Recruiting 10,000 farm workers immediately and with the possibility of absorbing 100,000 Lankan workers eventually.

By P.K.Balachandran Colombo

Sri Lanka’s relationship with Israel has not been steady. It has seen rupture as well as restoration in the last 75 years.Sri Lanka has been torn between a political commitment to the Palestinian/Muslim cause and the practical need to harness Israel’s economic and technical prowess to solve pressing domestic problems.

Sri Lanka-Israel relations were on the back burner until November 2023. But following the Hamas’ attack on Israel and the expulsion of Palestinian workers from Israel, that country ran short of workers, especially in the agricultural sector. It desperately needed foreign workers fill the yawning gap.

On its part, Sri Lanka desperately needed to increase its labour exports to earn foreign exchange. It saw in the plight of Israel a golden opportunity to export its surplus labour to that country and earn much-needed foreign exchange and also help solve the unemployment problem. Youth unemployment in Sri Lanka is 28%.The Sri Lankan media talked of 100,000 Sri Lankans getting jobs in various fields in Israel. Currently, there are 4500 to 7000 Sri Lankan workers in Israel mostly in the “caregiver” sector.

In November, the Israeli Minister of Interior and the Sri Lankan Ambassador signed an agreement that would allow Israel to immediately hire 10,000 Sri Lankan farm workers. Israel’s agricultural sector has been hit hard by the war. Since October 7, some 4,500 foreign agricultural workers had fled Israel out of 30,000 foreign workers in that sector.

During the murderous attack on October 7, Hamas terrorists had slaughtered dozens of foreign workers and took several dozen hostage. At the same time some 20,000 Palestinian agricultural workers were banned from entering Israel.

Lankan youth from the poorer classes as well-educated professionals are leaving the country in droves. The government itself has encouraged its employees to go out of the country for employment by giving them leave of absence without pay.

Therefore, if 100,000 Sri Lankans could get jobs in Israel, it would be deemed a boon. The first Sri Lankan agricultural workers within the framework of the Israel-Sri Lanka agreement should arrive in Israel soon. Today, Sri Lanka-Israel relations are cordial, despite the Gaza crisis in which Sri Lanka has sided with the Global South, voting with the latter in the United Nations. Sri Lanka has an embassy in Tel Aviv, but Israel does not have an embassy in Colombo. Its mission in New Delhi handles in Sri Lanka.

There is therefore an institutional asymmetry.Sri Lanka-Israel relationship has seen great ups and downs in the past. According to Sri Lankan scholar Punsara Amarasinghe, Jewish relations with Sri Lanka have a long history that dates back to the biblical epoch: the Sri Lankan city of Galle is said to be the city of Tarshish, to which King Solomon sent merchant ships.Beyond the biblical legacy, the Jewish presence in the island nation thrived under British rule, as many European Jews held prominent positions in the colonial administration in the island then known as Ceylon.After its independence in 1948, Ceylon set up ties with Israel unlike most of its neighbours in South Asia, which were pro-Palestine and anti-Israel.

Under Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake, Ceylon began buying weapons from Israel, including the naval vessel HMCyS Gajabahu. In addition, Israeli technical advisors assisted in the digging of tube wells in the dry zone of northern Sri Lanka.But Prime Ministers S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and Sirimavo Bandaranaike were hostile to Israel, preferring to establish ties with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) instead.In 1971, as part of her election campaign, Sirimavo Bandaranaike promised to close down the Israeli embassy in Sri Lanka and indeed kept the promise.But the coming into power of the pro-West J.R.Jayewardene in 1976, made a huge difference to Sri Lanka-Israel relations. His Minister of Internal Security Lalith Athulathmudali, who had worked as a law lecturer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Ravi Jayewardene, founder of the Special Task Force, believed that Sri Lanka should turn to Israel to combat the Sri Lankan Tamil militants. President J.R.Jayewardene got an Israeli mission opened in Colombo in 1984.

Minister Gamini Dissanayake got Israeli advice to accelerate the Mahaweli development project to settle Sinhalese farmers in the island’s dry zones. Punsara Amarasinghe quotes Victor Ostrovky and Claire Hoy the authors of By Way of Deception: A Devastating Insider’s Portrait of the Mossad to show how the Sri Lankan government was aided by the Mossad in the early 1980s.“The book reveals that it was a Mossad operative, Amy Yar, who advised Jayewardene’s government to accelerate the country’s ambitious Mahaweli development project as a quick remedy for the energy crisis and, more importantly, as the best strategy to settle Sinhalese farmers in the island’s dry zones.”“Two Israeli academics provided a broad analysis of the project that crucially helped the Sri Lankan government convince the World Bank to invest $250 million. A large portion of the Mahaweli contract was given to Israeli construction company Solel Bonah and Israeli architect Ulrik Plesner, who planned six new towns for the Mahaweli settlements.” Amarasinghe says.

The revived Israeli presence in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s and the opening of the Israeli embassy in Colombo in 1984 alarmed the country’s Muslim ethnic minority. In the 1980s India too wanted the Israeli interest section to be closed as New Delhi then was both anti-Israel and anti-US. Sri Lanka-Israel ties were suspended in 1992 under President R. Premadasa. He needed the support of the Muslims to survive in power.But ties were restored in 2000. Israel became a key source of weapons and training for the Sri Lanka Armed Forces during the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Israel sold the IAI Kfir fighter jet, the Super Dvora Mk III-class patrol boat, Saar 4 class missile boats and the Gabriel missile.In 2017, the governments of Israel and Sri Lanka signed an agreement to bring foreign nursing aides to Israel.

Sri Lankan nurses have acquitted themselves creditably in Israel.In February 2020, Israel offered Sri Lanka technology in agriculture, education, transportation and IT sectors, which was openly welcomed by Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.In September 2021, the Sri Lankan government signed an agreement with Israel to upgrade Israeli-made Kfir fighter jets of the Sri Lanka Air Force.


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