Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gaza, Sri Lanka, and 'whataboutism'

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.

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Blogger hi0u91e9 said...

what about diego garcia? most people i speak to haven't even heard of the place

Wednesday, May 20, 2009 9:13:00 PM  
Blogger Baileys said...

The Chagos Islanders are indeed just as necessary to mention as the Palestinians and the Sri Lankans. But David, I think, was more focused on the 'whataboutism'.
Which for me is even viler for it's reducing of human suffering into quantitative rationalising. It's as if you have to condone or let go of one issue just because some other issue is (in quantity) far worse. And that is so not the case.

Why can't I, as a human being, feel and act towards another human beings suffering without having quantifiable measurements stand in the way? Am I immoral or following a false conscience because I haven't measured which country has had more dead people or a longer time line of suffering? I hope not.

And now I've gone into a frenzy, when the above comment was quite mild and needed none of my caterwauling :-)

Nice one David.

Thursday, May 21, 2009 1:01:00 PM  
Blogger hi0u91e9 said...


my comment wasn't in anyway a criticism of David. I am in total agreement about the moral depravity of pointing in another direction to hide your crimes.

However it was meant to be a general criticism of the British left (consonant with David's final point about Sri Lanka) that they have not done nearly enough to raise awareness on the Chagos Islands. This isn't an issue of British support for racist imperialist crimes; this is a case of direct ethnic cleansing by the British government which is being carried on right up to the present. It is pretty remarkable that this story has almost been buried. about a year ago i actually did a guardian search of "Diego Garcia" and "Chagos Islands" and there were very few entries, and most of them were about extraordinary rendition. i did this on the eve of the Lords decision which once again denied their right of return.

Friday, May 22, 2009 3:43:00 PM  
Blogger hi0u91e9 said...

to be more precise

IF the charge was levelled at the British left that they have devoted far more of its attention to israel and palestine than the chagossians by zionist groups for example--the charge itself is an immoral one, given what it is attempting to do. however i fear, lamentably, it is one that sticks.

of course part of the reason is that israeli state/supporters bring so much attention on themselves thru their elaborate (but now largely failing) propaganda campaigns.

The british government has sought to do its deeds secretly--like for example passing the royal prerogative denying the chagossians right of return on an election day etc. in this it has undeniably been successful. and that brings shame on all of us.

Friday, May 22, 2009 3:55:00 PM  
Blogger Baileys said...


Sorry about my rather too hotheaded comment. It wasn't really aimed at you.

The british government does a lot to a lot of people... Iraq (Blair), Palestine (Balfour), and Diego Garcia, to name a few...

And it's near impossible to actually 'choose'...

But alas, the Palestinians and Iraqis are under the shadow of constant death, starvation, and torture, while the momentum to counter all this (as witnessed in last years demonstrations and protests, and also with all the public demands for the punishment of war criminals such as GWB)is gaining and there could be direct and current results because of this... It would be a shame not to use it...

Monday, June 08, 2009 5:05:00 PM  

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