The Kurds are a fighting people that have proven political commitment and political moderation – they are worthy of their own political independence.
So spoke prime minister Netanyahu in June 2014. The overwhelming Kurdish vote in support of independence last Monday was endorsed by Israelis of all political views. It built on half a century of Israeli-Kurdish cooperation which commenced when Golda Meir was Foreign Minister. Nahum Admoni, Mossad head in the 1980s, described Golda Meir’s approach on initiating assistance to the Kurds as ‘definitely humanitarian, an emotional aid to an oppressed minority’.
There were indeed many parallels between Jewish and Kurdish aspirations for a state of their own. Despite the fact that they were many times more numerous that the Jews, the Kurds were dramatically unsuccessful in realising their dream. Spread in their millions over Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, they have been persecuted and discriminated against by a host of reactionary regimes.
The World War I allies agreed in signing the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 to endorse the prospect of a state in at least part of Kurdistan. Imperial ambition in the Middle East, Arab opposition and a Turkish resurgence ensured that this agreement was rendered meaningless – and Kurdistan became part of Iraq in 1925. The British originally guaranteed to make the territory an autonomous region when Iraq gained its independence. In 1932 independence was achieved but the British did not enforce its promise to the Kurds.
It was only in the 1980s during Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign against the Kurds that British public opinion began to take note. Hundreds of Kurdish villages were destroyed, but it was the chemical weapons attack on Halabja in March 1988, killing 5,000 people, that forced the hand of the British government. Shortly after the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, observing the plight of thousands of Kurdish refugees, relentlessly pursued by Saddam’s armies and escaping to the refuge of ice-clad mountains, the British prime minister John Major proposed a safe haven for the Kurds in northern Iraq. Britain significantly cited the 1948 Genocide Convention as a legal justification – an act which conveyed symbolism to Jews. This evolved into today’s Kurdish autonomous region.
The Israeli involvement lies in torat haperipheria – the doctrine of the periphery – which Ben-Gurion and his intelligence chiefs, Reuven Shiloah and Isser Harel, advocated in the 1950s. It argued for quiet alliances and cooperation with non-Arab nations on the periphery of a hostile Arab world. This included Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia in the late 1950s and stretched to territorially concentrated minorities such as the Kurds and South Sudanese in later years.
The writer and academic, Yossi Alpher, was a Mossad operative in Kurdistan in the late 1960s. In his excellent book, Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies, he notes that the Israeli Embassy in Paris facilitated contact between leading Kurdish figures and Ben-Gurion, Peres and Meir Amit, head of the Mossad. The British-born David Kimche, later deputy head of the Mossad, travelled on a non-Israeli passport to Kurdistan to appraise the situation. He was followed by Dov Tamari, head of the Sayeret Matkal commando unit to explore the possibility of a permanent IDF training unit in the Kurdish mountains. This led to periodic six month stints for IDF personnel who trained Kurdish peshmerga officers in the Marvad programme. Following the Six Day war, captured Soviet arms made their way to Kurdistan.
Israel was primarily interested in preventing Iraqi troops from operating on the eastern front during a time of war. Yet the Kurds signally refused to tie down Iraqi units during the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars. In 1973, Henry Kissinger stopped the Kurds from attacking Saddam’s forces and instead permitted the passage of 30,000 Iraqi troops, tanks and aircraft. Even so, the Israelis inflicted severe loses on them on the Golan Heights.
The Kurds proved adept at providing Israel with crucial intelligence and in 1966 facilitated the flight of an Iraqi Mig-21 to Tel Aviv. Most Kurdish Jews were forced to leave for Israel along with other Iraqi Jews in the early 1950s. The few Jews who remained in Iraq in later years made their way north from where they were escorted by Kurdish guides to the Iranian border where the Israelis were waiting for them. This was particularly true after the public hanging of nine Jews in Baghdad’s Liberation Square in January 1969. A reputed half a million turned out to watch the spectacle.
The Algiers Pact of March 1975 between Iran and Iraq effectively put an end to the Israeli operation in Kurdistan. But as Yossi Alpher points out, it allowed Iranians to make the pilgrimage to visit Ayatollah Khomeini in exile in Najaf in Iraq. They returned with tapes of sermons and calls to organise revolutionary cells. This laid the basis for the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the installation of the current regime in Teheran.
Today there is an open, but unofficial Israeli presence in Kurdistan. Motorola, Magalcom and Bezeq are all there. There is investment in oil exploration. Israelis – many of Kurdish origin – visit cities such as Erbil by travelling via Amman.
The Kurds’ call for independence has met with a hostile reception in Whitehall and from the White House. Boris Johnson described it as a distraction from more pressing priorities. The US does not wish to antagonise Ankara and weaken Turkish links to NATO. Even Netanyahu is careful with his words when the subject of Kurds in Turkey is invoked. Yet as the Jews understood in 1948, windows of opportunity occur very rarely. Will Kurdish independence lead to war and instability? Or will it right a century-long wrong? When asked in the Knesset in 1975 why Israel had acted so positively in support of the Kurds, Yitzhak Rabin instinctively replied: ‘Because we are Jews!’ Many in this country will undoubtedly identify with that sentiment.