Faced with criticism of the war in Gaza, Israeli leaders cynically ask why the world worries about the Palestinians and not the Kurds. Israel’s supposed pro-Kurdish stance is empty posturing — and risks damaging the Kurdish fight for liberation.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during an event commemorating the 1948 Altalena Affair, June 18. (SHAUL GOLAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Days after an airstrike on a Gazan refugee camp killed dozens of civilians, Palestinian campaigners urged “All eyes on Rafah.” But far-right podcaster Yair Netanyahu instead urged “All eyes on Kurdistan.” The Miami-based thirty-two-year-old, the failson of the Israeli prime minister, here attempted a typical kind of “Kurd-washing.” The trick has been repeatedly deployed during the war by his father Benjamin Netanyahu and other prominent Israeli lobbyists and leaders, notably foreign minister Israel Katz — most recently in a war of words over Israel’s mooted operation in Lebanon. Kurdish suffering is raised as a mere ruse to deflect criticism of a war that has seen the International Court of Justice warn Israel against acts of genocide.

In turn, one of the Kurdish cause’s foremost enemies — Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — styles himself as defender of the Palestinian struggle. Given the historic and contemporary state violence committed against the Kurds by many of Israel’s enemies, from Iran to Iraq and Syria, it might seem obvious for Israel and the Kurds to find common cause.

But in truth, the divides aren’t quite so simple. Erdoğan continues to profit from oil sales fueling Israel’s slaughter, striking a diplomatic balance between vocal opposition to and pragmatic engagement with Israel in order to maintain regional influence and secure post-conflict reconstruction contracts. Likewise, Israel’s nominal support for the Kurdish cause might line the pockets of US-allied Iraqi Kurdish elites but does nothing to help millions of ordinary Kurds. Rather, it exposes innocent Kurds to retributive violence from Iran, helps Erdoğan garner support for his attacks on the Kurds, and endangers recent gains made by the transnational left-wing Kurdish movement, notably in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan).

Israel is seeking to “profit from the instrumentalization of the Kurdish struggle for freedom,” says Nilüfer Koç, spokeswoman for the Foreign Policy Committee of the umbrella Kurdistan National Congress. “[But] the Kurdish people organize ourselves and fight for freedom without the need for support from any state.”

Good Guys

Benjamin Netanyahu, who was recently issued an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for crimes against humanity, insisted late last year that “Erdoğan, who is committing genocide against the Kurds . . . is the last person who can preach morality to us.”

This typical piece of Kurd-washing, fired out once the Israeli war on Gaza was already well underway, has three implications. First, that neighboring states that slaughter Kurds have no right to condemn Israel’s slaughter of the Palestinians; second, that criticism of Israel’s war on Gaza is a matter of regional competition between broadly equivalent states, always driven by cynical self-interest rather than genuine humanitarian concern; and third, that the Israelis are akin to the Kurds, the only democratic peoples in a Middle East that is otherwise a barren desert governed by brutal savages indistinguishable from what Netanyahu calls “Hamas-ISIS.”

It’s not just Netanyahu and Katz. The pro-government tabloid Jerusalem Post frequently expresses support for the Kurds, blurring the sharp distinction between the colonial establishment of the Israeli state and the long-term colonization suffered by Kurds to bizarrely represent the (Sunni Muslim) Kurds as the “Evangelicals of the Muslim World.” The Post trumpets a “strong and special relationship,” even while admitting Israel gave “no substantial support” to prevent Turkey’s 2019 ethnic cleansing of Syrian Kurds, just more tweets from Netanyahu. Community representatives for Israel’s estimated three hundred thousand ethnic Kurds align with the national government. A delegation from the Kurdish diaspora in Germany recently visited Israel to lend its solidarity. And a Kurdish doctor who worked in a Gazan hospital was recently trotted out in the press to claim that most people there “hate Kurds.”

In all these accounts, we’re made to think of Israelis, through a favorable comparison that joins them with the Kurds, as feminist, secular, the “good guys” adrift in an ocean of Islamist evil. But beyond the headlines, nothing is so clear.

The “Bad” Kurds

Israel’s propaganda deliberately obscures the fact that “Kurdish” is not some sort of liberal, pro-Western political affiliation but an ethnic identity, containing an extremely broad range of politics. Ghassan Kanafani, the famous Palestinian intellectual and communist militant, had Kurdish heritage; but so does Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s hard-line minister of national security, who recently clashed with Palestinians also of Kurdish heritage in East Jerusalem. The mere fact of Kurdish ethnicity tells us nothing, politically. Most ordinary Kurds express straightforward sympathy with their fellow Sunni Muslims in Palestine.

Western policymakers have long drawn a famous, politically convenient distinction between good” and “bad” Kurds. The “good” ones are the US-allied authorities in the semiautonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), which in the years following the US invasion met up to three-quarters of Israel’s oil needs. The “bad” Kurds are the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its associated forces, who in fact began their struggle for Kurdish, women’s, and minority self-determination by fighting Israel and dying alongside Kanafani’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. (This distinction, largely intended to placate the United States’ key NATO ally Turkey, has since been thrown into question by the leading role of this same “bad” Kurdish movement in the fight against ISIS, bringing its revolutionary cause to unexpected global prominence.)

As such, Israel’s nominal support only extends as far as the “good” Kurds. Israeli oil purchases and diplomatic support benefit the “good” Iraqi Kurdish elites. For example, the German-Kurdish delegation to Israel was led by the Kurdische Gemeinde Deutschland, an institutional body that enjoys close links with the German government and the dominant Iraqi Kurdish party. It has nothing to do with the leftist Kurdish movement supported by many German Kurds of Turkish origin.

Likewise, the Kurdish doctor in Gaza’s case is representative. Given that “al-Kurd” is a common surname in Palestine, there’s reason to doubt the doctor’s claim that Gazans reviled him because of his Kurdish name; and again, his media appearances were filtered through institutional KRI-affiliated outlets.

Responding to the doctor’s claims, a Hamas spokesperson said: “We consider the role of the Kurdish people in defending Palestine . . . as an authentic, historic and permanent role. We are indebted to the Kurdish people for all the sacrifices they have given throughout centuries for Palestine.” He was speaking of the militant, “bad” Kurdish movement.

Hypocrisy

Israel’s geopolitical interest in the Kurdish cause is limited to the “good,” pro-Western KRI, through which it hopes to establish a pro-Western axis in the Middle East as part of its so-called periphery doctrine. This seeks closer relations with other non-Arab or Muslim groups in the broader region to break Israel out of isolation. For Israeli Kurdish leader Yehuda Ben-Yosef, for example, were the (Iraqi) Kurds to be granted statehood, “it could be Israel’s next Azerbaijan . . . our ambassadors to the Muslim world.” That is, Israeli elites believe Iraqi Kurdish elites could easily be bought.

The analogy with Turkey’s military client Azerbaijan is telling. Israel has long forged a strategic three-way relationship together with Turkey and Azerbaijan. Although Netanyahu has reviled Turkey for its historic acts of genocide, Israel in fact refuses to recognize Turkey’s genocide of up to 1.5 million Armenians. Israel’s Aerostar and Heron UAV technology was reportedly crucial in enabling Turkey to develop its own drones, facilitating its ethnic cleansing of Syrian Kurds; some ninety-two flights of Israeli weaponry landed in Azerbaijan ahead of that state’s 2023 ethnic cleansing of one hundred thousand Armenians.

Clearly, Israeli condemnation of Turkey’s genocidal policies is self-serving. But what about Turkey’s equally vocal condemnation of Israeli genocide in Gaza?

Public relations between the two countries have been rocky in recent years, with Erdoğan’s need to appeal to his Sunni Muslim base motivating significant support for Hamas. Nonetheless, as of 2023, trade between the two countries had reached $7 billion, making Turkey Israel’s fifth-largest exporter. As Turkey expert Soner Cagaptay has argued, both before and following October 7, Turkey sought to walk a tightrope, publicly opposing Israeli policies while remaining pragmatically open to trade, leaving Turkey free to play a strategic role “mediating” between Israel and its opponents while scooping up reconstruction contracts in Gaza.

Israel and Turkey “will shake hands again at some point,” predicts Koç, the Kurdish spokeswoman. Arguing that “the fate of the Palestinian people is unimportant to Erdoğan, the master of hypocrisy,” she represents Turkey as exploiting a “weakened and divided” Palestinian movement to strengthen its own position.

Erdoğan has recently felt pressured to impose a trade embargo on Israel, resulting in some concrete trade reductions. But 40 percent of Israel’s oil is reportedly still flowing from Azerbaijan, through Turkey, to Israel — through pipes operated by Turkey’s sovereign wealth fund, owned by Erdoğan himself.

Two Kurdish Perspectives

In fact, that same Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline long provided a conduit for the Iraqi Kurdish authorities to make oil sales to Israel, in full cooperation with Turkey. These sales were still worth up to 16 percent of the KRI’s exports in 2023, at which point sales were suspended due to Iraq’s internal political crisis. Masoud Barzani’s KRI regime has played its cards close to its chest since October 7, diplomatically expressing hopes Iraq would not be drawn into the conflict. As a weak quasi-state reliant on the US, but which also deals closely with Iraq and Iran while trading with Turkey and Israel, the KRI is in a bind. Yet even its attempted neutrality has not prevented Iran from striking targets in the KRI in an alleged response to Israeli attacks, knowing Israel will not actually lift a finger to defend its nominal Kurdish clients on the Middle Eastern “periphery.”

The contrast with the militant Kurdish movement is stark. The PKK has unequivocally condemned Israel’s genocide in Gaza and emphasized its own historical ties with the Palestinian cause. It accuses Turkey of rank hypocrisy in condemning Israel while conducting its own Israeli-style total-war bombing campaign against Kurdish regions, and it calls for a socialist, decentralized solution in the Middle East. It has done all this without shying away from criticizing Hamas. A recognition that the Palestinian cause has historically been partly co-opted by various actors (Saddam Hussein, Turkey, Iran) happy to slaughter innocent Kurds does not delegitimize the PKK’s commitment to socialist, internationalist solidarity with Palestine. Rather, it makes it all the more impressive.

Through his Kurd-washing analogies, Netanyahu hopes to link Israel and the Kurds. But in fact, he has much more in common with the Turkish leadership. In accusing one another of genocide, Erdoğan and Netanyahu unwittingly project their own genocidal politics onto the other. Israel and Turkey are “historical and strategic allies,” Koç notes, with both now striving for power amid a regional “war of partition.” Their tit-for-tat accusations mask a similar statist logic — and a pragmatic desire to continue trading oil, weapons, and construction contracts that will surely outlast both autocrats. Each state will continue using Kurdish, Armenian, and Palestinian lives as political talking points, enabling the continuation of their genocidal policies.

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