Geopolitics

Saying Hoorah to the PLO and seeking favours from the Jews: Sri Lanka’s duplicity with the State of Israel during the Civil War
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 13 Oct , 2023

Former Sri Lankan Navy Commander examining a Gabriel missile purchased from Israel

Both Sri Lanka and Israel entered the Westphalian sense of nation-state epoch in 1948, but the relationship between the two states remained fragile from the very beginning. The father of the nation and the first premier of Ceylon D.S Senanayake was among the first world leaders to recognize the independent status of the State of Israel, but the subsequent political upheavals that took place in Sri Lanka weakened the budding stage of Israeli-Sri Lanka relations. In particular, Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s hobnobbing with the Arab world as a champion for promoting non-aligned movement further deteriorated the Israeli-Sri Lankan relations. Anti-colonial, anti-capitalist slogans were gleefully welcomed in the Non-Aligned platform with a special emphasis on the national liberation movements in which the Palestinian cause was highlighted often. In May 1970, Ceylon severed diplomatic relations with Israel at the instruction of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, arguing that Israel had violated the UN Security Council Resolution 242 and it was a welcome gesture for the Palestinian Liberation Organization to strengthen their ties with Colombo. Amidst all these diplomatic chaos, Israeli envoy in Colombo, Mr. Yitzhak Navon made a stir by stating.

“There is no doubt that the government of Ceylon would not look kindly upon Israel encouraging a visit of the Tamil Tigers of Eelam, whose aim is to wage war against the Ceylonese government. Similarly, we do not look kindly upon members of terrorist organizations being allowed to enter and organize in Ceylon, supported by Muslims, when they continuously proclaim their goal of annihilating the State of Israel.”

The Israeli’s stance in their national defence was a dominant feature in their foreign relations , which was unreciprocated from Mrs. Bandarainayke’s government. On the contrary, she welcomed a delegation led by PLO leaders such as Abu Asham, Abu Bashar and Abu Jawed in 1975, was followed by opening the Palestinian embassy in Colombo. Despite the sympathetic sentiments held by Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government to the cause the Palestinian liberation, PLO had some other dubious plans which were not known to Sri Lankan government. PLO secretly extended its military support in training the Tamil separatist youth since the mid 70’s and this was a process coordinated by a Tamil Marxist named Eliyathambi Rathna Sabapathi. After Rathna Sabapathi founded EROS ( Elam Revolutionary Organization of Students ) in London, his acolytes built a rapport with the PLO delegate in the UK, who eventually promised the Tamil separatists to provide military training from Yasar Arfat’s FATTAH. In the meantime, POL managed to play a diplomatic tango with Mrs. Bandaraniake’s government by initiating the Palestine Solidarity Movement in Sri Lanka under the leadership of a young Sri Lankan Parliamentarian named Mahinda Rajapaksa.  When Mrs Banadaranaike realized the deceitful nature of PLO, she wrote a letter to Yasar Arfat to stop providing military support to the Tamil separatists, but Arafat ignored the request as he believed the training Tamil rebels fighting for a separate state would be a blessing in disguise for the future Palestinian state. 

It may be an irony of nature, but Sri Lanka finally had to turn to the State of Israel for military and technical support to confront the Tamil separatist guerrilla movement in the 1980s. When J.R. Jayewardene’s government had no external support to counter Tamil terrorism, Israel came to support the Sri Lankan government, which paved the path to open Israel’s bureau attached to the US embassy in Colombo. Some analysts have alleged that the terrorist attack carried out by EROS in 1984 January at Ceylon Oberoi hotel in Colombo targeted Israeli agent Matani who resided in the hotel. The negotiation held between President J.R Jayewardene’s son Ravi Jayawardene and Israeli premier Yitzhak Shamir in 1985 was crucial, where Israel agreed to provide technical assistance in combating terrorism. David Matani, the assistant director of the Asian division of Israel’s Foreign Ministry who was involved in the negotiations, came to Colombo in April 1984 to organize the interest section. According to Sri Lankan writer Malith Jayathilake, Mr Gamini Dissanayake one of the most powerful Cabinet ministers under J.R Jayawardene sought advice from Israelis to intensify the Mahaweli agricultural settlements in the North and East, which intended was exact resemblance of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

When Israel began to cement its diplomatic presence in Colombo, it remained consistency silent about the Tamil community’s struggle for self-determination. In 1986 April, on the eve of the establishment of Israeli section in Colombo, Israeli representative in Colombo stated.

“It is not our aim at this stage to establish relations with the Tamils, except for those who recognize the government in Colombo. Our goal, which at this moment seems entirely achievable, is the renewal of diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka”.

Those narrow interests in dealing with Sri Lanka turned out to be rather limited, as Sri Lanka alone decided when and how frequently relations would be disconnected or re-established. Unlike Israel, which did not establish ties with the Tamils, Sri Lanka hosted Fatah in Colombo, recognized the organization as the representative of the Palestinian people, made sure to express its support for the Palestinians in the UN, and forged close ties with Palestinian officers. Sri Lankan political leaders tended to dismantle Israeli relations based on their populist appeal to the local Muslim community in Sri Lanka. For instance, the activities of the Palestinian Solidarity Movement in Sri Lanka were always nourished under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regular support, who later used it as a political shield during the Presidential elections in 2005 to secure the Muslim vote bank. However, he had no mortifying feelings in reaching Israel for military assistance in crushing the LTTE terrorism in the fourth Eliam War. Over the years, the Sri Lankan government purchased many weapons from Israel: “ Gabriel anti-ship missiles, Drones, Dovra ships and large quantities of ammunitions. In particular, when the Sri Lankan government reached the nadir in its military debacles before the LTTE in the year 2000, Israel was among the few states that agreed to sell arms and other military equipment to Colombo. Even after acquiring all the relevant military support from Israel in the war against the Tamil separatist movement led by the LTTE, the Sri Lankan government made no significant changes in its anti-Israeli attitude in the international arena and extending continuous support to the PLO activities, the very organization that provided armed training to Tamil separatist groups to fight against the Sri Lankan government. 

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Punsara Amarasinghe

is a post-doctoral researcher affliated to the Institute of Law, Politics and Development at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa.

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