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The hypocrisy of Israel’s alliance with the Kurds

Israel’s solidarity with the Kurds is duplicitous, not only because it also arms one of the Kurdish people’s biggest oppressors, but also because it supports their independence while denying millions of Palestinians that same right.

By Sahar Vardi

Some 200 Israelis march from the Turkish embassy to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, on October 15, 2019, in support of the Kurdish militants and against Turkey's incursion into Syria. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Some 200 Israelis march from the Turkish embassy to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, on October 15, 2019, in support of the Kurdish militants and against Turkey’s incursion into Syria. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Messages of solidarity and support for the Kurdish people have dominated Israeli discourse since Turkey’s invasion of Rojava in northern Syria last week. A day after Turkey launched its attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on Twitter: “Israel strongly condemns the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish areas in Syria and warns against the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey and its proxies. Israel is prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people.”

For decades, Israeli politicians have echoed this relationship between the Jewish and Kurdish people. The dominant Israeli narrative presents a seemingly strong political and moral partnership with the Kurds. A closer look, however, shows that Israel’s alliance is one of pure convenience.

Throughout the 2000s, Israel militarily supported Kurdish forces, including training in Syria and Iraq. Around the same time, it sold 170 M60T tanks, worth $688 million, to Turkey, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Arms Transfers Database.

The year this sale was announced — 2002 — was the same year that then-Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit outlawed classes in the Kurdish language at schools and universities across the country. More than 100 Kurds were arrested for protesting against this change. Also that year, Turkey’s broadcasting watchdog banned a pro-Kurdish television station for a year, and the EU added the PKK — the Kurdish separatist party that has been fighting an armed insurgency against Turkey since the early 80s — to its list of black-listed terrorist organizations at Turkey’s request. All with no criticism from Israel.

In 2009, Turkey was Israel’s top arms client. This was the same year the Turkish constitutional court banned the Democratic Society Party, the main Kurdish nationalist party in Turkey, and subsequently put its leaders on trial for terrorism. Overall, 1,400 DTP members were arrested and 900 detained in the government crackdown against the party.

However, it was not the crackdown on Kurdish nationalism that severed the military ties between Israel and Turkey that year. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was vocal in his opposition to Operation Cast Lead, going so far as to say that the war would harm military relations between the countries. Israel continued exporting weapons to Turkey in 2010, but by 2011 there was another drop in sales, following the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla, which led to the killing of eight Turkish nationals, subsequently suspending Israeli-Turkish diplomatic relations. As such, it was specific Israeli military attacks against Palestinians and their supporters that lead to the severing of Israeli-Turkish military ties, and not the constant violence of the Turkish state against the Kurds.



How can we explain this Israeli support for the Kurdish people in both practice and rhetoric, while it simultaneously arms one of the main forces oppressing Kurdish people? The answer is rather simple: Israeli governments have supported the Kurdish people when it has been convenient, and backed their oppressors when that better served Israel’s political and economic interests. At times — during most of the 2000s, for example — Israel did both at the same time.

If supporting the Kurdish authorities in Iraq serves Israel’s interest of weakening Syrian and Iranian influence in the region, great. If Israel can profit off selling Turkey drones, including Heron drones used in a Turkish invasion of Kurdish northern Iraq in 2008, great.

Former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked clearly stated her support for the Kurds, saying: “We must openly call for the establishment of a Kurdish state that separates Iran from Turkey, one which will be friendly towards Israel.” Why support a Kurdish state? So that it will be a friendly ally to Israel between Iran and Turkey. This call for independence for an occupied people is extremely ironic coming from Israel, which denies the right of self-determination to millions of Palestinians that it controls under occupation.

This should serve as a reminder that Israel’s position on the Kurds is not motivated by morality, but self-interest. As long as Israel continues to occupy millions of Palestinians, it cannot fight for the liberation of other nations and claim that it’s driven by the desire to “do the right thing.”

Sahar Vardi is an Israeli anti-militarist activist and one of the founders of “Hamushim,” a project challenging Israel’s military industry and arms trade.

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    1. Ariel Barkai

      Spoiler alert – all nations act not on moral pejoratives but on self interests. If morality played a part in international politics there would be no conflict between Arabs and Jews in the land of Israel because 7 decades ago Arabs would have understood the moral imperative of allowing millions of Jews to enter the land of Israel even if that meant relinquishing their majority and their own desire for a state in this land. They did not choose the moral path but instead choose the path of self interest inciting riots and violence with the calls of “slaughter the Jews” to further the demand of prohibiting Jewish immigrants and refugees from entering the land of Israel. Not one Arab took the moral path and rushed to the ports of Haifa or Jaffa with signs reading #RefugeesWelcome. So please don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Kurt Zarki

      What the writer claims is Israel’s hypocrisy needs to be flipped and turned around on its head: it applies exactly to Erdogan’s and Turkey’s support for Hamas and denial of Israel’s right to defend itself…and in the case of Hamas… denial of Israel’s very right to exist.

      Turkey makes the overblown, paranoid, and baseless claim that any expression of Kurdish rights at all, even autonomy in Syria, presents an “existential threat” to Turkey. However, while no Kurd ever questioned the right of Turkey to exist, the “apples of Turkey’s eye” (goz bebekleri) the Palestinians, do deny Israel’s very right to exist.

      What the Turks have done to Kurds in their own country — recent destruction of major Kurdish cities in Turkey’s southeast, the arrest of most leading members of the HDP Kurdish party and anyone who dares question what the country is doing vis a vis the Kurds, the almost daily bombing of Kurdish areas in Iraq —- all of this has been inexcusably left unreported…And, by the way when speaking of hypocrisy compare the mass arrests of politically active Kurds in Turkey to Arab members of Knesset who run around with Palestinian flags and ally themselves openly and vociferously with Israel’s enemies. In Turkey nothing even approaching such behavior is punished by instant arrest…or worse.

      It’s only natural that two actual, identifiable nations, with their own unique languages and long histories feel a close affinity to one another. It’s natural since for both, rights to national self expression are largely denied in the region. And when it comes to Turkey, this denial is especially outrageous coming from a people originally foreign to the region and whose existence and rights as a state are essentially based on conquest — the source of so much pride to them.

      When it comes to hypocrisy in the Middle East, Turkey takes the prize, and when it comes to ignorant antipathy toward Israel and lack of concern for the Kurds, a stateless people of almost 35 million, articles like this also deserve a prize.

      Reply to Comment
    3. itshak Gordine

      The author of this article makes the same mistake as most leftists. Judea and Samaria are part of the historical, national and religious heritage of the Jewish people. There is not therefore an occupation, but rather a liberation. Denying the Jewish people the right to settle on their land means being racist. Recall that no one heard of “Palestinian people” before the 1960s. Remember that Judea and Samaria were annexed by Jordan in 1951 and that during this occupation it was never decided to create a “Palestinian” state. Finally, let us recall that a large majority of the Arabs of Judea and Samaria are under the control of the “Palestinian” entity of Ramallah following the Oslo agreements signed between the Israeli leftists (when they were in power) and the PLO led by the terrorist Arafat.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        This is messianic-nationalist-extremist settler boilerplate divorced from reality. It is cant. You recite it dully each time as if it were any less unconvincing the umpteenth time recited. It is no “mistake” to understand this. The Kurds have much more in common, as a stateless, oppressed people, with the Palestinians than with Israel’s Jews.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Ben’s “fakestinyans” are as real as the Narnians and Middle Earthers.
          All three were invented by Y. Arafat, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, respectively.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Blah blah blah. The modern day transmutation of a “heritage” of “Judeans-and-Samarians” into a god-given real estate deed and ethnic cleansing permit handed down from Mt Sinai is no less “invented.” In this context I prefer the term “Kibooshians.” Kind of like the Kardashians in the narcissism and vulgarity and some of their kitsch aspects.
            You’d admit to this if you stopped clinging to your cranky kindergarten kings and coins literalism. The whole “fakestinysn” crankiness is just a trolling distraction.
            You and Itshak the Overlord don’t have to listen to me. Just listen to Sharon. The look on Bibi’s face is priceless:

            Sharon’s last speech

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Well, what became of Sharon’s legacy ?

            His Itnatkut policy turned into a bloody disaster.
            His Party *Kadima” ended up disappearing.
            HIs successor, Olmert ended up in Jail.
            Bibi went on to become Israel’s longest PM ever.

            Hah ah ha!

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “His Itnatkut policy turned into a bloody disaster.”

            Of course it did, because Itnatkut was meant entirely as a way of solidifying the stranglehold to the East in the West Bank and making peace impossible. Dore Gold frankly admitted it:

            “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. […] When you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Disengagement supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.”

            I hope you didn’t think I was singing Sharon’s praises.

            Really, you think people can’t hear and can’t read and can’t see.

            “Bibi went on to become Israel’s longest PM ever.”

            He sure did, by every exploitative, demagogic trick possible. Likewise, Trump went on to become the President of the United States. Turning now into an accelerating disaster.
            I guess you all think Bibi joining himself at the hip with Donald was Bibi’s far-sighted stroke of genius? Hah ah ha?

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            I am glad that Ben agrees with me that Sharon was a total disaster.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            This is just refusing to acknowledge the truth Dore Gold spoke. He, Sharon insider, spilled the beans. It negates your entire argument.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            So Ben does not agree with Sharon’s legacy or does agree with it ?
            Ben – make your mind up.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            When you formulate a question that makes any sense, I’ll answer it.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Ben gives a Ben-style answer to a simple question.

            Reply to Comment
      • Josh Bronxman

        The first appearance of the term “Palestine” was in 5th century BC Ancient Greece when Herodotus wrote of a “district of Syria, called Palaistinê” between Phoenicia and Egypt in The Histories.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Fred

      States (not only Israel) often advocate or pursue policies based upon interests, rather than ideals. The author of the article appears to be unaware of this.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Fred, if anyone is unaware of something, it would be appear to be you, you being unaware of what the author actually wrote:

        “This should serve as a reminder that Israel’s position on the Kurds is not motivated by morality, but self-interest. As long as Israel continues to occupy millions of Palestinians, it cannot fight for the liberation of other nations and claim that it’s driven by the desire to “do the right thing.””

        Reply to Comment
      • itshak Gordine

        Fred, do not be offended by Ben’s response to your message. He judges, insults and knows everything better than anyone else because he reads the Haaretz newspaper from abroad on the internet.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          All I did was point Fred to the writer’s own words on this page. You have a funny one-way concept of insults, sir. Fred said Sahar Vardi appeared to unaware of something. I said Fred appeared to unaware of something. That you perceive that as a one-way “insult” is characteristic of your view of many things. You might want to take a look at that.

          Reply to Comment
          • JW500


            What’s your agenda? At the end of the day, the Jews in Israel at least know how to fight and defend themselves unlike many diaspora Jews in many parts of the world. I respect Palestinian nationalists (even though they are evil and must be destroyed) more than I respect the Ben’s of the world, craven cowards who would not defend their children from a rapist because it’s not the rapist’s fault.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            This is a gutter level, crude, illogical post. All it shows is that you have no argument and that I make you angry and you can’t control yourself. You should ask yourself why it is that I make you sputter in impotent rage.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            One last point. Perhaps I could have been more polite to Fred, but it is the Itshak Gordine’s of this world who are making an ostentatious show here of admonishing people about politeness and manners, all the while openly pushing a frankly Kahanist agenda that is intrinsically offensive and promotes an agenda of military rule-backed domination, ethnic cleansing and torture that cruelly denies basic human rights to others based on ethnicity. And coated in treacly Orwellianisms. This is, by the Ishak Gordine’s of this world, is at bottom an attempt to normalize all of this (“gee, can’t we all just politely agree to disagree on these matters? Just like we might disagree on tax policy or interior decorating tastes? Did I say something wrong?”) and normalize the occupation. My agenda is that I am not going to collude in this normalization agenda.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            And I don’t need lectures on politeness by people who tell me I don’t defend my children from rapists.

            Reply to Comment
    5. PAUL J. I. M. DE WAART

      The Stateless Arabs deserve nothing but a good swift kick back to Jordan, whereas the Kurds deserve statehood. Therein lies the difference.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        The basis for this opinion of yours is mere ethnic discrimination and Jewish nationalism and refusal to acknowledge human rights for a certain ethnic group that you deem one faceless horde of “them” versus “us” rather than people on the ground living there for generations in a specific place. Human rights you would not dream of denying “us,” which denial would outrage you. I can assure you there are plenty of Turkish nationalists and Iraqi nationalists and Syrian nationalists who feel the same way about kicking the Kurds around. Nor are the Kurds en masse some kind of saintly, perfect people you want to elevate on a pedestal next to the vilified straw man you want to knock down. A differential calculus of which humans do and do not “deserve” kicking around. Much wiser for you to ground yourself in universal human rights principles.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Mike

      Thanks for this excellent and important article providing some welcome context on the history of Turkish oppression of the Kurdish people and their struggle for fundamental rights guaranteed under international law as well as the illegal, hypocritical, opportunistic policies of the Israeli government! Thanks also for speaking of the use of Israeli drones. We also know that the Trump administration is guilty of much the same hypocrisy toward the Kurds and the Palestinians, and we can ask searching questions about the limits to much of the international community’s willingness to push for a consistent stand and actions on human rights for Palestinians, Kurds and others.
      It might possibly have been helpful to some readers if the headline specifically named Turkey as one of the Kurdish people’s biggest oppressors, lest a reader sees only the headline but doesn’t read the article and thus thinks the writer is referring to the SDF or YPD as the oppressors of the Kurdish people as this is precisely what Turkish propaganda states in order to justify imposing Turkish rule over the largely Kurdish population of NE Syria. Of course this all becomes clear upon reading the article thoroughly which surely most of your readers will do.

      Reply to Comment
    7. michal

      no mention of earlier connections – older israelis remember back in the 80s (or late 70s), lova eliav and others worked w/ the kurds. I’d say there’s more than a little memory of that more hopeful time…
      and, also the jews who came to israel from Kurdistan might well be among those marchers.
      you also left out israelis who might identify w/ the social-political practices of kurds in more autonomous places. ha-aretz ran a lengthy article on that a few months ago.
      and, some of us can fight on more than one front.
      this article not nuanced at all. black, white, nothing else…

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Michal, I do not see how your several observations gainsay the argument of Sahar Vardi. I don’t see how they even apply. Your observations seem disconnected from Vardi’s argument about Israel’s several actions, not just words and vague sentiments, regarding the Kurds. The mismatch between words and actions is the main point Vardi is making.

        Therefore, would you please identify how this concluding statement lacks nuance and how it lacks support from the words that precede it?:

        “This should serve as a reminder that Israel’s position on the Kurds is not motivated by morality, but self-interest. As long as Israel continues to occupy millions of Palestinians, it cannot fight for the liberation of other nations and claim that it’s driven by the desire to “do the right thing.”

        One wonders if by “nuance” you mean rationalizing, excuse-making, two-sides-sim, and song and dance hasbara routines, because Sahar Vardi’s argument certainly lacks those.

        Reply to Comment
    8. Rivka Koen

      What alliance with the Kurds?

      Reply to Comment
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