel declared Mr. Lula a “persona non grata” who won’t be allowed to enter the country after he compared Israel’s bombardment of Palestinians to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany in which six million Jewish people were killed. Brazil has since recalled its ambassador to Israel.

What is India’s stand?

Unlike the rest of the Global South, however, the Modi government has chosen to keep public comments on the issue to a minimum, and the decision not to speak at the ICJ is in line with that. Several factors complicate clarity on the Indian position. On the one hand, there is an expectation from the Arab world, particularly from close partners such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, for India to stand with Palestine. Qatar, for instance, may have expectations after the Prime Minister’s visit last month to thank the Emir for releasing eight Indian naval officers. This may explain why New Delhi has spoken strongly about zero tolerance for the October 7 terror attacks, but has not designated Hamas as a terror group so far. On the other hand, there is India’s close defence and surveillance equipment cooperation with Israel. While India has been buying defence equipment from Israel, recently, it shipped drones made by Adani-Elbit Advanced Systems in Hyderabad to help Israeli operations. In addition, the government has green-lighted the recruitment of tens of thousands of Indian workers by Israeli companies dealing with labour shortages due to the expulsion of Palestinians from jobs post October 7 attacks. However, the area of greatest concern for Indian diplomacy will come if it is seen as an outlier to the Global South that India seeks leadership of, which has been clearly critical of Israel’s actions, and is increasingly speaking in one voice for international judicial accountability for them.

Conclusion

Prior to 1992, disagreements with Israel regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict prevented India from maintaining even formal relations. Since the turn of the century, India has been pursuing a mature policy that differentiates bilateral benefits from multilateral differences. Without abandoning its core positions concerning contentious issues such as Palestinian statehood, refugees, or borders, India has managed to forge a strong and nuanced relationship with Israel. The long-term stability, sustainability, and progress of this relationship depend upon the ability of both countries to find common ground for cooperation while agreeing to disagree on the disagreeable.

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