In the early morning hours of May 15, the cargo vessel Borkum stopped off the Spanish coast, lingering in the waters a short distance from Cartagena. At the port, protesters waved Palestinian flags and called on authorities to inspect the ship based on suspicions that it carried weapons bound for Israel.

Leftist members of the European Parliament sent a letter to Spanish President Pedro Sánchez requesting that the ship be prevented from docking. “Allowing a ship loaded with weapons destined for Israel is to allow the transit of arms to a country currently under investigation for genocide against the Palestinian people,” the group of nine MEPs warned.

Before the Spanish government could take a stand, the Borkum cancelled its planned stopover and continued to the Slovenian port of Koper. “We were right,” Inigo Errejon, the spokesperson for the hard-left Sumar party wrote on X, arguing that the Borkum’s decision to skip Cartagena confirmed the suspicions.

But missed in the debate over whether the ship ought to be allowed to dock in Spain were the unlikely origins of the Borkum’s cargo.

According to documents seen by Al Jazeera, the ship contained explosives loaded in India and was en route to Israel’s port of Ashdod, some 30km (18 miles) from the Gaza Strip. Marine tracking sites show it departed Chennai in southeast India on April 2 and circumnavigated Africa to avoid transiting through the Red Sea, where Yemen’s Houthis have been attacking vessels in reprisal for Israel’s war.

The identification codes specified in the documentation, obtained unofficially by the Solidarity Network Against the Palestinian Occupation (RESCOP), suggest the Borkum contained 20 tonnes of rocket engines, 12.5 tonnes of rockets with explosive charges, 1,500kg (3,300 pounds) of explosive substances and 740kg (1,630 pounds) of charges and propellants for cannons.

A paragraph on confidentiality specified that all employees, consultants or other relevant parties were mandated that “under no circumstances” were they to name IMI Systems or Israel. IMI Systems, a defence firm, was bought by Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest weapons manufacturer, in 2018.

The commercial manager of the ship, the German company MLB Manfred Lauterjung Befrachtung, told Al Jazeera in a statement that “the vessel did not load any weapons or any other cargo for the destination Israel”.

A second cargo ship that had departed India was denied entry on May 21 to the port of Cartagena. Spanish newspaper El Pais reported that the Marianne Danica left from India’s port of Chennai and was en route to Israel’s port of Haifa with a cargo of 27 tonnes of explosives. Minister of Foreign Affairs Jose Manuel Albares confirmed in a news conference that the vessel was denied entry on the grounds that it was shipping military cargo to Israel.

These incidents add to mounting evidence that weapon parts from India, a country that has long advocated dialogue over military action in resolving conflicts, are quietly making their way to Israel, including during the ongoing months-long war in Gaza. A lack of transparency on India’s transfers helps them slip under the radar, say analysts.

Zain Hussain, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told Al Jazeera that “the lack of verifiable information makes it hard to determine whether transfers have taken place”.

But “collaboration between India and Israel has been happening for quite a few years now”, Hussain said, therefore “it’s not unfeasible that we may see some made-in-India components being used by Israel [in its war on Gaza]”.

‘Made in India’

On June 6, in the aftermath of Israel’s bombing of a United Nations shelter at the Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza, the Quds News Network released a video of the remains of a missile dropped by Israeli warplanes.

Amid the tangled parts, a label clearly read: “Made in India.”

Hussain, who researches the transfer of conventional arms at the Stockholm-based think tank, said the video required further investigation but observed that a large share of the collaboration between India and Israel is known to revolve around missile production, in particular the Barak surface-to-air missile.

According to SIPRI, the Indian company Premier Explosives Limited makes solid propellants – a significant part of the rocket motors, but not the whole motor – for MRSAM and LRSAM missiles. These are the Indian designations for Barak medium and long-range surface-to-air missiles of Israeli design.

The company’s executive director, T Chowdary, admitted to exporting to Israel amid the current war in Gaza, during a conference call on March 31. “We have received the pending revenue from the Israel export order, and this has shown an exponential jump in the revenue of the quarter,” he told investors, according to the minutes of the meeting. “We are happy to announce that we have highest ever quarterly revenue.”

On that occasion, Chowdary presented Premier Explosives Limited as “the only Indian company which specialises in the export of fully assembled rocket motor”. In addition, he said the company had begun manufacturing mines and ammunitions and started exporting RDX and HMX explosives, commonly used in military weapons systems.

In its January 2024 overview, the company listed exports to Israel in the “defence & space” sector, which SIPRI deemed likely to include propellants for Barak missiles.

Premier Explosives did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

According to SIPRI, the Indian components can be used for Barak missiles that are then also reexported by Israel.

Indian made UAVs

Yet, India’s collaboration with Israel goes far beyond rocket propellers.

In December 2018, Adani Defence & Aerospace – the defence arm of Indian multinational holding company Adani Enterprises Ltd – and Israel’s Elbit Systems inaugurated the Adani Elbit Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Complex (UAV) in Hyderabad.

The facility was presented in a joint statement as “the first outside Israel to manufacture the Hermes 900 Medium Altitude Long Endurance UAV”, which can fly for up to 36 hours at an altitude of 30,000 feet (9,000 metres).

“The factory shall start operations with the manufacturing of complete carbon composite aero-structures for Hermes 900, followed by Hermes 450,” the statement added. Both drones can be fitted with antitank guided missiles, according to the drone inventory of the United Kingdom’s leading defence think tank the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

“The production of Hermes drones is as important for India as it is for Israel,” SIPRI’s Hussain said. “For Israel, it means they have a factory outside of the country. For India, it’s about technology transfer, so that it can also produce drones based on the Israeli model.”

Earlier this year, India announced its first indigenous medium-altitude long-endurance drone, the Drishti 10 Starliner, built on the Hermes model.

The factory is currently producing the UAVs, including for shipment to Israel, according to SIPRI, but India has not disclosed any information about their transfer.

Israel is known to be systematically using drones as it wages its war on Gaza, which has killed more than 37,000 people, most of them women and children. In November, in the aftermath of Hamas’s attack on October 7, Elbit deputy CEO Joseph Gaspar said the company had been working “round the clock” to meet demand by Israel’s military.

The use of Hermes drones has been documented by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other organisations in previous conflicts in Gaza as well. Earlier this month, Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters said they shot down an armed Hermes 900 drone in its airspace. Since October, Israeli strikes on Lebanon have killed more than 400 people, including more than 70 civilians.

“If we see Hermes drones being used in Gaza, they’re not necessarily coming from India,” as Israel also produces them in-house, SIPRI’s Hussein said. But the possibility that India has begun exporting the drones as per the terms of the agreement and that they are currently being used against the Palestinian population in the besieged Strip cannot be ruled out, he added.

Elbit Systems did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment. The Adani Group, which includes Adani Defence & Aerospace, told Al Jazeera in a statement that the company exported a small consignment of UAVs for noncombat operations.

“We reiterate that these drones are built for surveillance and reconnaissance and cannot be used for attack roles,” it said. “We categorically deny having exported any UAVs to Israel since October 7, 2023.”

India’s balancing act

India has been pursuing a longstanding balancing act in its relationship with Israel. New Delhi has attempted to cast itself as a conciliatory actor and a possible mediator in the conflict in Gaza, calling for peace and supporting calls for a ceasefire while also demanding that Hamas return captives still held in Gaza.

More broadly, Indian officials – from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his Minister of Foreign Affairs S Jaishankar and the country’s diplomats at the UN – have consistently argued that the country believes in dialogue and negotiations, not war, as the only means to resolve conflicts. That has been India’s formal position when it comes to Russia’s war on Ukraine and Israel’s war on Gaza.

“But reports that it is supplying Israel with weapons could disrupt that narrative,” Nicolas Blarel, the author of The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy, told Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera sought comments from India’s Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Defence on June 17 and then again on June 21, but has not received a response.

India recognised the state of Israel in 1950, only two years after its formation, but established formal diplomatic relations in 1992 after decades of non-aligned and pro-Arab policy. In 1974, it became the first non-Arab country to accept the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and recognised the State of Palestine in 1988.

PLO leader Yasser Arafat used to famously describe former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as his “sister”.

In the 1990s, as the Cold War ended and Arafat engaged with then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in a series of talks that culminated in the Oslo Accords, India also opened up to collaboration with Israel.

“That accelerated in 1999, with the war between India and Pakistan,” Blarel, who lectures in International Relations at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said. “Most countries refused to sell weapons to both countries, except most notably Israel.”

Since then, Israel has been willing to engage India on technology transfer to an extent that no other partner has, providing know-how on drones, electric sensors for border control and other surveillance systems that are crucial to India along its tense borders with Pakistan and China, Blarel added.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, of the Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), veered further from the country’s historic pro-Palestinian stance after he was elected in 2014.

Modi adopted a more public embrace of Israel, becoming the first prime minister to travel to the country in 2017. The strategic partnership that resulted from the visit, which included areas such as space and technology, softened India’s stance on Israel to a “case-by-case approach”, where India’s position was no longer guaranteed to support that of Palestinians”,  Blarel said.

Modi has since repeatedly referred to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as his “friend”.

The same approach continues to this day. On October 26, weeks after the Hamas attack and the beginning of Israel’s reprisal in Gaza, India abstained from a UN General Assembly (UNGA) vote on a resolution calling for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce”.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said Indians were “big victims of terrorism” and were therefore sympathetic to Israel. The resolution, Jaishankar argued echoing Israel’s position, lacked an “explicit condemnation” of the Hamas attack that killed 1,139 Israelis.

India later voted in favour of a UNGA resolution for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, but in April abstained from voting for a resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council that called for an arms embargo on Israel in addition to an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

Earlier this month, India joined other members of the BRICS grouping – Brazil, Russia, China, South Africa, Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the United Arab Emirates – in issuing a statement expressing “grave concern” at the escalation of violence in the Gaza Strip and calling for an immediate ceasefire.

“India sometimes sees the UN resolutions as being too strict, because it has a good relationship with Israel, but sometimes sides with Palestinians” as it seeks to cast itself as a champion of developing nations amid stiff competition with China for that role, Blarel said.

While “Modi would support a more public embrace of Israel,” the analyst said, he has also invested in cultivating strategic relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), India’s largest regional-bloc trading partner.

Modi’s governing BJP lost its majority in the lower house of India’s parliament earlier this month, leaving it dependent on coalition allies to stay in power for the first time since coming to power a decade ago. Now more than ever, Blarel said, the BJP will have “to consider having good diplomatic relationships with all actors in the Middle East as one of its priorities”.

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