A Kurdish man holds an Israeli and Kurdish flag during a rally to show their support for the upcoming September 25th independence referendum in Erbil, Iraq September 16, 2017..
(photo credit: REUTERS/AZAD LASHKARIG)
In recent weeks Israel flags appeared frequently among the sea of Kurdish flags at pro-independence rallies across Europe and in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. In Cologne in late August and then Geneva and Oslo, Israel flags were waved proudly by attendees. On September 16 the blue and white appeared at rallies in Brussels, Hamburg and Stockholm. The unprecedented embrace of the Israeli flag comes amidst Israel’s support for Kurdish rights and historic connections between the two nations.
The rallies are in response to an independence referendum planned
by the Kurdistan Regional Government for September 25. Announced in June, the Kurdistan parliament in the autonomous region in northern Iraq approved it on September 15. Since September 5 the Kurdistan region and diaspora communities have been holding increasingly large rallies in support of the nation’s hopes for independence. This has been more than 100 years in the making, say many Kurds. The Kurdish people live in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, divided by the colonial borders set down after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In Iraq they have enjoyed autonomy since the 1990s. After three years of war against ISIS the local government thinks it is time to show the world that the people want independence.
The international community’s response has been tepid. On September 15 the White House released a statement saying the United States does not support the intention to hold a referendum. Other members of the international coalition fighting ISIS, who have been working with the Kurds and the Iraqi government, have also pressured the KRG to postpone. Israel is the only country to openly back Kurdish aspirations. “Israel supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said on September 13. Speaking at the ICT’s World Counter-Terrorism summit on September 11, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said, “Israel and countries in the West have a major interest in the establishment of the state of Kurdistan.”
In the Kurdistan region, Israeli flags have also been brought to Akre, Dohuk and Erbil rallies. Tens of thousands have attended these events. At no other rallies in the Middle East outside of Israel are Israeli flags present. In Egypt a recent controversy even erupted over the image of an Israeli flag in a textbook. In Iran the only Israeli flags on display are when they are being burned or trampled. Even across Europe and the West, Israeli flags are often a point of controversy, banned from events or the recipient of ire at anti-Israel protests.
Kurds, however, have a long history of connections to Israel, both when Jews lived in Kurdistan before the foundation of Israel and after, when Israel sent clandestine assistance to Kurds resisting Iraqi oppression. In recent years Israeli politicians have increasingly expressed open support for Kurds. In conversations I’ve had with Kurdish soldiers, politicians and locals, they generally see Israel and their people as facing the same enemies, whether it is Saddam Hussein’s genocide in the 1980s or Islamist extremism such as ISIS more recently. Today Iran and its Shia militias across the region threaten Kurds and Israel.
The Iraqi central government in Baghdad has opposed the referendum and threatened the Kurdish region with repercussions if it goes ahead.
Masoud Barzani, the president of the KRG, has said the referendum will not be postponed and that “dialogue with Baghdad will resume after the referendum.” The pro-referendum Kurdish leadership has stressed that the referendum is a natural right.
As the referendum date nears, there is a growing presence of Israeli flags and a feeling that the West has not stood by Kurdish democratic desires and demands for the same freedoms and referendums that have been held in Western states such as the Scottish referendum or Brexit. So far the flags have not engendered much controversy. Historically in Arab nationalist circles, Kurdistan was accused of being a “second Israel.” Ofra Bengio noted in a 2014 article for Middle East Quarterly
that as early as 1966 Iraqi defense minister Abd al-Aziz al-Uqayli used this accusation. Given the long history of accusations against Kurds, it seems the visibility of the Israeli flag represents the maturation of decades of cultivation of this unique relationship.