By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“How much past tomorrow holds.”
Mahmoud Darwish (A rhyme for the odes Mu’allaquat)
During her 2013 visit to Sri Lanka, then UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay wanted to lay a wreath to commemorate the war-dead. “When I go to a country, I like to honour the victims, all victims, victims of LTTE, soldiers, families,” she explained.
The Rajapaksa regime refused permission and launched a campaign of lies against her. “Informed sources said that Pillay had initially been informed of her desire to offer a floral tribute to the late LTTE terrorist leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran,” The Daily News wrote.
The Rajapaksas dubbed the final Eelam War a humanitarian offensive with zero-civilian casualties. Acknowledging civilian Tamil deaths was equated with playing the Tiger game. Mourning was a crime, criticising Lankan forces treachery, and referring to the root causes of the conflict justifying Tiger-atrocities. In this us-vs.-them universe, Pillay’s condemnation of the LTTE as a ‘murderous organisation’ counted for nothing.
Pillay, like UN agencies and humanitarian organisations, based her stance on International Humanitarian Law (IHL). IHL is premised on the concept of jus in bello, just conduct of war, which includes principles such as non-combatant immunity and proportionality. The Rajapaksas practiced the antithesis of IHL. As Prof. Rajan Hoole wrote, “From 2006, the Government began to do what would have been unthinkable after 1987. Intense shelling and deliberate displacement of Tamil populations became integral to its military strategy… (Himal – February 2009).
Before launching the final offensive, the Rajapaksas ordered all UN agencies, INGOs, and media to leave the war-zone. During the 2014 Gaza War, a pro-Netanyahu columnist in The Jerusalem Post urged the Israeli PM to learn from Lanka’s example of ‘resolute use of military force’ and give Hamas ‘the thrashing it deserves’(https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Fundamentally-Freund-Defeating-terrorists-From-Sri-Lanka-to-Gaza-371428).
Today Israel is waging a total war in Gaza, a war that has killed over 3000 children so far (one child killed every 15 minutes). According to Save the Children, more children have been killed in Gaza in three weeks than in global conflicts annually in the last 4 years (2985 children 2022, 2515 in 2021, and 2674 in 2020). Oxfam has accused Israel of using starvation as a weapon of war. The UN is warning of hunger and desperation in Gaza leading to societal collapse.
How many Palestinian children must die for Israel to feel safe, or the West to say enough?
The targeting of Israeli civilians by Hamas was an act of barbarism. Israel’s retaliatory war against the entire population of Gaza is no less barbaric. As Khrim Khan, a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court said, “Whether a child is born Jewish in Israel or is a Christian or Muslim in Gaza – they’re children and we should have that sense of humanity – that legal, ethical, and moral responsibility to do right by them.”
For Hamas and their supporters, Israeli children are not children. For Israel and its Western backers, Palestinian children are not children. Hamas committed war crimes. Israel is committing war crimes. And the West, the self-appointed guardians of International Humanitarian Law, is enabling Israel to go on committing war crimes.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has descended so low as to ask Qatar to ‘moderate Al Jazeera’s coverage’ of Israel’s air strikes against Gaza, according to a Guardian report.
The repercussions of this abandonment of jus in bello are likely to be both global and long-lasting. The world could regress to a time when anything was permissible in and during war. The UN and international humanitarian organisations could become totally irrelevant.
The credibility of a legal system depends on its fair application. When laws are applied selectively, they lose legitimacy. One law for friends and another for foes results in a jungle for all. By permitting, indeed helping, Israel to violate IHL, the US and the West are opening the door to a world of complete lawlessness and injustice. They are not ending terrorism but birthing it, in ever more gruesome forms.
Allied powers did nothing to impede the Holocaust. Dresden, which had no military value, was fire-bombed while railway lines to Auschwitz were not. From that civilisational failure was born the cry, Never Again. But as a Jewish protestor at the anti-war demonstration near the Capitol building said, “Never again means never again for anyone.”
The world needs impartial application of IHL to Israel and Hamas, to Russia and Ukraine. The failure to do so will push humanity back to an age when life for most humans was “solitary, nasty, and brutish.
Marriages made in Hell
Conception was the name given to Benjamin Netanyahu’s decades-old policy of using Hamas to divide and weaken Palestinians. Addressing Likud party Knesset members in March 2019, he explained his rationale for favouring Hamas and permitting Qatar to fund it. “Whoever opposes a Palestinian state must approve the delivery of funds to Gaza because maintaining the difference between the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza will prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
Hamas, an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Islamic Resistance Movement) does not accept Israel’s right to existence and wants to install an Islamic Caliphate in all Palestinian lands. Such an organisation would be the best excuse for Israel right’s own plans for a theocratic and non-pluralist Greater Israel.
As retired general Yair Golan pointed out, Netanyahu “created a situation in which, so long as the Palestinian Authority was weak, he could create the overall perception that the best thing to do was to annex the West Bank. We weakened the very institution that we could have worked with, and strengthened Hamas” (The New Yorker – 28.10.2023). In pursuant of this, weapons were reportedly taken away from the Gaza border and given to settlers in the West Bank.
Mr. Netanyahu’s Conception indirectly enabled Hamas’ October 7th attack just as his war will turn the Arab world into a breeding ground for Hamas. As Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh said, “It is a mistake to think that Hamas is an alien being – it is part of the national tapestry. It grows bigger or smaller depending on other factors. You can eliminate the guys running Hamas now, but you cannot eliminate it entirely. It will stay as a way of thinking, as an idea so long as there is a Palestinian-Israeli conflict” (ibid).
Had the Oslo Accords worked, had there been an independent democratic Palestinian state, Hamas could have been marginalised. The Accord’s monumental failure, and the resultant disillusionment in peaceful solutions (not to mention Fatah’s incompetent and corrupt practices in the West Bank) helped Hamas thrive. As Hamas founder Sheik Ahmad Yassen once said, “When oppression increases people start looking for God.”
The plan to ethnic-cleanse West Bank piecemeal, using low intensity violence by Israeli settlers and the Israeli army, continues, empowered by Western indifference. As human rights lawyer Raja Shehadeh wrote, even such a quotidian activity like olive picking has been politicised by expansionist settlers who attack Palestinian olive-pickers, preventing them from reaching their lands and sometimes stealing the harvest. In the West Bank village of Deir Istiya, those returning home from harvesting olives found notices under car windshield-wipers telling them to wait for the Great Nakba – to leave or be forcefully evicted, Israeli columnist Hagar Shezaf wrote in Haaretz on 27 October.
The pursuit of Greater Israel is a threat to Palestinian Christians as well. Settler expansionists want a Jewish state in which Christians will have little or no space. In 2012, extremist settlers attacked the Trappist Monastery in Latroun, setting its door on fire and writing anti-Christian graffiti such as Jesus is a monkey on its walls. Jerusalem’s Monastery of the Cross too has been attacked.
Again in 2012, Israel politician Michael Ben Ari tore a copy of the New Testament in the Knesset and threw it into a rubbish bin after denouncing it as an abhorrent book. A second legislator wanted the bible to be burnt. Neither was officially sanctioned. As Father Pierbatista Pizzaballa, Custodian of the Holy Land, pointed out, “Israel has failed to address the practice of some ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools that it is a doctrinal obligation to abuse anyone in Holy Orders they encounter in public”
In Sri Lanka too, political monks, extremist politicians, and retired military officers have stepped up their campaign to incite ethnic/religious tensions. Now that Kurundi has been neutralised by the Government, these motley combos have shifted focus to Batticaloa.
They are abusing even Buddha statues, using them as weapons of war and markers of territorial possession. Omalpe Sobitha thero, a bit-actor in the drama, asked, “If you can’t keep a Buddhist statue in places like Batticaloa, has a separate country come into being?”
The main actor in the unfolding Diwulpathana teledrama, the infamous Ampitiye Sumanarathana thero, set out a clear warning. “The country is angry and awake… They are ready to reply to the President, Rasamannikam, Senthil Thondaman. The entire Sinhala nation is ready to reply to all of them anytime… I don’t know who sired Ranil Wickremesinghe. I don’t know if Tamil people have traditional properties in Sri Lanka… There is a history going back beyond 2500 years for these properties… These are traditional properties of Sinhalese… When Mahinda Rajapaksa became the president and the war ended, these people got back their rights… They lost their rights when Maithripala became the president, and regained them again when Gotabaya became the president and lost them again when Gotabaya was driven out. It’s after Ranil Wickremesinghe came to power that politicians like Shanakyam shout like this…” The monks and lay cohorts are acting with total impunity while the Government looks away and the Opposition evades the issue. The moderate centre is unoccupied territory while the two antipodes are teeming with actual and would-be owners.
When a policeman shot dead unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, USA, in 2014, mass protests erupted. Confronted by policemen armed as if for war, some demonstrators drew comparisons between themselves and the Gazans. Many Palestinians responded by tweeting practical advice (for instance, Mariam Barghouti from West Bank tweeted, “Always make sure to run against the wind/to keep calm when you are tear gassed, the pain will pass, don’t rub your eyes.”) When an American social-media user objected to the Ferguson-Gaza comparison, another responded, “I don’t think anyone is trying to compare Ferguson to Gaza; the point is solidarity and justice.”
Now also, the point is solidarity and justice, with Gazans and all Palestinians, with hostages, and the Israelis who lost their loved ones, with Palestinian journalist Wael Al-Dahdouh whose wife, daughter, and son were killed in Israeli bombings, and with the mother of Shani Louk, the German-Israeli tattoo artist murdered by Hamas. For solidarity with Palestinians to grow into a moral and political force, resistance needs to move out of the violent theocratic paradigm represented by Hamas. The locus should be not Islamic or Arab but global.
What is at issue is not the right to violent resistance but the efficacy of that path. Arab and Islamic leaders might breathe fire, but they are not even going to suspend diplomatic relations with Israel, let alone wage war against Israel, not even if every inch of Gaza is flattened and every Gazan perishes under the rubble. The only way out is to do what national liberation movements did in the old days, from Vietnam to South Africa: gain and occupy the moral high ground.
The repugnancy of Israel’s policies and actions cannot be showcased, if resistance to Israel is dominated by Hamas and its equally repugnant brand of violence. Just as it is possible to support Israel’s right to existence without supporting the Greater Israel project, it is possible to resist Israel occupation and expansion without descending to the depth of barbarism. To find that radically moderate path all Palestine has to do is to reach back to its own history.
As Palestinian cleric Munib Younan, Bishop emeritus of the Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land pointed out last month, “We have lived with the Jews all the time. Jews were persecuted in Europe. Never in Palestine. Anti-Semitism is a European construct.” Tolerating anti-Semitism, even in the face of the murderous attacks by Israel, is morally wrong and strategically counter-productive. Had Tamil struggle not succumbed to extremism, had the LTTE not targeted Sinhala and Muslim civilians and Tamil critics, it wouldn’t have gone down to utter defeat.
While the 7 October attack was happening, Hamas exhorted Palestinians in the West Bank to rise against Israeli settlers, violently. West Bank Palestinians refused to heed that deadly call. Outside Israel, and even within, some Jews have endorsed the growing global call for a ceasefire in Gaza. Last week, hundreds of mostly Jewish demonstrators, members of Jewish Voice for Peace NY, took over the main hall of the Grand Central Station, protesting against the bombing of Gaza, shouting that Palestinians will be free.
The sentiment of one of the young demonstrators provides a glimpse of a path out of the looming jungle of violent lawlessness: Mourn the dead. Fight like hell for the living.