Messages of solidarity and support for the Kurdish people have dominated Israeli discourse since Turkey’s invasion of Rojava in northern Syria last week. A day after Turkey launched its attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on Twitter: “Israel strongly condemns the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish areas in Syria and warns against the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey and its proxies. Israel is prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people.”
For decades, Israeli politicians have echoed this relationship between the Jewish and Kurdish people. The dominant Israeli narrative presents a seemingly strong political and moral partnership with the Kurds. A closer look, however, shows that Israel’s alliance is one of pure convenience.
Throughout the 2000s, Israel militarily supported Kurdish forces, including training in Syria and Iraq. Around the same time, it sold 170 M60T tanks, worth $688 million, to Turkey, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Arms Transfers Database.
The year this sale was announced — 2002 — was the same year that then-Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit outlawed classes in the Kurdish language at schools and universities across the country. More than 100 Kurds were arrested for protesting against this change. Also that year, Turkey’s broadcasting watchdog banned a pro-Kurdish television station for a year, and the EU added the PKK — the Kurdish separatist party that has been fighting an armed insurgency against Turkey since the early 80s — to its list of black-listed terrorist organizations at Turkey’s request. All with no criticism from Israel.
In 2009, Turkey was Israel’s top arms client. This was the same year the Turkish constitutional court banned the Democratic Society Party, the main Kurdish nationalist party in Turkey, and subsequently put its leaders on trial for terrorism. Overall, 1,400 DTP members were arrested and 900 detained in the government crackdown against the party.
However, it was not the crackdown on Kurdish nationalism that severed the military ties between Israel and Turkey that year. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was vocal in his opposition to Operation Cast Lead, going so far as to say that the war would harm military relations between the countries. Israel continued exporting weapons to Turkey in 2010, but by 2011 there was another drop in sales, following the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla, which led to the killing of eight Turkish nationals, subsequently suspending Israeli-Turkish diplomatic relations. As such, it was specific Israeli military attacks against Palestinians and their supporters that lead to the severing of Israeli-Turkish military ties, and not the constant violence of the Turkish state against the Kurds.
How can we explain this Israeli support for the Kurdish people in both practice and rhetoric, while it simultaneously arms one of the main forces oppressing Kurdish people? The answer is rather simple: Israeli governments have supported the Kurdish people when it has been convenient, and backed their oppressors when that better served Israel’s political and economic interests. At times — during most of the 2000s, for example — Israel did both at the same time.
If supporting the Kurdish authorities in Iraq serves Israel’s interest of weakening Syrian and Iranian influence in the region, great. If Israel can profit off selling Turkey drones, including Heron drones used in a Turkish invasion of Kurdish northern Iraq in 2008, great.
Former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked clearly stated her support for the Kurds, saying: “We must openly call for the establishment of a Kurdish state that separates Iran from Turkey, one which will be friendly towards Israel.” Why support a Kurdish state? So that it will be a friendly ally to Israel between Iran and Turkey. This call for independence for an occupied people is extremely ironic coming from Israel, which denies the right of self-determination to millions of Palestinians that it controls under occupation.
This should serve as a reminder that Israel’s position on the Kurds is not motivated by morality, but self-interest. As long as Israel continues to occupy millions of Palestinians, it cannot fight for the liberation of other nations and claim that it’s driven by the desire to “do the right thing.”