Why the conflicts in Gaza and Sri Lanka will continue

Damien Kingsbury
January 6, 2009

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The bases of insurgents may be destroyed, but their grievances demand real solutions.

AS SRI Lankan Government soldiers occupied the Tamil Tigers' stronghold of Kilinochchi, Israeli soldiers began to enter Gaza. One case represents a separatist movement in perhaps the final throes of a failed struggle for independence; the other the administration of a territory about to be pushed from power.

Despite their differences, there are striking similarities between the Sri Lankan and Gaza conflicts. It is these similarities that explain why Hamas and the Tamil Tigers have both come to the brink of destruction, yet why both conflicts will continue.

In Sri Lanka, a two-year military campaign against the Tamil Tigers has succeeded in dislodging them from their northern "capital". This followed the recent loss of other key Tamil Tiger strongholds, pushing the Tigers back into the scrubland of the "Vanni".

Following its election in 2006, Hamas has had an on-and-off truce with Israel, characterised by an economic blockade that has brought the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip to the brink of starvation. Fighting recently escalated following missile attacks on Israel by Hamas and three weeks of air strikes against Gaza by Israel.

In both cases, there is little doubt that current military objectives will be reached. The Tamil Tigers will be driven from the occupation of territory they have held since 2002 and large swathes for a decade more. In Gaza, it appears that Israel is intent on destroying Hamas' administrative capacity. In both cases, these are military goals only and fail to address long-term political objectives.

In large part, the conflicts that may end the administrative capacity of the Tamil Tigers and Hamas derive from the implacable opposition of these organisations to the forces now set to destroy them. Following the 2002 ceasefire, the Tamil Tigers briefly discussed the possibility of a negotiated settlement but, due to inflexibility around prior conditions for talks, quickly lost the opportunity to pursue a negotiated settlement to its claims. Similarly, while it entered into mediated talks with Israel, Hamas undermined success by building tunnels under the Israeli border, leading to Israeli attacks against the tunnels and a breakdown in relations. In both cases, hardliners won over moderates.

But the hardliners had persuasive arguments. Sri Lanka's various governments have lacked sincerity in following through with their promises for even a limited settlement to Tamil political claims. Israeli governments have similarly failed to allow progress on negotiations, largely by strangling the Gaza economy.

In both cases, the Sri Lankan and Israeli governments are also hostage to their own hardliners, who view genuine compromise as a recipe for political loss.

While significant elements of Sri Lankan and Israeli societies want peace, both governments are electorally vulnerable to claims of giving in to "terrorism" — that both the Tamil Tigers and Hamas are widely declared to be "terrorist" organisations further hinders meaningful dialogue. Yet both can claim to represent their constituencies. Hamas has the clearest mandate, having won a majority in the 2006 Palestinian elections, predominantly, although not exclusively, in Gaza. The Tamil Tigers have refused to participate in elections, claiming that war conditions preclude a meaningful vote, but they enjoy widespread support in Sri Lanka's north and east.

In both cases, too, these organisations represent the wishes of a disenfranchised minority. Their political legitimacy (in the eyes of their own constituencies) will count for little, however, if the strategic reality is that they lose their administrative capacity.

Removed from quasi-state status, both organisations can be expected to return to the hit-and-run tactics, especially against "soft" civilian targets, that earned them the "terrorist" tag in the first place.

While suffering serious military setbacks, Hamas and the Tamil Tigers are both likely to continue as movements capable of inflicting real damage. Military responses against them will only further feed into their support base, providing them with recruits into the foreseeable future.

But from positions of power, both Israel and Sri Lanka can find lasting solutions to these conflicts, including holding out the hope of peace by addressing the fundamental concerns of the people with whom they are now at war.

Israel will have to accept a genuine two-state outcome for the Palestinians, and allow the two parts of such a state — Gaza and the West Bank — meaningful access to each other. Jerusalem, as the site of much Israeli-Palestinian contest, will need to become an open city, owned by no single power and administered by all.

In Sri Lanka, the Colombo Government will have to genuinely devolve a high degree of political authority to its Tamil minority, if not as a separate state then at least as a genuinely autonomous and unified region.

The ruling parties in both Sri Lanka and Israel will have to overcome their own nationalist chauvinism — the sub-text of which is that as "chosen" people they have territorial primacy — and understand that others' claims to territory are as necessary to survival as their own.

Without such recognition, peace in either place will be impossible.

Associate Professor Damien Kingsbury is associate head (research) of the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University.