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May 12, 2003

The Israeli-Kurd nexus

[...]In the 12th century, the famous Kurd leader Salahuddin Ayubi, the arch foe of England's Richard the Lion heart, recaptured Jerusalem and ruled an empire stretching from Syria to Egypt. According to some ethnologists, Kurds belong to one of the "lost tribes of Israel". Immigration of Jewish Kurds to the new state of Israel took place in the early 20th century. Emigrating to Israel en mass between 1950 and 1951, the Kurds then worked in quarries and road building. They also owned fruit and vegetable stores in Jerusalem. Porterage was another occupation that they monopolised. Known for their big and heavy built, they were ideally suited for this manual profession. Some of the children of these builders have now become wealthy businessmen with dozens of Kurdish contractors. The last two presidents of the Contractors Association in Israel were Kurds. These companies are involved in big construction projects in Africa, USA and Europe. They have also gone in hotel management in cities such as Jerusalem, Eilat, Tiberius and Netanya. Some Kurds have also settled in the countryside in the mountainous areas of Jerusalem, around Haifa and the Jordan Valley. Some were educated abroad and joined government service and served as high-ranking police and military officials, including one Kurdish General Itzhak Mordechai, who headed the Israeli Northern Command.

The Israeli Kurds have followed the struggle of their brethren but have been constrained in fully supporting them. The late Kurdish leader Mustafa Barazani visited Israel secretly twice in the 1960s and 1970s and kept his contacts. In 1972, nearly 50,000 Kurds lived in Jerusalem alone. An organisation named Israeli Kurdish League was founded in 1993 in response to the long-felt need to coordinate Kurdish cultural and scholarly activities in Israel.

Ironically, the Arab Muslims in Israel have not shown any gesture of goodwill or humanitarian assistance to the Kurds community outside. As compared to support for the Palestinian cause, they have maintained cold feelings for Muslim Kurds. Most probably, this has something to do with them being non-Arabs. Moreover, the Palestinians were not interested in spoiling their relations with Saddam Hussein's Iraq who was a supporter of their cause and even a financier to Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian fighters. Kurds, in many ways, admire Israel for the way the Israelis have built their state and created a strong defence capability. It is a model for them, though the Kurds know that this has been made possible because of US patronage.

The PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), which is led by Jalal Talabani, is one of the major parties that has been in control of northern Kurdistan in Iraq. Jalal Talabani once observed: "Today, as the Arab countries themselves and also the Palestinians are negotiating publicly with Israel and its representatives, we, the Kurds, can negotiate also."

Kurds solicited Israeli help in the 1980s against chemical weapons used by Saddam Hussein in northern Kurdistan in March 1988 in which nearly 5,000 Kurdish people died. Before the 1991 Gulf war, they had been asking for technical, logistic land political support from Israel and the US Jewish communities. After the 1991 Gulf war, they expected aid from the US and allies but were refused. However, the then military commander Gen Jay Garner was instrumental in creating a "safe haven" for the Kurdish refugees. Thus, for over eleven years they enjoyed a semi-autonomous status through the enforcement of "no-fly security zone".[more]