Vanni war and Israel-Gaza conflict: similarities, differences



British Tamils occupy Parliament Square in London demanding immediate Western intervention to halt Sri Lankan offensive against the LTTE in 2009 (pic courtesy Tamil Guardian)

The US utilised Hamas attack to prepare an emergency funding project that conveniently accommodated Ukraine battling Russia. The funding amounted to USD 105 bn in military and humanitarian aid to Kiev and Tel Aviv. Having visited Tel Aviv last week, US President Joe Biden declared that their security is directly connected to the success of Ukraine and Israel. Interestingly the largest share of USD 105 bn allocation has been earmarked for Ukraine (more than USD 61 bn) with Israel receiving over USD 14 bn, over nine bn for humanitarian assistance for Ukraine, Israel and Gaza and over USD 14 bn for border enforcement with Mexico. Regardless of US pouring military assistance, Israel remains unsure of its capacity to fight a ground war in Gaza to the finish. The delay in launching the ground offensive underscores Israel’s continuing dilemma. That is the reality.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Unparalleled Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, triggered a spate of comments on Sri Lanka’s war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that was brought to a successful end in May 2009. Hamas captured about 230 persons, including Israeli military personnel and foreigners and moved them to areas under their control. The abducted persons’ whereabouts remain unclear though four, including two Americans were released so far. Respected expert on terrorism experienced in Sri Lanka, M.R. Narayan Swamy, discussed the similarities of Sri Lanka’s conflict and the ongoing Israel-Gaza war. New Delhi based Swamy, who had served UNI and AFP during his decades long career discussed the issues at hand while acknowledging no two situations were absolutely comparable. Swamy currently serves as the Executive Director of IANS (Indo-Asian News Service).

Now there is a possibility of Lebanon being dragged into the conflict as Iran threatened Israel amidst ongoing heavy exchange of fire between Israeli forces and Lebannon based Hezbollah. However, the battles on the Lebanese border have tied up several Israeli Divisions thereby preventing them from joining the formations deployed against Hamas.

How’s Hamas’ attack similar to that of LTTE?’ and ‘Hamas’ offensive on Israel may bring it closer to LTTE’s fate’ dealt with the issues involved. Let me reproduce Swamy’s comment: “Oct 7 could be a turning point for Hamas similar to what happened to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka in 2006. Let me explain. Similar to Hamas, the LTTE grew significantly over time eventually gaining control of a significant portion of Sri Lanka’s land and coast. The LTTE was even more formidable than Hamas. It had a strong army, growing air force and a deadly naval presence. Unlike Hamas the LTTE successfully assassinated high ranking political figures in Sri Lanka and India. Notably LTTE achieved this without direct support from any country well Hamas received military and financial backing from Iran and some other states [emphasis is mine]. The LTTE became too sure of their victories overtime. They thought, they could never be beaten and that starting a war would always make them stronger. But in 2006 when they began Eelam War 1V their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran couldn’t have foreseen that within three years he and his prominent group would be defeated. Prabhakaran believed gathering tens of thousands of Tamils during the last stages of war would protect them and Sri Lanka wouldn’t unleash missiles and rockets. Colombo proved him wrong. They were hit. By asking the people not to flee Gaza despite Israeli warnings Hamas is taking a similar line. Punishing all Palestinians for Hamas’ actions is unjust just like punishing all Tamils for LTTE’s actions was wrong. The LTTE claimed to fight for Tamils without consulting them and Hamas claimed to represent Palestinians without seeking the approval for the Oct.7 strike. Well two situations are not absolutely comparable. We can be clear that Hamas is facing a situation similar to what the LTTE faced shortly before its end. Will Hamas meet a similar fate as the LTTE? Only time will answer that question.”

Swamy quite conveniently refrained from mentioning India’s direct role in setting up one of the deadliest terror projects in the world in the 80s. How could he forget the loss of nearly 1,400 Indian military personnel and double that number wounded here?

Former Editor of The Hindu Malini Parthasarathy who also had served as Chairperson of The Hindu Group released a list of politicians assassinated by the LTTE, as she hit back hard at those who raged against the comparison of the Hamas to the LTTE. The list included two Jaffna District MPs, Arumugam Murugesu Alalasundaram and Visvanathan Dharmalingam, assassinated in early Sept 1985. Slain Visvanathan Dharmalingam’s son, Dharmalingam Siddharthan, who represents the Vanni electoral district on the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) is on record as having said that the two MPs were abducted and killed by TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation.) gunmen. The list posted by Parthasarathy included PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran assassinated in Colombo in July 1989. The LTTE hadn’t been involved in that killing. Maheswaran is believed to have been killed by his onetime associates, perhaps over the abortive PLOTE raid on the Maldives in Nov 1988. India never bothered at least to acknowledge that the Maldives raid was carried out by men trained by India to destabilise Sri Lanka. There is no doubt that Maheswasran’s killers, too, were known to the Indian intelligence at that time.

Before rushing into conclusions regarding Hamas and LTTE, perhaps a proper examination of the circumstances they emerged is necessary. The two situations-fourth phase of the Eelam conflict and the latest Hamas strike on Israel and the devastating counter attack cannot be compared under any circumstances. Efforts to compare the two issues is more like comparing apples and oranges, though mutually Tamils and Sinhalese have so many commonalities having intermingled throughout history like the Arabs and Jews.

It is no doubt Jews are a people that suffered persecution throughout known history under Assyrians, Babylonians to Romans and so forth. Such persecution includes expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain 1492. So what Hitler and the Germans did was to take the historic process to another extreme.

Yet to blame the Palestinians and treat them like animals and to simply butcher them for the latest uprising by Hamas for all the humiliations and suffering they have been going through non-stop since Naqba in1948, from the time of the creation of Israel is to allow the creators of the problem, including the UK, USA and United Nations to wash all their sins on the true other victims of this conflict, the Palestinians.

It would be pertinent to mention that Israel in spite of having one of the world’s best fighting armed forces with 100 percent backing from the West cannot totally eradicate Hamas the way Sri Lanka dealt with the LTTE.

The circumstances under which the LTTE launched a large-scale offensive in Aug 2006 and its objectives had been very much different from that of Hamas. The LTTE really believed that it could have defeated the Sri Lankan military in the north by cutting off the sea supply route from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai and simultaneously overrunning the Kilali-Muhamalai-Nagarkovil forward defence line (FDL). The total collapse of the FDL could have allowed the LTTE to eradicate isolated fighting formations trapped north of the FDL. But, in the case of the Gaza war, the Hamas strike was meant to provoke Israel to unleash a massive unbridled counter attack that caused maximum losses on the civilians. As Hamas expected the Israeli counter attack has triggered massive protests in the West against their leaders. They have been accused of encouraging violence against Palestine. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other US allies are under heavy pressure from Muslims and other horrified communities’ world over to take a stand against the US.

A Western lifeline for LTTE

UK Premier Rishi Sunak pledged unequivocal support for Israel before flying to the Jewish State where he reiterated British commitment. Sunak followed US President Joe Biden, the first foreign leader to visit Tel Aviv amidst indiscriminate attacks on Gaza. At the time this comment was written on Oct 22, the international media reported the possibility of French President Emmanuel Macron also undertaking a visit to Tel Aviv. Canada, too, declared support for Israel. Their declaration of support for Israel didn’t surprise anyone.

Against the backdrop of various interested parties comparing the Vanni situation and the developing regional crisis with devastating global implications, it would be pertinent to examine the Western response to the eelam war.

Western powers intervened on behalf of the LTTE facing annihilation in the hands of the Sri Lankan military. By late Feb 2009, the LTTE had taken such a beating on the Vanni front, its command and control structures were in tatters. Responding to LTTE’s pleas for help backed by demonstrations organised by Tamil Diaspora in Europe and Canada, the then British and French Foreign Ministers, David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner arrived in Colombo in late April 2009. They demanded an immediate halt to offensive action. They wanted to visit Prabhakaran. The combined British – French move backed by the US was meant to save Prabhakaran. Later a diplomatic cable originating from the US mission in London disclosed Miliband’s intervention was due to domestic political compulsions. Interested parties also speculated about a US role in a possible bid to evacuate Prabhakaran but Sri Lanka insisted that the offensive could be brought to an end only if Prabhakaran surrendered.

In May-June 1987 when the SLA engaged in ‘Operation Liberation’ and advanced on Prabhakaran’s Vadamaratchchi base, India intervened. Having forced JRJ to call off the first Brigade-level offensive, Indian Mi-17s landed in Jaffna on July 24 to evacuate Prabhakaran, his wife and the two children along with several other LTTE cadres. This happened five days before the signing of the Indo-Lanka accord in Colombo that paved the way for the deployment of the Indian Army (July 1987-March 1990).

Had India allowed Sri Lanka to finish off the LTTE, it could have avoided a disastrous war here. Thousands of lives could have been saved if India didn’t play politics with the Sri Lanka issue. New Delhi paid a very heavy price and over a year after its pull out the LTTE assassinated wartime Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi during a general election campaign in May 1991.

Let us get back to the Western effort to rescue Prabhakaran, the way India did in July 1987. The Western objective was the same though the tactics and circumstances were different. The UK and France with the blessings of the UN and the US tried to save Prabhakaran in late April 2009 to fight another day.

India-Israel relations

Although Indian Premier Narendra Modi won’t fly to Tel Aviv to reiterate their support for Israel, New Delhi would be extremely cautious in addressing the issue. India cannot jeopardise her growing relationship with Israel, a key weapons and technology supplier over the years though in the 80s New Delhi strongly opposed Israeli presence in Sri Lanka. The Jewish state is one of the few countries which backed Sri Lanka throughout the war against separatist Tamil terrorism. A range of Israeli arms, ammunition and equipment made Sri Lanka’s triumph over terrorism possible.

Since India joined the US-led club, New Delhi has received a massive boost to her overall military capacity thanks to Israel and New Delhi would do nothing to upset her relationship with the Jewish State whose continuing support is of critical importance, especially against the backdrop of Russia-Ukraine conflict. The acquisition of Pegasus spyware has overnight changed India’s capabilities. That is the undeniable truth. India being one of the four members of ‘Quad’ that included US, Australia and Japan, is now in a strategic relationship with Israel. Massive Israeli weapons sales have boosted the Indian military facing China and Pakistan.

In India, thousands of people demonstrated in many cities in support of Palestine experiencing an escalation of violence perpetrated by Israel. In Mumbai, Kerala and Lahore, demonstrators expressed their solidarity with the Palestinian people and called for an end to the Israeli occupation and blockade of Gaza.

But, on the other hand, Hamas, in spite of overall Israeli prowess and strategic assets available, appeared to have achieved 100 percent surprise as Israel did nothing until large scale infiltration at an unprecedented level took place right under their nose. The Hamas action appeared to have united the people world over against the US-led grouping and taken the heat off Russia engaged in a difficult war in Ukraine.

A considered move

Perhaps one of the most significant decisions taken by Sri Lanka as the LTTE deteriorated on the Vanni east front was to invite India to deploy a fully-fledged medical team close to a point where the wounded were brought in by sea. Sri Lanka made the request several weeks after the military brought Kilinochchi under its control. It would be pertinent to mention that Kilinochchi functioned as their main administrative centre after the military regained Jaffna in late 1995. The loss of Kilinochchi in the first week of January 2009 quite clearly stunned the LTTE, Tamil Diaspora as well as those foreign powers confident of the group’s battlefield prowess. The government moved quickly to bring in an Indian medical team amidst accusations that the war wounded were being deprived of treatment. The team consisted of 62 personnel. India set up a medical facility at Pulmoddai, north of Trincomalee.

Sri Lanka went out of its way to treat those who had been evacuated from Puthumathalan to Pulmoddai. The writer had been one of the few journalists taken to the Puthumathalan seas by the Navy to witness the evacuation of the wounded by the ICRC and then transferred in a ship to Pulmoddai. This was in late April 2009. Subsequent to the visit to the Puthumathalan seas and Navy deployment at Chalai, the writer had an opportunity to meet the Indian medical team at Pulmoddai.

After the war, the Indian High Commission declared that their Pulmoddai facility treated over 3,000 war wounded and soon after the war ended the medical mission moved to Zone 1 of Menik Farm displaced persons camp. India pulled out its team from Menik Farm at the end of August, 2009 after having treated over 25,000 displaced persons. Sri Lanka opened a sea route between Puthumathalan and Pulmoddai in early 2009, soon after the closure of the overland route to and from the LTTE held area. The move underscored the government’s determination to assist the civilian population.

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka never made a real effort to set the record straight. Successive governments conveniently failed to place all available information before the international community. Any other country engaged in such a huge military operation would have second thoughts in giving foreigners direct access to the war wounded. But, Sri Lanka did.

Sri Lanka’s continued failure to mount a strong defence at the Geneva based Human Rights Council is a mystery. The Yahapalana government betrayed the war winning military by co-sponsoring an accountability resolution against the country. That was on Oct 01, 2015.

Until the very end, Sri Lanka allowed the World Food Programme (WFP) under the protection of the ICRC to move essential supplies to those living in the rapidly shrinking Vanni territory under the LTTE’s control. Once the overland route had to be closed, essential items and medicine were despatched in ships to Puthumathalan. The world shouldn’t forget that selected members of the Colombo-based diplomatic community were given real time drone footage of the Army breaking through the LTTE positions to facilitate a massive rescue operation. Have you ever heard of an Army accused of perpetrating genocide breaking enemy line for those trapped within to escape and take refuge within the territory under its control?

Israel fought the first Gaza war (Dec 27 2008-18 January 2009) against Hamas in the wake of heavy rocket attacks on its territory. It was the first large-scale invasion of Palestinian territory after Hamas took over Gaza from Fatah in 2007. The Israelis called the offensive ‘Cast Lead.’ Regardless of losses suffered, Hamas retained its command and control structure and was back in action soon. The possibility of Israel achieving victory over Hamas appeared remote and unrealistic. However, the Sri Lanka military during Dec 2008-January 2009 delivered a knockout blow to the LTTE. By the end of January 2009, the LTTE’s command and control structures were gone. A massive naval cordon involving a range of vessels, spearheaded by Fast Attack Craft (FACs) blocked sea escape route while Air Force was on high alert to intervene in case an attempt was made to evacuate Velupillai Prabhakaran, his family and top commanders from the battlefield. In a bid to reduce reaction time, the Air Force shifted a pair of jets from Katunayake air base to China Bay. The rest is history.

Although Israel claimed victory in the first Gaza war, Hamas was soon back in action. According to international media reports, Hamas fired over 200 rockets and dozens of mortar rounds at Israel during the second week of Nov 2012. Tel Aviv was hit for the first time since 1991 Gulf war when Iraqi Scud missiles landed therein. Israel launched ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’ to neutralize the threat but never extended the operation to a ground incursion.

In July 2014, Israel carried out ‘Operation Protective Edge’ which included a minor ground incursion –just a few kms into Gaza. This particular operation was conducted in the wake of breaking up of Hamas association with Egypt over the former’s alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood which the then Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi considered a threat to him. The issue prompted Egypt to close down smuggling tunnels from Egypt to Gaza, one of the major revenue sources for Hamas. The two-week long operation obviously didn’t cause serious damage to Hamas. Over the past several years, Hamas clearly succeeded in building up a massive arsenal that overwhelmed the much touted Iron Dome-a highly mobile air defence system jointly developed by the US and Israel. The latest Hamas attack proved that terrorism cannot be defeated by air and naval bombardments and availability of high tech arms, ammunition and equipment. Ground forces had to go the whole hog whatever the consequences.

The Sri Lanka military achieved irrevocable victory in a sustained campaign in the East (Aug 2006-June 2007) and North/Vanni (March 2007-May 2009) but our corrupt and utterly useless political party system never built on the military’s success. Today war winning Sri Lanka is a bankrupt country dependent on Western tool IMF and tied to the Washington headquartered lending body having obtained a USD 2.9 bn bailout package. The IMF suspended the programme recently to pressure the government to end its corrupt ways and means and to take tangible measures to meet projected revenue targets.