Israel and Iraqi Kurds: Gambling with ‘moderate allies’

Israel’s recognition of Kurdish claims to independence is an act that perpetuates the denial of Palestinian rights.

Pundits have criticised the Kurds for appearing greedy and looking out for their own nationalistic interests [Getty Image]

For years, there has been speculation on the nature and scope of relations between Israel and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. But on June 29, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally set the record straight, saying his country would support the creation of a Kurdish state. This statement came on the heels of last week’s delivery to Israel of crude oil from Iraqi Kurdistan, in defiance of the position of both the Iraqi central government and the United States.

The history of Kurdish and Israeli relations dates back to the 1960s and Israel’s apparent realisation that an independent Kurdish state could become what Netanyahu recently called a “moderate ally” in the region.

“The Kurds have always thought that they were friends with Israel,” explains Khaider Domle, a peace-building expert at the University of Duhok, in Iraqi Kurdistan, “because there are lots of Kurdish Jews in Israel, and also many Jews in Kurdistan. We share a common history of being oppressed.”

Scores of individual initiatives celebrating these commonalities have sprung up on social media in the past few years. Since the fall of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003, there have been concrete collaborations, mostly in the security and development sectors.

In 2004, US journalist Seymour Hersh wrote that Israel, which had originally supported the US-led invasion of Iraq, had realised that the US could not win this war of occupation. Its Plan B was therefore to provide training to the Kurds, not only to help its US ally against a growing insurgency but also to continue forging a strong non-Arab alliance in the region. It was understood that this would clearly undermine Israel’s relationship with Turkey, which under no circumstances would want Iraqi Kurdistan to grow in autonomy. Hersh stated at the time that this move could embolden the Kurds to one day declare independence. Ten years later, this scenario appears to have become inevitable.

As the group now calling itself the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) makes rapid gains across Iraq, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has announced plans to hold a referendum on independence. Pundits have criticised the Kurds for appearing greedy and looking out for their own nationalistic interests at the expense of the country’s strength and unity.

Significantly, there have also been increasing comparisons between Israel and a Kurdish state, which have only fuelled anti-Kurd sentiments among Arabs. Such criticism and comparisons are both politically motivated, and inaccurate.

A marriage of convenience?

As security conditions deteriorate across Iraq, the Kurdistan Region has remained relatively safe and prosperous, largely due to its security apparatus. The Kurdistan Region has its own army, the Peshmerga or “those who face death”, a strong internal security agency, Asaesh, and a large network of informants in each village and town.

While Kurdish public opinion seems generally in favour of establishing official ties with Israel, many analysts concede this has to be viewed within the context of self-determination, and is essentially a marriage of convenience.

“Israelis will recognise our independence right away. They will do so in the same way that the US recognised Israel within 11 minutes of them proclaiming their State back in 1948,” says Amjed Rasheed, a doctoral researcher at the University of Durham, in the UK.

But is this not a risky political gamble for both Israel and the Iraqi Kurds? Is there not an inherent contradiction in supporting the Kurdish bid for self-determination, but opposing the Palestinian struggle for the very same right? This would certainly place an independent “Kurdistan” in a precarious position within the region.

Rasheed insists that while the Kurds sympathise with the Palestinians, “the Kurdish leadership had to prioritise in the same way that King Abdullah of Jordan also did during his Jordan First Campaign“.

Nevertheless, the question remains: If an independent Kurdish state and Israel would probably become allies, how would such an alliance reflect on the Palestinian struggle for statehood?

Israeli media is full of editorials and statements in support of Kurdish independence. Some articles have compared the persecution of Jews throughout history with the suffering of the Kurds. In the oped, Time for Israel to Help the Kurds, published in Arutz Sheva on June 26, the author writes: “Even though it lives in a terrible neighbourhood and desperately seeks friends, Israel cannot and must not evade its unique responsibility towards the Kurdish people, who also suffer from the depredations of their hostile neighbours.”

Who’s really the victim?

Such statements are capitalising on the typical Israeli narrative of Arab aggressors and are using this as a way to establish a marriage of convenience with the Kurds. Without a doubt, the Kurds of Iraq were victimised by Saddam Hussein’s Anfal Campaign, which killed more than 100,000 Kurds and destroyed 2000 villages, according to Human Rights Watch.

But this narrative of shared historical injustices calls for a serious reality check. First, the State of Israel was created by a historical injustice – the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, which included the destruction of 531 villages. As a result, Palestinians are now scattered in neighbouring Arab countries and internally displaced in refugee camps or live in diaspora. Those Palestinians who remained and live within the State of Israel and hold Israeli citizenship live in constant and permanent insecurity and are treated as second or third class citizens, no different from the plight of Kurds living in Iran.

The historical injustices that both Kurdish and Palestinian people continue to endure can be traced to the Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided the Middle East region according to British and French interests. As a result, the statehood or self-determination of both the Kurds and the Palestinians was compromised while simultaneously benefiting the Zionist movement in their aspirations at the expense of the Palestinians.

Notwithstanding the continued denial of these historical events, Israel has implemented a law known as the Nakba Law that attempts to silence any mention or education of this narrative.

To justify their support for Kurdish self-determination while ignoring the plight of the Palestinians, pro-Kurdish Israeli narratives argue that Palestinians are not distinct and are somehow an invented identity. This is akin to the Turkish fairytale that the Kurds are not Kurds; rather they are “mountain Turks”.

Indeed, some academics have exposed this farce. For instance, Israeli scholar Shlomo Sand’s book “The Invention of the Jewish People” chronicles the Zionist movement’s construction of “a new Jew”, one based on racism and justified by religion to colonise lands under the guise of the chosen people and the promised land.

Kurds as a ‘common denominator’

But let’s set the record straight. Unlike the Israelis, the Kurds are not colonising a territory or oppressing people. They are not involved in a $7.5bn arms trade.They are not an exporter of war and surveillance technology in the world. They are not violating international law with impunity. They are not a nuclear state. They are not the highest recipient of US aid in the world.They are not holding the largest fleet of F16 fighter jets outside of the United States. Therefore, manipulation of historical narrative can only go so far because you cannot change the facts.

The Kurds and the Palestinians are brethren-in-suffering; the victims of the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement that was tailored to the benefit Israel and Europe.

Therefore, if Israel is looking to support a victimised nation, it need not look too far. It ought to begin by recognising the right of self-determination of the indigenous Palestinians.

Like the Kurds, the Palestinians have endured the continuum of a historical injustice since the Sykes-Picot Agreement, under the watch of the international community.

Victoria Fontan, Professor of Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies at the University of Duhok, in the Kurdish Region of Iraq; and also Doctoral Candidate in War Studies at King’s College London.

Ahmad Moussa is a Palestinian-Canadian writer and Visiting Professor at the University of Duhok, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.