What's the difference between Sri Lanka and Israel? The question might seem odd, almost a throwback to elementary school when a teacher having a bad day might attempt to trip up his or her students by tossing a curveball question at them. But it is in fact highly relevant, and far more revealing than you might think.
For aside from all the obvious answers, such as the respective countries' sizes, locations, social structure, topography and weather, there is one dissimilarity in particular which has been noticeably evident in recent months.
Consider the following. In late December, government troops launched a coordinated military assault, with thousands of heavily-armed soldiers storming terrorist strongholds in an effort to deliver a decisive and painful blow against the reviled radicals.
After years of enduring suicide bombings and failed cease-fires, the authorities decided they had no alternative but to resort to overwhelming force to alter the strategic equation on the ground. Something dramatic, they were convinced, had to be done to finally bring the terrorists to their knees.
While the above description may sound familiar, don't be fooled into thinking that it applies only to our own little Middle Eastern corner of the world. For even as the IDF was entering Gaza to strike against Hamas, a similar series of events was unfolding some 5,400 kilometers to the east, in Sri Lanka, where the army was sent in hot pursuit after the Tamil Tiger rebels.
SIMILAR, THAT is, but with one crucial difference: While we were lambasted globally for having the nerve to defend ourselves, hardly a peep could be heard about Sri Lanka's own version of the war on terror.
For years, the Tamil Tigers, which the FBI has called "the most ruthless and efficient terror organization in the world," have been fighting to carve out their own autonomous region in the northern portion of the island country. Chafing under the rule of the majority Sinhalese population, the Tigers have terrified the rest of Sri Lanka for nearly three decades, mounting brazen terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets in the hopes of seceding and forming an ethnic Tamil state.
They managed to create a Gaza-like enclave, where they enforced their rule with a heavy-handed mixture of brutality and cruelty. Just like Hamas, the Tigers, who are also known as the LTTE, used civilians as human shields against the Sri Lankan army, and cowed their opponents into submission through intimidation and murder.
In 2005, Sri Lankans elected Mahinda Rajapaksa to the presidency. He ruled out Tamil autonomy and vowed to reassess the peace process in light of the Tigers' obstructionism. After the terrorists violated a Norwegian-brokered cease-fire (shades of our own Oslo debacle?), the government last year decided to give victory a chance instead of continuing to pursue a capricious peace.
"We gave clear instructions: no cease-fires, no negotiations until we defeat the LTTE completely," Sri Lankan Defense Minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told The Washington Post this past Sunday. "The LTTE would use cease-fires and peace talks to reorganize and resupply weapons. There have been... dozens of negotiations and more than 10 cease-fires. Everything failed. After every period of negotiation, they came back stronger. We decided enough was enough."
After ratcheting up its military response, and rallying the bulk of the island's population behind it, the government went on the offensive, seizing the Jaffna peninsula in the north before proceeding to capture several of the Tigers' last remaining outposts. It is now said to be close to defeating the rebels once and for all.
And yet, Sri Lanka's conflict, which has claimed twice as many lives as our foray into Gaza, has barely seemed to register on the international radar screen.
Apparently, not all counterterror operations are created equal.
SURE, HUMAN rights groups have harshly criticized both the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers for their treatment of civilians, but the crisis cannot be said to be at, or even near, the top of the world's list of priorities. Indeed, there have been no calls on American college campuses to boycott Sri Lankan products, few if any editorials have appeared in major newspapers denouncing the counterterror operation, nor have any European Union leaders rushed to the area to press the government to rein in its troops.
This is sheer and unbridled hypocrisy. For while Sri Lanka is fighting to stave off a secessionist insurgency, this country is confronted with a terrorist movement bent on its destruction. Yet while the former is allowed to proceed unmolested, the latter is subjected to incessant and withering international disapproval.
The conflict in Sri Lanka, of course, is just one of many which attracts far less attention than Israel. When was the last time you saw diplomats or demonstrators grow apoplectic on your television screen over hot spots such as Somalia, Burma or the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Because the media ignores them, most people probably could not find these places on a map. But who hasn't heard of the Middle East on an almost daily basis?
Therein lies the tragedy of the international community's approach. By constantly harping on Israel, it is not only being unfair to the Jewish state, but also ignoring countless other crises around the globe, allowing them to fester seemingly without end.
So what, then, is truly the difference between Israel and Sri Lanka? As far as the international community is concerned, it amounts to this: Jews may be news, but Tamils and Sinhalese certainly are not.