There are many parallels between Sri Lanka's decades-long fight against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan (LTTE), more commonly known as the "Tamil Tigers," and Israel's decades-long fight against the Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya, more commonly known as Hamas. And while Hamas may be now stronger than ever, the Tamil Tigers are only a memory, thanks to the government of Mahindra Rajapaksa [raa·juh·paak·suh], who ended Sri Lanka's 40-year war against the terror organization by killing its leaders and destroying its war-making infrastructure. Israel should take a page from the Rajapaksa playbook and do the same to Hamas.
The LTTE was founded in 1976 when Velupillai Prabhakaran took control of the Tamil New Tigers (TNT) and renamed it. Soon he transformed the group from a clandestine terrorist organization into a sprawling mini-state, complete with a navy, air force, and infantry divisions.
Hamas also grew from a clandestine organization that emerged from the 1987 Intifada protests into a sprawling mini-state with a massive stockpile of Iranian and homemade weapons.
French counterterrorism analyst Xavier Raufer coined the term "gray area phenomenon" to denote a middle ground between covert, anti-state terror organizations and nation states that control their own citizens through terror. Like a nation state, a gray area group controls territory, provides services, and functions in many ways as a nation state. Both the LTTE and Hamas fit neatly into this category, and both benefitted from the services provided such as schools and orphanages, where young minds are twisted and child soldiers are forged.
The LTTE is the only non-Islamic group to conduct a sustained campaign of suicide bombings, beginning coincidentally in 1987, the year Hamas was founded. However, as Paul Moorcraft shows in his book, Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers (2012), Prabhakaran "inspired a cult of suicide as a form of martyrdom for the cause which they described as punitha yutham (pure/holy war)."
Over a 22-year period, the LTTE conducted hundreds of suicide attacks using a variety of methods, including trucks, boats, and airplanes. According to Rohan Gunaratna, the LTTE sent members to the Beka'a Valley in Lebanon and "translated many of the training manuals of the Middle Eastern terrorist groups into the Tamil language." Moorcraft explains that the LTTE was instrumental in bringing about "a series of innovations to improve the suicide jackets" that Gunaratna credits the LTTE with inventing. It is "essentially a denim vest equipped with explosives," Gunaratna explains, adding that, "The idea for this suicide device came from the jacket that the Tamil Tigers generally wore." Hamas adopted the same design.
Hamas began conducting suicide attacks against Israelis in 1993, and soon became the most prolific of the many Palestinian terrorist groups to do so.
Both the LTTE and Hamas have received assistance from nation states. In February 2000, Gunaratna claimed that the LTTE "operates in 46 countries. In other countries, it has either opened offices, mostly in western democracies, or it has clandestine cells." For a time, India was an LTTE sympathizer, due to the large Tamil population in the south. India's friendly relations with the Soviet Union and Sri Lanka's with the West added a Cold War element to the conflict, but warming relations between India and Sri Lanka changed that. From 1987 to 1990, 100,000 Indian peacekeeping forces were in northern Sri Lanka to deter violence. In 1991, a female LTTE suicide bomber killed Rajiv Gandhi in the Tamil Nadu region of India as he was campaigning for reelection as Prime Minister, an office he assumed after his mother, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated.
Hamas openly receives support from Iran, Turkey, and Qatar. It receives aid and comfort from any nation that has outlawed its "military wing" but not its "charitable and political wings."
Decades of Appeasement
Successive governments of Sri Lanka spent decades appeasing and negotiating with the LTTE. The pattern was the same: LTTE violence led to peace talks, which inevitably stalled when Sri Lanka did not give over the northern third of the island nation to the Tamils for a Tamil nation state, followed by more LTTE violence, and then Sri Lankan retaliation, and so on.
The pattern changed when Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected president in 2005. Though he campaigned as a peace maker, events forced him to take a different approach. The first thing he did upon winning the election was to make his brother Gotabaya the Secretary of Defense. Gotabaya selected Sarath Fonseka to command the military and together they invested in Sri Lanka's fighting capabilities, increased military spending, and developed counterinsurgency strategies. But they also bowed to pressure from the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, a "peace-processing" diplomatic mission led by Norway that had been trying to enforce a "permanent ceasefire" since 2002.
General Fonseka complained that the LTTE used the ceasefire to restock supplies and plan future attacks. And the attacks continued, though the LTTE claimed that they were conducted by independent, non-LTTE Tamils.
The Turning Point
Two events hardened the Rajapaksa brothers' resolve – an attempted assassination via suicide bomber on Fonseka in April 2006 in which he was seriously wounded, and the bombing of a bus in Kebithigollewa in June 2006, killing 60 civilians. The ceasefire was off, and the LTTE's days were numbered, though it took over two years of fighting before the final battle. 2007 and 2008 were particularly grim with increasing casualties on both sides.
When the final victory came in 2009 at the Battle of Puthukkudiyirippu, the Sri Lankan military outflanked and surrounded the LTTE, killed all of its top leaders and most of its elite fighters. On May 19, 2009, President Mahindra Rajapaksa announced to the nation that LTTE had been defeated.
Israel has spent decades appeasing and negotiating with its Palestinian enemies. It has entertained dozens of efforts by other countries to forge peace deals with Palestinians whose leaders wanted only a temporary truce to build up forces and plan for the next attack, the next Intifada. Burned out by the Oslo Syndrome, and frustrated by trading land and not getting peace in return, Israel's voters elected Benjamin Netanyahu again in December 2022. But it was the Hamas pogrom on October 7, 2023, that forced Israel's hand.
Resisting Calls for a Cease Fire
Israel could defeat Hamas in minutes if it cared as little for human life as its enemies do. Nevertheless, its battle to destroy Hamas in Gaza should not take long to complete, unless it bows to pressure to wage proportionate warfare and consents to more ceasefires. Sri Lanka also faced pressure from the "international community" which urged Columbo to reinstate a ceasefire, but the Rajapaksas understood how the LTTE used ceasefires in the past to resupply and plan future attacks, so they were having none of it. Ban Ki Moon, Secretary General of the UN at the time, wanted to send a fact-finding mission to the battleground. British Foreign Secretary David Milliband and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner also tried to broker a ceasefire. Gotabaya Rajapaksa told the foreign diplomats that they were being led astray by the LTTE propaganda, and the battle continued. Today's "peace-processors" are being led astray by Hamas propaganda. Believing casualty and death counts from the "Gaza Health Ministry" is like believing Baghdad Bob's reports in 2003 that there were no American tanks in Iraq. Many have been urging Jerusalem to halt the IDF campaign in Gaza almost from the moment it started. Joe Biden and his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, have been pushing Israel unsuccessfully to implement a 3-day ceasefire. They have, however, convinced Jerusalem to implement a "4-hour pause" each day for an unspecified period of time. It's hard to imagine the Rajapaksas acquiescing to such demands.
After Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed at the Anandapuram junction, Sri Lanka released a grisly photograph of him with bullet holes in his head, likely under the assumption that cults tend to dissipate when the cult leader dies. That tactic won't work with Hamas. After its founder and "spiritual leader," Ahmed Yassin, was killed in an Israeli strike on March 22, 2004, he was quickly replaced with Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi who was killed in an Israeli strike on April 17, 2004. Others have followed. Since Hamas is more than a cult, it will not be defeated by killing only the leaders. The infrastructure, middle-managers, recruiters, and financiers will also have to be either killed or forced to accept their defeat and face consequences.
Finally, at the Battle of Puthukkudiyirippu, the LTTE used the civilian Tamil population as human shields, refusing to let them flee the advancing Sri Lankan military. Similarly, Hamas is very proficient at using civilians, both Palestinian and Israeli, as human shields.
In the aftermath of their victory, the Rajapaksa brothers came under even more scrutiny from the U.N. but refused to cooperate with international investigations looking to substantiate rumors of war crimes perpetrated by the Sri Lankan military and the "unnecessary" civilian deaths. Once Hamas is totally defeated, Israel should do the same.
IPT Senior Fellow A.J. Caschetta is a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum where he is also a Ginsberg-Milstein fellow.
Copyright © 2023. Investigative Project on Terrorism. All rights reserved.