ETA/Spain and Hamas/Israel: Lessons for
by Rajan Philips
The pairings or the quotients in the title are meant to indicate that one
(i.e. ETA, Hamas and the LTTE) cannot be understood or change
without the other (i.e. Spain, Israel and Sri Lanka).
In Spain, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom)
the nearly fifty year old Basque separatist movement, has declared a
permanent ceasefire. The news prompted calls for the LTTE to
unilaterally declare a permanent ceasefire and give up its guns. .
In the Middle East, Hamas, the Palestinian organization that is
proscribed by the West as a terrorist group, won a convincing victory
in the January elections to the Palestinian Parliament. With 76 out of
132 seats, Hamas has formed a majority government that will cohabit
with President Mahmood Abbas of the rival PLO and Fatah groups. No
one appears to have suggested that the LTTE should join the
democratic process and should be allowed to contest elections to a
regional parliament in Northeast Sri Lanka.
We can draw useful lessons by comparing ETA/Spain, Hamas/Israel
and LTTE/Lanka, if we avoid superficial comparisons and keep in mind
the different contexts.
The Basques in Spain and the Tamils in Sri Lanka
ETA is the last survivor of the student rebellions that arose in Western
Europe in the 1960s, the most dramatic of which was the Paris
uprising of 1968 that led to the fall of Charles de Gaulle. The ETA is
perhaps the only one with ethno-nationalist inspiration and objectives
and that explains its longevity.
The Basque crisis in Spain had long predated the ETA, however, and
its origins go back to the establishment of the brutal dictatorship of
General Francisco Franco in 1937. Franco rode to power in the
Spanish civil war, survived the world war and ruled Spain with an iron
fist until his death in 1975.
The Basques bore all the heavy burdens of his dictatorship. He ruled
their region like an occupied territory, suppressed their language and
cultural rights and denied any kind of regional autonomy.
So the ETA emerged to fight an old battle but as part of a new political
manifestation - the political mobilization of university students whose
swelling numbers in spreading campuses after the war provided the
ideal hothouse for radical thinking and even more radical action.
ETA played its part in fighting Franco and its most spectacular
moment was the 1973 killing of Admiral Carrero Blanco, Franco's
intended successor. The death of Franco was the dawn of a new
Spain and an autonomous Basque region. The new constitution of
1978 devolved Spain into 17 regions, and 2 non-contiguous regions,
with directly elected authorities and different degrees of autonomy.
Affirming the "indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation", the constitution
enables the State to be "organized territorially into municipalities,
provinces and Autonomous Communities". The Basque Country, along
with Catalonia and Galicia, is recognized as a historic nationality and is
at the apex of the asymmetrically autonomous regions.
There are continuing debates around the centralist and decentralist
interpretations of the constitution but these are creative tensions and
the positive facts of life in a federal set up. A set up that takes away
the reason for the continuation of organizations like the ETA. Two
significant set backs also contributed to ETA's final enlightenment.
ETA's kidnapping and killing, in 1997, of a popular Basque municipal
politician, Miguel Angelo Blanco, enraged the whole country and six
million Spaniards poured onto the streets in protest triggering a
sustained pursuit of ETA by law enforcement agencies not only in
Spain but also France, where ETA had found sanctuaries thanks to
the ethno affinities between the Basque country and Southwest
The March 2004 Madrid bombing by Islamic fundamentalists was the
final writing on the wall for the ETA.
Interestingly, in making up its mind on a permanent ceasefire the ETA
took the advice of their older Irish cousins - the IRA and its political
arm, the Sinn Fein. The IRA has already renounced violence and has
turned in its arms which were among the main obstacles to
implementing Northern Ireland's power sharing agreement. But other
benefits of the peace process, security of life, economic growth, and
the dismantling of the hated British police structures in Northern
Ireland are becoming increasingly evident.
In comparison, Spain and the Basque country are streets ahead of the
Northern Ireland situation and Sinn Fein would have had no problem
convincing ETA that the prudent thing to do was to renounce violence
Who will take the onus of convincing the LTTE to make a similar
renunciation? There is no question that at some point the LTTE has to
renounce violence permanently and turn in its arms. But is Sri Lanka
in a situation comparable to Spain's 1978 constitutional change and
Northern Ireland's 1998 power sharing agreement? Sri Lanka's
constitution, although it is of the same vintage, is not at all possessed
of similar consensus or success.
The onus, it would seem, is on the Sri Lankan state to indicate at least
a willingness to make changes comparable to those in Spain and
Northern Ireland before demanding a virtual surrender by the LTTE.
The Hamas and the LTTE
This is not to let the LTTE off the hook, but to point to the new
challenges facing Hamas which is all the more appropriate now that
Canada has decided to add LTTE to its list of banned organizations
that already included the Hamas.
The Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections and its forming the new
Palestinian government has thrown up new challenges not only to
Hamas but also to Israel and the Western countries including the
'quartet' - the UN, USA, EU and Russia.
The West and the quartet cannot ignore a democratically elected
government but have indicated that they will withhold all financial aid
until Hamas renounces violence and accepts Israel's right to exist,
conditions that the PLO agreed to as part of the Oslo Accord.
Hamas came into being during the first intifada - the 1987 Palestinian
uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza -
operating on two fronts: social programs focusing on education, health
and religion, as well as violent attacks against Israel. Israel's prime
reason for reaching the Oslo agreement with the PLO then in exile was
to bring an end to the intifada.
Hamas was opposed to it from the beginning and did everything in its
power to provoke Israel against the Accord.
But now faced with the task of exercising power in a democratically
elected government, Hamas is being forced to renounce violence and
accept Israel's right to exist or risk its government go into bankruptcy.
Without foreign aid - $ 1 billion a year - the Palestinian economy
cannot sustain itself, cannot even pay the monthly salaries of 140,000
public servants. On top of this, Israel is refusing to give its monthly
grant of $50 million from tax revenues to the new government.
There are signs of flexibility on Hamas's part. Its Palestinian opponents
have argued that taking part in the election itself is a de facto
acceptance of the Oslo Accord by Hamas. Hamas's new ministers,
some of them educated in the US, also recognize the difficulties
involved in going against international opinion.
But Hamas's flexibility alone is not enough, and Hamas will resist
international pressure as blackmail if there is no corresponding
movement on Israel's part. Both Israel and the Palestinians are
groping for a new equilibrium after Arafat's death and Ariel Sharon's
incapacitation. Last month's Israeli elections saw the ouster of the
extremist Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party rump that he now
leads. But the electorate did not give Sharon's new Kadima Party and
its leader Ehud Olmert and his allies a clear victory.
To what extent Israel is prepared to retreat on the Jewish settlements
in occupied territories, the construction of 670 km long wall in the West
Bank, and the de facto occupation in many parts will have a direct
bearing on Hamas's responses. But the fact of the matter is that by
entering the democratic process directly, first in municipal and now in
parliamentary elections, Hamas has changed the dynamic in the
Israel-Palestine peace process.
Drawing a parallel to Sri Lanka, the first priority is for the LTTE and
the government to continue to honour their ceasefire commitments
and avoid ceasefire violations either directly or through proxies. The
second priority is for the LTTE to enter the democratic process and
participate in free and fair elections in Tamil areas, and for the
government to restructure the state and create autonomous
authorities as it has been done in Spain, Northern Ireland, and in a
fledging way in Israel/Palestine.
Without these foundations calling for the decommissioning of the
LTTE or the withdrawal of the army will be pointless and ineffectual.