By: Lysithea Renaud
Kurdistan is a Middle East region that spreads through today's Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.
This territory is essentially a state without official borders and has fought for decades to obtain its independence.
Out of the four parts of Kurdistan, only Iraqi Kurdistan enjoys a high level of autonomy over its own affairs and has even had an independence referendum in 2017 - although unsuccessful. The central government of Iraq does not recognize the legality of this referendum.
Kurdish-Israeli relations developed even before the modern states were created, going back to the large amount of Jews who used to live in the region of Kurdistan, who were then forced to leave after the creation of the State of Israel.
Brief History of Iraqi Kurdistan
Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region within the territory in Iraq. The majority of its inhabitants are ethnic Kurds and belong to the Sunni denomination of Islam. Although the region has a considerable minority of Arabs, Shia, Christians and historically Jews. In addition, the region has accepted a large number of refugees from neighboring regions of Iraq.
The government of Iraqi Kurdistan is in Erbil and operated autnomously from Baghdad since 1991 and officially recognized by the Iraqi constitution since 2003.
Therefore, Iraqi Kurdistan is considered as the most “free and independent” of all the Kurdish regions. In the late 1980’s, Saddam Hussein attacked the Kurds with destruction arms in the “Anfal” campaign.
In 1988, in the city of Halabja, civilians were deliberately targeted with chemical weapons. The Kurdish population was not allowed to speak its language or to respect its customs. Their names were changed to look more “Arabic” and Arabic people were displaced in their villages to “break their unity”.
In 1991, the international coalition against Saddam Hussein established a partial non-fly zone in the north of Iraq which helped the Kurdish forces to consolidate their position in the region.
The post-Saddam reconstruction was difficult for the Kurdish region and included the
reconstruction of infrastructure, the creation of a Kurdish administration and helping the large number of displaced people.
One of the main problem remains: the geographical location of the territory. It is totally surrounded by states (Syria, Iran and Turkey) which do not support Kurdish aspirations for an independent state as their own territory encompasses parts of Greater Kurdistan.
Brief History of Israel
Israel obtained its Independence after its war of independence and with an international resolution from the United Nations General Assembly on the 14th of May 1948. The war began after the new state was invaded by by 5 foreign armies.
Some similarities exists between the Jews and Kurds, they are both a small nation, traumatized by persecutions and war and both have been delegitimized and denied the right to their own state. In addition, they have often faced a common enemy - albeit in different conflicts.
The Kurdish Political Situation
In September 2017, a referendum occurred in Iraqi Kurdistan concerning the independence of the state. Results were clear: the Kurdish population wanted independence - to separate
from the Iraqi government in Baghdad. With little international support for real independence, Israel found itself as one of the few public supporters of Kurdish succession from Iraq.
The 2018 elections in Kurdistan confirmed that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) remain the dominant forces in Iraqi Kurdish politics but the referendum in 2017 weakened their cooperation and their position with Baghdad government.
Since the referendum, the government in Baghdad has taken a number of military, economic and diplomatic steps to put pressure on Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan to reverse the decision.
The United Nations, with the support of United States government and European Union
States, want to encourage the government in Erbil to initiate institutional reforms in the
Kurdish region and a sustainable agreement with Baghdad on two issues: revenue sharing and the status of the disputed territories - namely Kirkuk and the surrounding regions.
Israel-Iraqi Kurdistan Relations
Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan have maintained clandestine relations for decades, as both parties are reluctant to admit the existence of these relations. These secretive relations apparently began after the outbreak of the Kurdish rebellion in the autumn of 1961, although they were formed because of the large population of Kurdish Jews in Israel who maintained good relations with their compatriots in Kurdistan.
In 1964, during the war in Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the Kurdish interlocutors for Israel suggested to his leader (Mulla Mustafa) that he contact Israel for help. A meeting was held in Israel and Israel decided to send a permanent representative in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Many reports have proved that secret visits happened in Israel between 1968 and 1973, with Kurdish officials attending. In addition, these same reports that Iraqi Kurdistan has been host to prominent Israeli figures during the same time.
In 1966, an Iraqi minister blamed the Kurds seeking to create a second Israel. Arab media
claimed that Kurds are following the footsteps of Israel. This has been a claim by Iraqi officials and Arab media outlets ever since, accusing Kurds of being 'Israel sympathisers.'
In March 1975, the Alger agreement has been adopted between Israel and Iran. This agreement settled the border limits and disputes between the two nations. But one of the main reason for these agreements was to end the Kurdish rebellion, after that, the links between Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan were terminated, with ties reappearing a few years later.
Seemingly, Israel is the privileged link between Kurdistan and United States, with Israel urging the United States to defend Kurds from Saddam Hussein. In 2003, during the war in Iraq, the Kurdish Autonmous Region was bolstered, reinvigorated ties between Israel and the Erbil government.
In 2005, the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) and President Masoud Barzani stated that "establishing relations between the Kurds and Israel is not a crime since many Arab countries have ties with the Jewish state."
In 2013 and 2014, the Islamic State (ISIS) lead to the crumbling of the Iraqi state. This violence threatened Iraq’s unity. A referendum for the independence of Kurdistan was supposed to be held in 2014 but the Erbil government agreed with Baghdad to postpone it while fighting together against Islamic State's presence in the region.
In 2017, the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan was an important event. Israel supported this
referendum, considered by Prime Minister Netanyahu as a “legitimate process." Israel fully supported the Kurdish independence bid. More than this, the Israeli Prime Minister asked the United States to support this referendum as well.
The same year, a bill was approved in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) to allow Israeli citizens to travel or do business in the Kurdish region of Iraq. After these signs of
support and large Kurdish support for Israel, the Iraqi government passed a law forbidding the display of Israeli flags in the country - including in the Kurdistan Region.
Economic Relations Between Israel and Kurdistan
The local economy is dominated by oil the industry, agriculture and tourism. Investment
opportunities are growing in Iraqi Kurdistan, although Kurdistan has faced an economic crisis
International involvement in the Kurdish economy is growing however. Since 2017, Israeli
people are allowed to travel and do business in Iraqi Kurdistan. Russian firms are
also involved in Iraqi Kurdistan to further develop the oil industry despite the security threat
from various Islamic groups. In addition, many Turkish companies are working in the Iraqi Kurdish region.
In 2017, it was reported that most of the oil in Israel came from Iraqi Kurdistan and a large portion of the oil produced in Iraqi Kurdistan territory was sent to Israel.
In the short term, it seems that Kurdish independence aspirations have been put on hold for economic concerns. The major oil pipeline from Kurdistan crosses Turkey’s territory and goes to the Ceyhan port - from there it is apparently is shipped to Israel.
The Turkish president Erdogan threatened the Kurdish authority to shut down the pipeline it if they take any action to implement their autonomy, their independence. The Iranian government threatened to take economic measures too if the Erbil government decides to act for its independence.
On many cases, it seems that Israel is the point of contact of Iraqi Kurdistan with the world. It has been reported that Israel helped Iraqi Kurdistan export from its enclave between different states which are not friendly to the Kurdish movement. Various reports have shown that Iraqi Kurdish oil has arrived on the global market through Israel.
Between the Iraqi Kurdistan and Israeli population, we can observe a certain admiration for one another. Kurdistan has often felt the necessity to imitate the establishment of Israel, to gain its own independence. In addition, because of historical Jewish-Kurdish friends, both countries show signs of mutual trust in their relations.
Jewish people in Kurdistan were accepted and treated well for centuries, with their religious rights respected and extensive have economic freedom when compared to neighboring regions. It is also important to note the common difficulties faced by these two population during their history.
Before the establishment of Israel, the Jewish people in Kurdistan lived well amongst their Kurdish brothers and sisters. With the creation of the State of Israel, the Iraqi central government made it nearly impossible for Jews in Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq to remain - most emigrated for Israel.
Later, during the Iraqi conflict, Kurdish people continued to emigrate in Israel. An Israeli-Kurdish friendship league has been established in Jerusalem and Kurdish traditions are still respected in Israel. With such deep roots of friendship, Kurdish people have high expectations of Israeli support.
Since 2007, Israel has developed a humanitarian project to allow Kurdish children to receive
medical care in Israel territory. The organization “save a child’s heart” is a Israeli organization
and participates in the development of this type of project.
Relations with Greater Kurdistan
Kurdistan is not limited to Iraqi territory, with Kurdistan stretching through the territory of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey - all of whom seek independence. Although relations between Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan are well developed and somewhat out in the open, it is not necessarily the case with other parts of Kurdistan.
With the above said however, the lower levels of cooperation could mean that they are more secretive with their relations, as governments such as in Iran and Syria punish severely any relations with Israel and its citizens.
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