Guerrilla war: Israel and Sri Lanka
This thoughtful piece is by a friend, DJ Mitchell. He’s spent considerable time in Sri Lanka volunteering with Sarvodaya, a peace organization working to end the vicious, bloody Sri Lanka civil war. Indeed, one of the insurgent groups, the Tamil Tigers, is considered among the best-trained, most ruthless guerrilla groups on the planet.
DJ has been in war zones there. His post is long, and worth reading. He believes the history of guerrilla war shows the US and Israel are pursuing a policy doomed to fail.
Guerrilla war. It’s said that’s how we won our war of independence, that an outside power can never overcome a determined populace. The Vietnamese would no doubt agree. Indeed, while there are examples of guerilla action during WWII, modern guerrilla warfare would seem to date from Vietnam in the 1950s.
Fifty years of guerrilla wars, and we should ask ourselves how much we have learned– as individuals, as a nation, as a planet. The answer is, not much.
For those of us who have studied such wars, there are certain truths that are incontrovertible:
1) An ethnic war cannot be “won,” except by exterminating one of the groups involved.
2) Guerrilla insurgencies are extremely difficult for governments to win, because the inevitable “cycle of violence” benefits the guerillas.
As to the first, as long as the ethnicities exist, every child born in a time of war is a soldier. As long as the two sides continue to have babies, there is a never-ending supply of cannon fodder. Such a war can only be won through genocide– or stopped by a peace settlement.
The second is more difficult to grasp, but I saw it repeatedly in Sri Lanka: the guerrillas attack. The government reacts violently– causing civilian casualties and hardships on the other side. The civilians increase their support for the guerrillas. Indeed, anytime support for the guerrillas began to wain, they would attack the government, knowing full well that the ensuing backlash would generate more support.
We can see the same cycle of violence in Israel: the Palestinian terrorist groups attack Israel (whether the targets are military or civilian is unimportant for the cycle to begin). Israel responds by targeting Palestinian communities. They may target Hamas leaders, but in every case there are civilian casualties. And, counterintuitively, the Israeli attacks actually increase the strength of the terrorist groups, because the Palestinian people see a need for the terrorist groups to fight for them.
This weekend, Israel demanded that the terrorist groups disarm before the peace process moves forward. In exchange, they offer nothing except the possibility of forward movement in the process. Now, I do not support terrorism in any way, shape, or form. But I am a realist. Such a demand is absurd. The terrorist groups might well respond, “We will disarm when you do.” Which of course Israel will not do. And neither will the terrorists. It’s not in their best interest, and the government of Israel, which is more savvy than most, must know this. Such a demand by Israel is quite simply a roadblock in the peace process.
The question in Israel is the same as the question was in Sri Lanka: If repeated attacks on the terrorists have only strengthened the terrorists, why does the government continue to do it? Or, more to the point, who in Israel benefits from the cycle of violence? Because you can be certain someone does. In Sri Lanka, it was the right-wing Buddhists who sought to unite all Buddhists and exclude other religions from the political process. Even today, those groups oppose the peace process. But thanks to a widespread grassroots movement, along with international pressure, the government has taken a course of peace rather than continued violence.
I haven’t studied Israel, so I can’t say who it is in Israel that benefits from the violence. But I can guarantee that someone does, because otherwise the cycle of violence would not continue.
But I *can* make concrete suggestions as to how such a cycle can be ended, because we did it in Sri Lanka. (“We” means all of us who worked in the peace movement, especially the dedicated Sri Lankans.)
Violence will continue as long as extremists speak more loudly than moderates. Violence promotes extremism. Ultimately it is the government that has the power to continue or halt the cycle of violence– thus the government must be wrested from extremism.
This is not easy. Typically, in a time of war, extremist arguments dominate the press, and moderate arguments are ridiculed. Those who promote peace are called traitors. (Peace activists in America will no doubt relate.)
Only by opening up the dialog can extremism be countered. And this can only be done through a grassroots popular movement. In Sri Lanka, it took years to build such a movement. In 1998, after several years of peacework, 150,000 people gathered in the capital to meditate for peace. Sri Lankan TV ignored it. (So did international TV.) But people got the message. By 2001, almost a million people gathered for peace. And, by year-end, a cease-fire was in place and (surprisingly?) politicians on both sides who had been saying that peace was impossible suddenly stepped forward to take credit for the change.
The difficulty is, of course, that starting a grassroots peace movement is dangerous. People died in Sri Lanka trying— some at the hands of the government, others killed by the rebels. The people in charge don’t want peace. (By this I mean that, while individual politicians may indeed want peace, as I believe Chandrika did when she was elected president of Sri Lanka in 1994, the political climate and the people who hold the political clout are such that movement toward peace is a political impossibility.)
International pressure on both sides also helps, though by itself it is insufficient to bring change. There must be a popular movement among the people insisting that continued violence is absurd.
In Israel, there are people on both sides who devoutly seek peace. Some of them have died, both at the hands of the government and at the hands of the Palestinian terrorist groups. But the size of the movement is not yet sufficient to tip the balance of the national dialog. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has promised Israel “security first”– Israel need not commit to peace while there is any remaining threat from the Palestinians. Whether intentionally or not (and I would argue that the Bush administration is far less savvy than the government of Israel), Bush has guaranteed that the cycle of violence will continue.
Now, we here in America don’t live in Israel, and few if any Americans are affected by the civil war going on there. Personally, I am appalled for religious and spiritual reasons, but the fact is, whether or not Bush understands guerilla war in Israel affects me little on the material plane.
But when he has demonstrated so little understanding about Palestine, it troubles me that this is the man in charge of American participation in Iraq, where the guerilla war is only just beginning. Consider: a group of renegade Iraqis attacks U.S. forces in May. The U.S. responds with violence. Civilians die. By June, the number of attacks has increased. So has the U.S. response. More sweeps through “hostile” neighborhoods do not reduce the frequency of the attacks– indeed, they have increased from a couple a week to dozens per week. Coincidence? I doubt it. This is the cycle of violence in action.
Now, our government would have us believe that these are just renegade Saddam supporters who can easily be found and disarmed. We should have serious doubts about that. For one thing, the attacks in the British zone are in an area that has always been hostile to Saddam. For another, in a tape aired yesterday on Arab TV, a Muslim cleric in Baghdad claims Al Queda is responsible, and that if Saddam claims his people are doing it, he’s lying.
We like to believe that anyone in Iraq who hates Americans is a Saddam loyalist. Not true. Our boot print on the Arab world has been heavy and lingering, starting just about the time the British gave up control of the region. There are plenty of people who hate us, and not all for the same reasons. Nor do they all like each other. (When– not if– the repressive, American-supported Saudi regime falls, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Saudi people hate us too. Though I’m sure when the time comes, we’ll be shocked at their ingratitude.)
This much is certain: regardless of the internal politics, what was true in 1776 remains true today. An outside power cannot overcome a determined populace. And the more heavily that outside power tries to exert its will, the more determined that populace will become.