The Kurds: Israel’s not so Improbable Allies

The secret relationship of Israel and the Kurds

Dispatches Israel
A soldier of the Peshmerga: By aligning with the Kurds, Israel gains eyes and ears in Iran and Syria (credit: Spencer Platt/Getty)

In August, the world collectively held its breath as thousands of Yazidi Kurds — a minority most people had never even heard of — clung on for dear life atop the Sinjar mountains in northern Iraq.

Beneath them, violent Islamic State factions encircled the mountain, determined to starve out the people they considered infidels. Those who did not make it into the mountains in time were tortured, raped or beheaded.

In Israel, itself in the closing stages of a 50-day war with Hamas in Gaza, articles began appearing in newspapers urging the Israeli government to offer the Yazidis asylum. A 17-month-old Yazidi boy was recovering in a Tel Aviv hospital, his father at his bedside, after life-saving heart surgery, facilitated by an NGO. As he had left Iraq just before the massacre began, the father’s thoughts were with his wife and five other children, who had to fend for themselves. “They fled to the mountain with just the clothes on their backs,” he told me. He described how his four-year-old daughter had to climb the mountain on her own, because her mother was holding her three-month-old twins. The father’s relatives saw their neighbours slain and heard stories of local girls captured by IS make furtive calls to their parents, asking to be brought poison as they would rather commit suicide than be held by their notoriously brutal captors. “IS treats them like trash. The people are running away from death. IS treats [Yazidis] like Jews, so they want to come here,” he said. “Maybe Israeli soldiers will protect them and not leave them in IS’s hands.”

Casting Israeli soldiers in the role of protectors may have seemed strange to many in the West, particularly when Israel has been embroiled in a bitter war with Hamas in Gaza that has killed nearly 2,200 Palestinians and 68 Israelis.

Yet while Israel’s relations with its neighbours remain deeply problematic, its ties with the Kurds have for years helped nurture a military force that has proved itself more resilient than the US-funded Iraqi army. For years Israel’s relationship with the Kurds was kept secret, but gradually the issue has cropped up more and more in interviews in Israeli media and in academic reports.

The Kurds constitute the world’s largest stateless people. There are 30 million Kurds, mostly spread across Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. They have been seeking a state of their own for centuries.

Although the links between Jews and Kurds go back centuries, the substantive roots of the relationship go back to the 1930s, when a Jewish journalist stationed in the Kurdish part of Iraq and writing for the Palestine Bulletin began making contacts with local activists.

Years later, that journalist, Reuven Shiloah, became the first director of Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence agency.

By the early 1960s, following the outbreak of the Kurdish rebellion against the Iraqi Ba’ath party’s Arabisation policies, Molla Mustafa Barzani, father of the current Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, held talks with Israeli officials. These meetings were facilitated by Savak, the Shah of Iran’s notorious intelligence service, whose agents had been trained by Israel, the US and the UK.

These days, the Israeli officials involved in those talks paint the relationship as a marriage of convenience that somehow blossomed into a love story. But in reality, realpolitik demanded cooperation. Israeli cooperation with the Kurds was motivated by the fact that Iraq had been an enemy state since Israel’s founding in 1948. The ability to gather intelligence from inside Iraq was too good to pass up.

More broadly, cooperation with the Kurds was part of Israel’s general foreign policy direction during the 1950s, the principles of which were articulated well before the establishment of Israel by its future leader, David Ben-Gurion. The Arabs were “the primary enemy of the Zionist movement”, wrote Ben-Gurion in the 1930s, and in order to counter-balance this, Israel would need to form other allies from among those who oppose “Arab nationalism”.

Ben-Gurion also deemed it important to make allies from those minorities who had been oppressed by the Arabs. After 1948, his ideas evolved into policies, as Israel sought allegiances with non-Arab countries which bordered the Arab world — Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia — as well as those beyond, including countries in Asia and Africa. The Kurds fitted the criteria.

For Israel, one of the other key benefits of co-operation with the Kurds was the human link. As a result of the relationship, Israel was able to ensure the safe passage of several thousand Jews fleeing Iraq. Meanwhile in Israel more than 100,000 Kurdish Jews pressured the government to help their brethren and relatives.

Professor Ofra Bengio of Tel Aviv University, an expert on Israeli-Kurdish relations, notes in a recent article for Middle East Quarterly that military supplies were delivered from the late 1950s. In the early 1960s, a permanent Israeli representative was dispatched to Kurdish Iraq. A field hospital was tentatively established. As relations increased, so did military cooperation. Weapons supplies, ranging from small arms and ammunition to anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, began streaming into the region, often through Iran which, together with Turkey, was the first Muslim majority state to recognise Israel when it was established and continued being a close ally until 1979.

In time, Israel also began providing military training to the Kurds, and helped establish Kurdish intelligence cells, information which proved very useful for strategic planners in Jerusalem. But in 1975 disaster struck, in the form of political betrayal. Saddam Hussein, then Iraq’s vice-president, reached an agreement with the Shah of Iran which put an end to Iran’s arming of the Kurds and by extension to Israel’s, as the latter relied on the Iranian land route for transport. The Kurdish rebellion was halted. Iran’s reasons for agreeing were that Baghdad promised to define the international border between the two neighbouring countries — who less than six years later would become embroiled in a long and bloody war.

“The Shah had sold the Kurds out, like Chamberlain in Munich,” said Eliezer Tzafrir, the Mossad bureau chief in Iraqi Kurdistan, who was left with just hours to make a hurried getaway. “We were in a big hurry to burn papers,” Tzafrir recalled in a recent interview with the US magazine Tablet. “I had to get out of there before the Iraqi army turned me into a kebab.”

Whether Israel’s support of the Kurds stopped completely in 1975 and when exactly it resumed is not clear. But in 2005 Sargis Mamikonian, a scholar at the Caucasian Centre for Iranian Studies in Yerevan, Armenia, wrote that information provided by Savak and from Kurdish sources may have furnished Israel with intelligence used to carry out one of its most daring missions — to destroying Iraq’s nuclear reactor.

“It is plausible to conclude that Israeli intelligence, thanks to its contacts with Kurdish sources and former Savak agents, had obtained valuable location and identification data (although aerial reconnaissance was more important in this particular case) for the Iraqi Tammuz-1 nuclear reactor at Osirak, which the Israeli Air Force bombed in June 1981,” wrote Mamikonian.

Such cooperation turned to ashes following the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the ousting of the Shah. In a grand role reversal, the Kurdish territories of Iraq and Turkey may have been used to conduct operations in the newly-established Islamic State of Iran, notes Mamikonian, citing papers from the US embassy in Tehran.

Israel’s cooperation with the Kurds in other countries also proved problematic after 1979. The Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Öcalan fled from the Turkish authorities and was granted asylum by the then president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad. Öcalan allied himself closely with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, which was at the time in a state of war with Israel. Even if Öcalan had proved to be amenable to Israeli overtures, Turkey — at the time a close ally of Israel — regarded Öcalan’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as its number one enemy.

After 1979, Israel was largely unable to cultivate open relations with Kurds in Iran and Syria. The Israeli-Kurdish ties had remained a well-kept secret until 1980, when Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin openly declared that Israel was supplying the Kurds with military advisers, weapons systems and humanitarian aid.

The next known major manifestation of the ties at the human level came a decade later, following Saddam Hussein’s brutal crushing of Kurdish uprisings in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Saddam’s chemical weapons attacks killed thousands, and Israel’s Kurdish community launched protests, demonstrations and relief operations for their brethren in Iraq.

For a short while, the Kurds and Israelis even faced missiles from the same source when both were subject to Saddam Hussein’s attacks, just before and during the First Gulf War in 1991. The missiles were deflected from Israel’s economic and business capital Tel Aviv by the prematurely operationalised American Patriot system and hit the nearby town of Ramat Gan instead. The irony escaped no one: Ramat Gan boasts a large Iraqi population, which led many wryly to conclude that Saddam Hussein was once again bombing his own people.

Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent establishment of a de facto Kurdish state, relations between Israel and the Kurds have become easier and more open. Writing in the New Yorker, the well-known American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported that he was told that in 2003 the Israeli government, under the premiership of Ariel Sharon, decided to expand “its long-standing relationship with Iraq’s Kurds and established a significant presence on the ground in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan”, in order to “minimise the damage that the war was causing to Israel’s strategic position”.

As a result extensive ties have flourished, Hersh maintains, with Israel training Kurdish forces to operate to the level of its most secretive commando units, the Mistaravim. “Some Israeli operatives have crossed the border into Iran, accompanied by Kurdish commandos, to install sensors and other sensitive devices that primarily target suspected Iranian nuclear facilities,” wrote Hersh. He then quoted a former Israeli officer as saying: “Look, Israel has always supported the Kurds in a Machiavellian way — as balance against Saddam. It’s realpolitik.” He added: “By aligning with the Kurds, Israel gains eyes and ears in Iran, Iraq, and Syria.”

Although Hersh’s claims have been vociferously denied by Israeli officials, Kurdish leaders have come out publicly to confirm the existence of a relationship with Israel. In 2005, the Kurdish regional government president Massoud Barzani stated publicly: “Relations between the Kurds and Israel is not a crime since many Arab countries have ties with the Jewish state.”  Three years later, the Iraqi president and head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Jalal Talabani, shook hands with the then Israel defence minister Ehud Barak.

In recent years, the Middle East has undergone dramatic changes, from the Syrian civil war to  the recent spread of the radical jihadist Islamic State in the region, which have indirectly resulted in the Iraqi Kurds gaining a wider independence for the Kurdish state. In Syria, the Kurds, for the first time in the country’s history, have created a Kurdish-controlled area.

Developments have been even more dramatic in Iraq. In June 2014, the Iraqi army was chased out of the Sunni-held area of Iraq by the oncoming IS militants, who quickly took over the country’s second biggest city, Mosul. More than 300,000 refugees from Mosul and beyond have fled to the Kurdish region. At the same time the Iraqi Kurds managed to gain control of and begin administering the oil-rich Kirkuk region.

Even before the rise of IS, neighbouring countries had been quick to identify business and economic opportunities. After IS appeared, this expanded into other areas. “These states’ pragmatism and realism had told them that the spectre of another non-Arab, non-Turkish and non-Persian entity in the region pales against the real dangers emanating from their Arab and Sunni brethren,” wrote Professor Bengio.

“Paradoxically enough, the country that went the farthest in embracing the Kurdish entity was also the one that had been the most vociferous against it: Turkey, which has become the midwife for a Kurdish state in Iraq with oil and gas as foundations for a strategic partnership that Turkey seems to see as a stabilising force on its own borders,” Bengio noted in a recent article in Tablet.

In June 2014, Turkey agreed an unprecedented 50-year deal with Kurdistan in order to allow the passage of two oil pipelines and one gas pipeline through its territory, enabling the independent export of energy. In June, crude oil from Iraqi Kurdistan was delivered to Israel, and there are reports of a further delivery in August.

In the same month, Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu openly declared his support for an independent Kurdish state. “We need to support the Kurdish aspiration for independence. They deserve it,” he said. Israel’s then president Shimon Peres and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman have also reportedly raised the issue in meetings with President Barack Obama and secretary of state John Kerry.

While the Iraqi army proved itself to be merely a “hollow shell”, the Kurdish military force, the peshmerga, with more than 350,000 troops, has proven itself to be “a vastly more capable partner”, says Dr Jonathan Spyer, senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzlia. “That is why so many countries are now queuing up to try and supply the peshmerga with arms, because they think that if someone has to try and stop the continued eastern advance of the Islamic State, then the peshmerga would be a good candidate for that.”

While Baghdad sweats over IS fighters carving up its territory, new shopping malls sparkle in Erbil as international businesses continue to flock to the region’s de facto capital. A referendum may soon follow. Describing a recent trip to the Kurdish region in Iraq, Dr Spyer notes “an inevitable sense of moving towards [a referendum] that was almost palpable and tangible”. Regardless of the outcome, Israel seems set to continue to play a role behind the scenes.

Despite the recent setbacks occasioned by IS, most notably in the crisis around Mount Sinjar,  for the first time the Kurds have achieved self-determination in two out of the four states in which they are present .

The quick-moving sands of the Middle East have shifted once again. Now Turkey and Israel stand once again at odds with one another, the Iraqi government is an Iranian proxy, and the US and Iran appear to be edging closer together. Out of the rubble of devastation in the region we may yet witness the birth of a Kurdish state, to which Israel has been a helpful, if self-interested, midwife.