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Two middle-eastern peoples are struggling for their survival against fascistic colonial powers. Both face selfish indifference as to their plight from the so-called “international community”, and both call out for international solidarity from ordinary folk around the world as the only force that can help shift the powers weighted against them. But solidarity between the two peoples themselves is mired in confusion. It is a confusion deliberately nurtured by the powers that oppress them, and cutting through the confusion is a vital part of the struggle for both the Kurds and the Palestinians.
Both peoples are under attack from a powerfully armed state determined to extinguish them and their culture. Both have faced mass displacements aimed at breaking their will and also at achieving “ethnic cleansing”. Both have seen their cities suffer large-scale military attacks that have left many civilian casualties and a legacy of mental trauma. Both have seen the legal system used as a further avenue of attack, while violence against them is not only tolerated but encouraged. Both have suffered deliberate destruction of their environment by powers that regard this as just another weapon of war and that control the rivers that bring them life. (Both have wept over olive trees as well as loved ones.) And both peoples have been deliberately othered as pariahs in the eyes of the wider population.
Both peoples have been left to the mercy of hostile occupiers as a consequence of decisions taken by the world’s major imperial powers, and the leaders of those powers even now refuse to acknowledge their acts of resistance.
This week’s carnage in Palestine follows intensifying crackdowns by an increasingly right-wing ethno-nationalist government and the even more extreme nationalists that it fosters. The immediate trigger was the imminent eviction of Palestinian families as part of the erasure of Palestinian East Jerusalem. One of those families, whose years of resilience and struggle has been broadcast around the world, bears the name El Kurd – a testament to their origins in Kurdistan. Over the centuries, many Kurds have made Palestine their home, and though ethnic background makes no difference to the rightness of their case, this link provides a further reminder that both peoples are fighting the same struggle against oppression. Mohammed el-Kurd wrote, “We chant for our freedom while they [Israeli nationalists] chant for our death”.
More politically engaged Kurds, such as the leadership of the HDP, fully understand the need to “stand by the oppressed Palestinian people”, but it is both depressing and worrying to see debates among Kurds about whether or not they should support the Palestinians, and also the antagonism from some Palestinians towards the Kurds. It wasn’t always this way. The Palestine Liberation Organisation – especially its Marxist factions, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine – played a major role in training PKK guerrillas, and 13 PKK cadres lost their lives in the fight against Israel’s occupation of Lebanon in 1982. (Though we also have to acknowledge, because real life is never simple, that the PFLP were sadly taken in by Saddam Hussein.)
Both Israel and Turkey attempt to exploit every situation for their own interests. Many Israelis see the Kurds as a reflection of their own carefully nurtured image of the brave underdog fighting for survival against all the odds, especially as the Kurds have defeated ISIS and are defending themselves against a regime that boasts of its Muslim credentials. An association with Kurds is seen as a source of good public relations, and Israelis like to wave the flag of (South/Iraqi) Kurdistan. Israel has also actively supported the Kurds in Iraq over many decades, seeing them as an important counter to Arab power, and they were the only country to welcome the independence referendum held by the Iraqi Kurds in 2017.
Some Kurds have been deceived by this opportunistic display of friendship, somehow managing to overlook the fact that Israel regards the PKK as terrorists and is commonly believed to have played a role in the capture of Abdullah Öcalan, and that they have developed strong opportunistic relations with Azerbaijan for whom Israel are a major arms supplier. Israeli drones played a crucial role in the recent brutal war against the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, and they won’t risk jeopardising their Azerbaijani relationship, or their chequered relationship with Turkey, by recognising the Armenian Genocide.
The hypocrisy of Israel’s Benjamin Natanyahu is only matched by that of Turkey’s President Erdoğan, who has been vocal in his efforts to place himself at the head of the Muslim world and to win support as a saviour of Islam’s oppressed. According to the Turkish state-run Andalou News Agency, the Imam of Al Aqsa Mosque, which has been repeatedly stormed by Israeli troops, thanked Erdoğan for his “precious” speeches; but the agency also report that Turkey has revoked an invitation to the Israeli Energy Minister to attend an international diplomacy conference in June. Before Palestine burst back onto the world stage, Erdoğan was rebuilding Turkish Israeli relations, even though he must have been fully aware of the growing oppression against the Palestinians. Erdoğan has pushed both trade and military ties with Israel in the past, and, for all his rhetoric, trade relations with Israel are significant and have never stopped. In December, Turkey’s presidential advisor on foreign affairs was telling Voice of America, “Turkey’s and Israel’s defense industries can go ahead together.” All the things that Erdoğan calls out Israel for doing, he does himself against the Kurds.
To make the situation more complicated, today’s leading Palestinian politicians are much closer to Turkey than in the early days of the PKK, especially those in Hamas, which is in control in Gaza; but it would be wrong to dismiss the decades-long grassroots struggle of the Palestinian people against Israeli oppression because we don’t like the politicians in Gaza or Ramallah. The struggle for Palestinian freedom, predates and transcends Hamas and Fatah. Its strength is the resistance of the people on the streets or refusing to leave their homes, who need unstinting support. For Kurds who have had direct experience of intolerant forms of Islamist politics and have observed the closeness between Hamas and Erdoğan, concerns over this are inevitable, but their support has an extra value as it can help undercut the divisive Islamist narrative in both Palestine and Turkey. It can help reinforce the essential anti-colonial nature of the Palestinian struggle, and it can also disrupt Erdoğan’s hypocritical attempts to garner support through portraying himself as the true sponsor of oppressed people.
Links between the Palestinian and Kurdish struggles are often missing from international support too. It is also striking how hard it is for pro-Kurdish campaigns to raise even a fraction of the level of support that is shown for the Palestinians. Kurdish activists have a long way to go to reach the popular awareness that has been achieved for Palestine – which is not, of course, to imply that there is anything to envy in the Palestinians’ position.
The images coming out of Jerusalem and Gaza are generating widespread empathy, and growing recognition of the Palestinians’ right to resist. But, for the more politically engaged, the Palestinian struggle is also recognised as part of the wider struggle against the forces of imperialism and capitalist control that generated and reinforce the current world order and the oppression it has spawned. With this recognition should come realisation of the need to link the Palestinian struggle with other struggles against this system, including the struggle taking place close by in Kurdistan.
While Israel is sending troops into Gaza under a media spotlight, Turkey continues its invasion of Iraqi (South) Kurdistan almost unnoticed. Turkish forces are continuing to drop bombs and troops on the Iraqi Kurdistan mountains, promising to eliminate the Kurdish guerrillas at the same time as dreaming of a greater Turkey that incorporates large parts of Iraq and Syria. They are also continuing their attempts to impose their rule over ever greater areas of northern Syria, including using their control over the Euphrates to deprive the whole region of essential water – a much neglected assault that I have written about in more detail here. Within its own borders, Turkey is carrying out military operations in Dersim that have included setting a forest fire that has been burning for five days. And, as we wait for the mass show-trial of the People’s’ Democratic Party (HDP) to restart after lockdown, the party’s Ankara office was attacked by men throwing rocks. The HDP claims that surveillance cameras show deliberate inaction on the part of the police. Meanwhile, a convicted mafia boss is accusing members of the Turkish government of corruption and of working with the mafia.
Kurdish activists have been organising a mix of actions to try and draw attention to the assault on their existence that is taking place on all these fronts. These actions include four weeks of demonstrations outside the Council of Europe, and Thursday protests at US consulates against the bounty they have put on the heads of PKK leaders, alongside other events in different cities in Europe and beyond. While the main focus is the war that Turkey has launched in South Kurdistan, these actions address the spectrum of Turkish aggression because the organisers understand how everything is linked.
However, the response these actions will get out with the Kurdish community is likely to be limited and they will go under the radar of most of those out on the streets for Palestine. This failure to connect impacts organisational strength, and it affects the ability to situate both specific struggles as part of the bigger struggle against imperialism and capitalism. It makes it harder to find radical solutions that don’t repeat the oppressions that people are fighting against. Here, the Kurdish approach, developed from the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, can make an important contribution. Israel provides a dreadful warning of what happens when an oppressed people seek to escape their oppression by reproducing the structures that they are escaping from. The fact that Jews were once the oppressed does not make Jewish ethnic nationalism any more palatable than other ethnic nationalisms. For Öcalan, this problem requires a major change of approach. A people cannot find freedom through creating their own nation state, which would then put them in a position of dominance over others. Freedom comes from everyone working together to build an inclusive society based on radical democracy.