Criticism of the well documented atrocities committed by Israel towards the Palestinians, most recently in Gaza
early this year, is often greeted by a chorus of 'whataboutism' from the Israeli state's apologists. "You complain about Gaza, but what about Sri Lanka / what about Burma / what about ...." and so on.
'Whataboutism', as I understand it, was a propaganda tactic pioneered by the Soviet Union. You'd challenge a Kremlin official with the abuses carried out by the Red Army in Afghanistan, for example, and he'd pause for a moment, shuffle uncomfortably, and then say..."what about what the Americans are doing in Nicaragua?"
Its instructive that Israel, always keen to portray itself as a vibrant liberal democracy, uses the same propaganda tactics to divert attention from its abuses as one of the great dictatorial meat-grinders of the 20th century: the USSR.
When the alleged inconsistency of people talking less about Sri Lanka than they do about the assault on Gaza is raised, you get the strong sense that a form of consistency these people would be happy to see is us shutting up about both Israel and Sri Lanka, rather than talking about both. The main thing is that we shut up about Israel. The argument that Israel is the beleaguered peace-seeker, beset on all sides by demented brown savages, is one the Zionists are well on the way to losing in the Western world, and this is a huge inconvenience for them which they will try anything to get around. Hence, 'whataboutism'.
But how to answer this charge of inconsistency? Well, to begin with, it ought to be obvious that the main reason we need to focus on Israel-Palestine is because of our own responsibilities. Britain offers strong backing for Israeli atrocities, for example as I described here
in the case of the Lebanon war of 2006. We're collectively responsible for what our government does whether we voted for it or not, campaigned against it or not, so by simple extention we bear a share of collective guilt for the plight of the Palestinians. That's the overriding reason for our involvement. We are not spectators. We are involved.
Another reason we need to campaign especially hard where Israel is concerned is that there's a massive amount of propaganda and disinformation to be dismantled around that issue before its even properly understood. Israel is served by a vast and well-funded PR operation in support of its crimes: PR that's both state-organised and freelance. So you can't just let that pass unchallenged.
A third reason Israel demands special focus is that its repression of the Palestinians fits in to a much broader picture. Western backing of Israel is a component part of our general, harmful influence over the Middle East through autocratic client/allied governments in the region. This (1) results in widespread and severe injustice and repression, and (2) consequentially feeds anger and resentment that can boil over into conflict which affects both the people of the region and us in the West. When you factor in things like the invasion of Iraq, the danger of an attack on Iran, and the continued threat of terrorist reactions to our aggression towards the Middle East in general and the plight of the Palestinians in particular, then the importance of Israel as a major part of that broader picture becomes clear. Challenging Israeli crimes should always come as part of a broader critique of the West's bloody, corrupt and extremely dangerous approach to the Middle East as a whole. Bottom line: the importance of Israel-Palestine is not limited to events within former mandate Palestine.
Juan Cole, history professor at the University of Michigan, today points out a fourth element that distinguishes the plight of the Palestinians from the plight of the Tamils:
"[Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin] Netanyahu said [after yesterday's meeting with Barack Obama that] he did not want to rule the Palestinians. That is an evasion. If he won't give them a state, then they remain citizens of no state and inevitably Israel "rules" them in the sense of making the important decisions about how they live their lives. The Likud Party doesn't want the Palestinians, just their land and resources. That demand is actually what makes the Palestinian issue different and more horrific than other ethnic-national problems in the world. Sri Lanka, which claims to have just defeated the Tamil Tigers, was fighting to keep the minority Tamils (who speak a Dravidian language and are typically Hindus) as citizens of Sri Lanka, which is dominated by Sinhalese-speaking Buddhists. (The conflict is also in part about the wealthier Tamils wanting more autonomy from the poorer Sinhalese, and about a Marxist guerrilla group ironically representing this minority bourgeois demand; i.e. it isn't just ethno-religious. ) As brutal as the Sri Lankan campaign was, it does not leave the Tamils at the end of the day without basic rights of citizenship in a state, which is the condition of the Palestinians- - who are therefore the most oppressed people in the world."
So there's many good reasons for prioritising the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in our campaigning.
However, on the basis that we concern ourselves primarily with the things we're responsible for, you could argue that the British left should have engaged a bit more with what's been happening in Sri Lanka recently (I definitely include myself in this). Britain does after all help arm the Sri Lankan government.
This from Mark Curtis' report for Saferworld on UK arms exports:
"The Government has failed to effectively implement its own arms export criteria bypersistently permitting the export of arms when there is the risk that they may be used torepress human rights, for example to Colombia,Nepal,Russia and Sri Lanka"
"In 2006, open licences were granted to a variety of countries with poor human rightsrecords, such as Egypt, Indonesia,Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Turkey. Open licences toNigeria included armoured vehicles, and components for combat helicopters wereauthorised for export to Sri Lanka."
"In 2005 open licences for components for combat aircraft were issued to India, Pakistan,Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Turkey"
According to a recent article by Matt Foot:
"...between 2006 and 2008, £12 million worth of British arms were sold to Sri Lanka. This included components for military aircraft and machine guns"
Foot also describes Britain's historic role in the conflict, so his article's well worth reading.
The Saferworld report says that "the UK has licensed more than £110m of military equipment to Israel under Labour" (i.e. in the 9 years between 97 and 06 when the report was published). That's an average of £12m a year, twice as much as the yearly average sold to Sri Lanka in 06-08 but still, the amount sold to Sri Lanka is certainly not insignificant.
So while its clearly important for us to prioritise Israel-Palestine in our activism - and to recognise 'whataboutism' for the propaganda tactic that it is - I for my part at least think I could have said and done something more about Sri Lanka. And that's probably true of the broader left as well.
Labels: Activism, British Foreign Policy, Israel/Palestine, Sri Lanka