Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

The Palestinian and Kurdish struggles for self-determination share several common features. Both are stateless movements fighting against colonial, apartheid regimes in the Middle East and both have tortured histories of oppression and resistance. Despite the similarities, the relationship between Kurdish and Palestinian political circles is fragmented and tense since both are composed of multiple factions with divergent political leanings, loyalties and alliances. In recent years, opportunistic interventions by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have further divided them.

The multiple factors that prevent a strong alliance between Kurdish and Palestinian communities demonstrate how political dynamics within movements and within the region can disrupt the formation of broad international solidarity networks. The various ways that different factions of the Kurdish and Palestinian movements relate to one another reflects the internal make up of those movements and highlights the contradictory rifts in ideology and practice between the different territories and parties of both Kurdistan and Palestine. Geopolitical shifts in the international arena further fuel those rifts, which the Turkish and Israeli states take full advantage of as they pursue their respective projects in the Middle East.

 

A History of Oppression and Disparate Solidarities

 

Kurds, who are spread across modern Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, have persisted in their struggle for some form of autonomy since their claims to an independent nation were ignored in the carving up of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and France following World War I. The history of state formation in the region positioned the Kurdish people as minorities within two Arab nation-states, where they suffered the dire consequences of the Iraqi and Syrian Ba’ath regimes’ Arabization policies.[1] The brutal tactics of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in its drive to conquer territory in Syria and Iraq since 2013 has been the most recent addition to the Kurdish people’s experience of violent oppression. Many of the Kurds fighting in Rojava (the Kurdish region of northern Syria) experienced the atrocities of ISIS directly when their friends and families were targeted. The Kurdish towns in the Syrian cantons of Kobane and Afrin were destroyed and occupied first by ISIS and then by Turkey and its Syrian Arab proxies during Turkish incursions in 2016, 2018 and 2019.

The political position of Arabs as the sovereign group in this geography results in the ethnicization of animosity and shapes Kurdish public opinion on Palestinian politics.
The political position of Arabs as the sovereign group in this geography results in the ethnicization of animosity and shapes Kurdish public opinion on Palestinian politics. For instance, although the majority of Kurds culturally self-identify as Muslim, the incursions into Rojava, and particularly the sexual enslavement of Yezidi women, provoked an aversion among the Kurdish public toward the more Islamic factions of the Palestinian movement. Hamas, in particular, was lumped together with ISIS and other Islamist groups, especially when Hamas’ former leader, Khaled Mashaal, allegedly praised Turkey for conquering Syrian Kurdish territory.

The left wing of both the Palestinian and Kurdish liberation movements in fact share a history of solidarity, especially during the 1970s and 1980s when they trained together in Lebanon. It was here that the guerilla fighters of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, PKK) received training from the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), which enabled the PKK to launch a full-scale military attack against the Turkish army in 1984.[2] The PKK also fought against the occupation of Lebanon by Israel in 1982, a history that was recently cited by Mustafa Karasu, a founding member of the PKK, in the statement he released to condemn the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by the United States.[3]

Contrary to the sentiment that conflates the Palestinian movement with oppressive Arab regimes, Mustafa Karasu’s statement draws parallels between “the genocide of the Kurds in Turkey with Israeli Zionism and the apartheid regime of South Africa.”[4] He asserts: “Our attitude towards Zionism has always been ideological. Until today, we stand on the side of the Palestinians and all those who are fighting for a democratic solution in the region.”[5] In the same statement, Karasu accuses Israel of being an enabler of Turkey’s capture and imprisonment of Abdullah Öcalan, the revolutionary leader of the Kurdish movement and the PKK, in 1999.

The various factions of the Palestinian liberation movement also appear quite divided in their positions on the Kurdish movement. For instance, during a visit to Turkey in April 2018, former Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was quoted as praising Erdoğan for taking the Syrian town of Afrin from the Kurdish forces in Rojava, stating that “Turkey’s success in Afrin serves as a solid example” hopefully to be followed by other “victories of the Islamic ummah in a lot of places in the world.”[6]

Two months before Mashaal’s visit, however, Leila Khaled, a leading member of the PFLP, attended the Third Congress of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Ankara and gave a speech condemning the occupation of Afrin by Turkey. Greeting the audience “on behalf of the fighting Palestinian people,” Khaled said: “We also raise our voice against the war in Afrin. Wars do not promote life but lead to death. The peoples build up life and the future.”[7] In another gesture of solidarity, Leila Khaled visited Leyla Güven—an HDP member of parliament who was arrested in January 2018 for opposing the Turkish incursions into Syria—during her 2019 hunger strike.

 

Turkish and Israeli Government Hypocrisy Amidst an Uncertain Future

 

The hypocritical political positions of Erdoğan and Netanyahu have further damaged the fragile international solidarity between the Palestinian and Kurdish movements. Both leaders publicly display sympathy with the oppressed populations in the other’s country, all the while continuing their violent policies at home. Erdoğan repeatedly calls Netanyahu a “terrorist” over his inhumane policies in Gaza and against the demonstrators at the border.[8] In response, Netanyahu points to the destruction of the Kurdish towns of Cizre, Nusaybin and Sur since 2015 and a long history of Kurdish oppression, quipping that he is “not used to receiving lectures about morality from a leader who bombs Kurdish villagers in his native Turkey.”[9] Strikingly, this theatrical display of animosity between Turkey and Israel seems to end when it comes to their economic relationship, which dates back to the Cold War and currently appears to be stronger than ever.[10]

Israel is the only country that recognized and supported the Kurdish referendum in Iraq in September 2017—photographs even show Israeli flags being flown in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.[11] Israel’s camaraderie toward Kurdistan, however, seems to extend specifically to Iraqi Kurdistan whose leadership is far from revolutionary.

In stark contrast to Israeli support for the northern Iraqi leadership, Netanyahu firmly opposes the PKK that is on the frontlines of resistance to the bombing of Kurdish villages in Turkey.
In stark contrast to Israeli support for the northern Iraqi leadership, Netanyahu firmly opposes the PKK that is on the frontlines of resistance to the bombing of Kurdish villages in Turkey.[12] In fact, the alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan in particular serves Israel’s geopolitical interests in the region. Currently, up to 77 percent of Israel’s oil supplies come from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).[13]

The spectacles of public sympathy performed by the leaders of these colonizing states mainly serves two purposes: Palestinians close to Hamas turn to Erdoğan and Turkey as a Muslim ally for their cause while a sizeable Kurdish public draw closer to the Israeli government in reaction to Erdoğan’s calculated solidarity with the Palestinian cause, which positions the Kurds as disingenuous competitors with the Palestinian people for recognition of their oppression.

Since the emergence of the Rojava revolution in northern Syria in 2012, there are signs that the revolutionary factions of the Kurdish movement will align more strongly with the revolutionary tradition of Palestine. In the aftermath of the revolution, the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan reportedly declared his desire to make Rojava into today’s “Bekaa Valley,” harkening back to the time in Lebanon when internationalists came together against colonial oppression in all forms.[14]

The Kurdish liberation struggle—in its fight for emancipation from its colonial state oppressors in the Middle East—exercises a practice of realpolitik toward international solidarity. It is careful not to take any particular stance toward any nation, group or political ideology unless they are in strict opposition to the Kurdish people. It may be argued that the Kurdish movement does not have the luxury to reject any potential political dialogue. Nevertheless, this stance ultimately leads to a number of contradictory and opposing ties with various groups and parties across the entire political spectrum, from far right to radical left. Kurdish political engagement with the geopolitics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one example. It remains to be seen how this realpolitik approach will play out in navigating the complexities of international relations and what the Kurdish freedom movement will gain, or lose, in the process.

 

[Elif Genc is a PhD student in politics at the New School for Social Research and an adjunct professor of politics at St. John’s University and Marymount College in New York. She is also an activist in the Kurdish women’s freedom movement in Canada and the United States.]

 


 

Endnotes

 

[1] Kamran Matin, “Liminal Lineages of the ‘Kurdish Question,’” Middle East Report 295 (Summer 2020).

[2] Ahmet Hamdi Akkaya, “The ‘Palestinian Dream’ in the Kurdish Context,” Kurdish Studies 3/1 (2015).

[3] Internationalist Commune, “Jerusalem, the Capital of Humanity,” undated.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] AA, “Eski Hamas Siyasi Büro Başkanı Meşal: Filistin, Türkiye ile birlikte daha güçlü,” April 1, 2018.

[7] ANF News, “Leila Khaled: We Also Raise our Voices for Afrin,” February 12, 2018.

[8] Euronews, “Erdogan Calls Israel ‘Terrorist’, Netanyahu Hits Back,” December 10, 2017. The Times of Israel, “Erdogan Calls Netanyahu a ‘Terrorist,’ Israel a ‘Terrorist State’ Over Gaza,” April 1, 2018.

[9] Euronews, “Erdogan Calls Israel ‘Terrorist’, Netanyahu Hits Back,” December 10, 2017.

[10] Daniel Heinrich, “Turkey and Israel: Animosity Ends When it Comes to Money,” Deutsche Welle, December 12, 2017.

[11] Lamis Andoni, “Why is Israel Supporting Kurdish Secession from Iraq?” Al-Jazeera, October 7, 2017.

[12] The Times of Israel, “Rebuffing Former Top General, Netanyahu says Kurdish PKK a Terror Group,” September 13, 2017.

[13] Haaretz, “Report: Israel Imports Three-quarters of Its Oil From Iraq’s Kurds,” August 23, 2015.

[14] Marcel Cartier “The Link Between the Palestinian and Kurdish Revolutionary Struggles,” The Region, January 4, 2018.

 

How to cite this article:

Elif Genc "The Kurdish Movement’s Relationship with the Palestinian Struggle," Middle East Report 295 (Summer 2020).
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