On March 16, Kurds commemorated the 29th anniversary of Sadaam Hussein’s chemical attack on the city of Halabja. During the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein’s government launched what is known as the Anfal-Campaign against the Kurds in the north, which resulted in over 180,000 Kurdish deaths. The most notorious incident was the attack on Halabja on March 16th, where over 5,000 people were killed in less than 2 hours by chemical weapons and mustard gas. Many have considered the event to be an act of genocide and one could hypothetically describe it as the “Kurdish Holocaust,” given the similar narratives the Kurds and the Jews have.
The Jewish people and the Kurds share a common narrative through their experiences of oppression and their struggles for statehood in the Middle East. They both experienced a mass genocide in the 20th century and their nationalist sentiments have been delegitimized by their neighboring Arab states. In 1966 then Iraqi defense minister Abd al-Uqayli accused the Kurds of trying to establish a “second Israel” in the Middle East through Kurdistan and some Arab media have accused the Kurds of trying to create a second Naqba like Israel.
Perhaps it is because of their common narratives that the Kurds of Iraq see help from Israel as a means to their independence. In a 2009 poll in Iraqi Kurdistan, 71% said they supported establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, and 67% said establishing such relations are an important step towards Kurdish independence.
Just as it would be within Israel’s interest to enhance its cooperation with moderate Arab states, security cooperation with the Iraqi Kurds would provide similar benefits. Since the summer of 2014, the Iraqi Kurds’ security force, the Peshmerga, has proven to be the most formidable force against ISIS on the ground. Open relations with an independent Kurdistan may allow Israel to work and train with the Peshmerga to combat common enemies. Israel can also receive intelligence information from the Iraqi Kurds in regards to their neighbors, such as Iran and Syria.
Israel and the Iraqi Kurds have worked with each other before. From 1965-1975, Israel trained and helped Kurdish rebels in their insurgency against their common enemy in the Baathist government in Baghdad. Sergey Minasian references Mossad official Eliezer Tsafrir who said that Israel had “military advisers at the headquarters of Mulla Mustafa Barzani in 1963-1975, trained and supplied the Kurdish units with fire arms, field and anti-aircraft artillery.”
On a civil society level, Jewish organizations worldwide began lobbying to help the Kurds after Sadaam’s government had suppressed them against after Operation Desert Storm in 1991. In fact, many Israeli Kurds led demonstrations in front of then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. This may have been what pushed Shamir to urge US Secretary of State James Baker to take action to help the Kurds. The United States eventually helped establish a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan, which has granted the Iraqi Kurds autonomy to this day.
Indeed, Israel and the Kurds have helped each in the past and now Israel can offer their support for Kurdish independence. Recent developments have allowed for the viability for an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq.
In his book The Miracle of the Kurds, Stephen Mansfield describes how the Kurds of Iraq have created a vibrant society over the past decade. As of 2014, Iraqi Kurdistan saw an economic growth rate of over 10% and “its GDP was 50% higher than the rest of Iraq.” Iraqi Kurdistan has also proven to be one of the most religiously tolerant societies in the Middle East. For instance, between 2003-2014, over 150,000 Christians fled southern Iraq due to violence and discrimination, and most of them came to Iraqi Kurdistan or Europe.
Today, a first step the Israeli government can take to support the establishment of an independent Kurdistan is recognizing the Halabja incident as genocide. As Ofra Bengio, Israeli scholar on Kurdish affairs, says, “The Israeli Knesset should consider… recognition of the Kurdish genocide. Representing a people that have also suffered the terrors of chemical weapons, Israel cannot remain aloof when it comes to the Kurds who suffered the same fate.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu has said in the past that he supports Iraqi Kurdish independence and now may be the time to take such an initiative. Israel recognizing the Halabja genocide may be a first step in pursuing Kurdish independence, and just as security cooperation with Jordan and other moderate Arab states is crucial to enhancing security in the region, so too can cooperation between the IDF and the Peshmerga. Israeli-Kurdish cooperation can be an added bonus to such an alliance in the Middle East.