From Rojava to Ramallah: The trappings of statehood

What the Palestinians can learn from the Kurdish success story.

By BOB FEFERMAN, DAN FEFERMAN
December 14, 2015 21:15
Palestinians militants rally in Gaza City

Palestinians militants rally in Gaza City. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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As the current “stabbing intifada” waged by Palestinians against Israelis reaches its third month with no end in sight, and even the indefatigable John Kerry raised his hands in exasperation, the question once again arises: What now? How can the hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians be revived? Oddly enough, the answer to attaining the all-elusive Palestinian state may lie not in Jerusalem, and certainly not in Washington, but in a little known place called Erbil, and in an even lesser-known place called Rojava, with one of the Middle East’s more forgotten peoples – the Kurds.

A mostly Sunni-Muslim, non-Arab ethnic minority.

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The Kurdish people number around 25 million spanning from Eastern Turkey through northern Syria, northern Iraq and western Iran. Divided into four by the regrettable Sykes-Picot lines, the Kurds in each country chose a different path. And some of those offer clear lessons for the Palestinians.

One such path is told in a feature article in The New York Times Magazine (Nov. 29), and unfolds in Syria, of all places. In “A Dream of Utopia in Hell”, Wes Enzinna describes Rojava in terms no less miraculous than a flourishing oasis of sanity and even hope in the midst of a charred battlefield of insanity.

While Assad’s secular tyranny and Islamic State’s fanatically Islamist tyranny fight each other, Syria’s Kurds have banded together in an enclave “about the size of Connecticut” called Rojava in northern Syria.

It is there that the ideas and visionary leadership of jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan meet the radical political theory of a nearly forgotten American thinker named Murray Bookchin. The combination of their ideas has created nothing short of a utopian miracle, says Enzinna.

Ocalan, who sits by himself in a Turkish island prison, left the Arafat-like ways of terror behind, as he realized that fighting Turkey for independence was not realistic and cost his people too high a price.

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Instead, he turned Bookchin’s ideas into what he calls “Democratic Confederalism.”

Based on ancient Hellenic Greece-like city-states, Ocalan’s followers, who number roughly 4.5 million Kurds in northern Syria, have established a number of these democratic city states – where gender equality is enforced almost as extremely as the exact opposite is true just a few miles away in Islamic State-controlled areas. Elections ensure that the region’s non-Kurds are represented equally in matters of decision making.

Much can also be learned from the six million Kurds of northern Iraq. Protected by a US-led no-fly zone between the two Gulf Wars, the fall of Saddam Hussein ushered in an era of unparalleled autonomy, economic development and something that resembles democracy and tolerance more than anywhere else in the region.

Iraq’s Kurds turned the area the size of Switzerland into arguably the safest, most tolerant and stable part of Iraq and the region. Visitors to the capital in Erbil note a dramatic difference from the days of Saddam Hussein. Where rubble once lay, upscale homes, malls, fancy cars and all manners of “normal life” cover the now-booming Erbil. Where Hussein’s hyper-police state once ruled with an iron fist, a proto-democracy including a “regular elections, a boisterous parliament, an array of political parties and a raucous media,” secular government and even women’s rights have become mainstays, as the Economist details.

The key take-away is that the Kurds in both Syria and Turkey, and the Kurds of northern Iraq realized that the trappings of statehood meant little if the basis for a functioning society underneath was absent.

Instead, the Kurds turned inwards to gain stability.

Rather than apply for meaningless membership to myriad international organizations, they sought economic prosperity and good governance.

In clear contrast, the Palestinians have tried bullying their way to independence by waging terrorism through suicide bombings, stones, bullets and knives.

Hamas in Gaza has launched four futile “rocket wars” with Israel. Much of this violence has been intended – not to end the occupation and achieve peace through a two-state solution – but rather to eliminate the Jewish state entirely.

In the meantime, the “non-violent” Palestinian Authority maintains 106 embassies, consulates and representative offices around the world. In comparison, the state of Israel has only 103, while the Kurds of Iraq have 13. Add to this the Palestinians’ incessant effort to gain acceptance to the UN and its collection of related organizations, while simultaneously seeking to delegitimize and ostracize Israel from those same podiums. Maintaining diplomatic missions and lobbying for recognition are expensive and resource-consuming tasks.

Is this really the best path to Palestinian statehood? The Palestinians need to ask themselves what their end-game is. If it is an independent state alongside Israel, then the billions of (donor) dollars spent on diplomatic missions gaining recognition for a state that doesn’t exist – and would crumble the day after declaring independence – would be far better spent building a civil society from the ground up.

Also, and ironically something that only Israelis seem to understand, is that only when Palestinians turn inward to build a functioning society will a majority of Israelis become convinced that relinquishing territory will bring less terror and more order, rather than the other way around.

Israelis are also the only ones who seem to recall two serious and far-reaching offers for a two-state solution (in 2000 and 2008) rejected by Palestinian interlocutors; two seminal moments that only add to this widespread notion of mistrust. A serious effort at building a stable and functioning society could do wonders to earn back that trust.

Between Gaza, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya, there are enough failed states surrounding Israel. Rather than focusing on building a state in name but not in function to join this un-illustrious group, the Palestinians should look to Rojava and Erbil, where independent and functioning states exist in all but the UN.

The success of the Kurds in creating a functioning democracy in Rojava and Erbil – eschewing the trappings of statehood while patiently waiting the day of their independence in spite of everything – should serve as a model for the Palestinians and a as source of inspiration for us all.

Dan Feferman is a Major (res.) in the IDF, where he served as a foreign policy advisor and intelligence analyst.

Bob Feferman is community relations director for the Jewish Federation of St. Joseph Valley in South Bend, Indiana.

The opinions in this article are entirely their own and do not represent the institutions they are affiliated with.

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