ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan24) – Relations between Israel and the Kurdistan Region should be open for the sake of the long-standing political, cultural, and economic ties between the two countries, according to Kurdish author and translator Shafiq Haji Kheder.
“If the state of Israel and the Kurds developed and deepened extensive ties, it would count as a significant step,” said Kheder in an exclusive interview with Kurdistan24 on April 11.
He has been following Israeli affairs for over two decades and translated several books about the country and its leaders.
Kheder fervently advocates stronger ties between the Kurds and the Jewish state, a taboo topic in Kurdish politics and diplomacy due to the risks of alienation by other Middle Eastern countries.
“Kurds are afraid of Arabs, Muslims, and neighboring countries,” Kheder puts it rather bluntly.
Discreet relations have never materialized into officialdom thus far despite willingness from both sides.
“Establishing ties between the Kurds and Israel is not a crime, especially since many Arab countries already have links with the Jewish state,” Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani previously said in a 2005 interview with the Saudi daily al-Hayat.
Kheder insists a good start requires a bold decision from politicians at the top.
“Now, and in the future, there should be no more fear to be transparent regarding the exchanges that exist between the two nations,” Kheder states.
“These relations must exist beyond the sharing of information at the intelligence services level,” he continues.
Kheder mentions one of the early examples of Kurdish-Israeli clandestine cooperation in the region: In 1966, Mossad launched Operation Diamond, a mission aiming to acquire a Soviet-built MiG-21 fighter jet for technical evaluation purposes.
Iraqi pilot Munir Redfa, “who was fed up with bombing the Kurds,” was bribed into flying his aircraft to Israel.
Later, Kurds provided vital assistance in safely smuggling Redfa’s Christian family from Iraq to Israel, Kheder reminds.
There have been setbacks in Israeli-Kurdish relations in the past years, such as Israel’s contentious role in the capture of fugitive leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Ocalan in early 1999 in Kenya by the Turkish state.
The subsequent killing of three Kurds who, in protest, attempted to occupy the Israeli Consulate in Berlin exacerbated the situation.
“At a time when Kurds are taking steps to establish their own state, securing the backing of a powerful country like Israel is what matters most,” Kheder notes.
Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the late President Shimon Peres, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have all on different occasions, since 2014, expressed their support for Kurdish aspirations to form their state and gain independence from Iraq.
Kheder argues that politically, Kurdistan stands as a bulwark for democracy against political Islam and its fundamentalist manifestations, be it Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS).
Kheder underscores Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria have been the most efficient US allies in combating the Islamist groups.
“Now, Kurds and Israel are even closer thanks to the Rojava corridor,” Kheder points out. He views Syrian Kurdistan as the future gateway for Kurds to the rest of the world, using the Mediterranean Sea as a launchpad.
Kheder adds a prospective merger between Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, despite prevalent partisan politics on both sides, could bring Kurdistan even closer to Israel both in economic and geographic terms.
He suggests there are many economic opportunities as well which should be explored.
“From a geo-strategic point of view, Kurdistan is a key player thanks to its natural resources, oil, gas, water, and other yet untapped commodities,” Kheder says.
He also mentions how Kurdish oil already travels to Israeli ports via a pipeline through Turkey.
In his translated work, evidently popular in Kurdistan as they have sold tens of thousands of copies of his books, Kheder reveals he aims to break prejudices against Israel and the Jewish people.
Some of the books added to the Kurdish library by Kheder include: Gideon’s Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad by Welsh author Gordon Thomas; The Revolt: Inside Story of the Irgun by the sixth Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin; Ben-Gurion: Builder of Israel by the American journalist Robert St. John; and My Life, the autobiography of the first female Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir.
“Until now, the information and books on Israel and Jewish history available to Kurds of my generation were written by Arabic, Persian, or Turkish authors,” he reveals.
“They were not positive with regards to the state of Israel. For this reason, I wanted to paint a different picture,” Kheder continues.
“All these publications were anti-Israel. I remember a particular school book in the sixth-grade curriculum during the Ba’ath regime,” Kheder recalls, “which portrayed Jewish people as evildoers and wicked creatures.”
One of the characters introduced during his childhood was Shylock, the greedy, revenge-seeking loan shark in William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice.
Another was Fagin, the miser and villainous leader of a group of children in Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, he recalls.
“The goal of the Ba’ath party was to depict Jewish people as hideous, tarnishing their identity in the eyes of students. Unfortunately, we developed this point of view through Arabic books we were given to read,” he states.
Kheder likes to draw comparisons between the Kurds and Jews.
“The Jewish and Kurdish people share many similarities. Jews were dispersed for over 2,000 years. They were denied a place in their ancestral homeland. Their language was eliminated,” Kheder says.
“Wherever [the Jews] were present, they were held in lower esteem as underdogs,” he goes on before mentioning the similar oppression Kurds face in their respective states.
Both Jewish and Kurdish populations were encouraged in their ambitions by promises presented in the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) and Balfour Declaration (1917) respectively by large powers.
However, only the Jewish nation succeeded in creating a state, an achievement Kheder attributes to having a firmer belief in the right to self-determination.
“They rewrote history and the geography of the Middle East forever in 1948,” Kheder stresses.
“What they achieved is nothing short of a miracle. Kurds should follow this example. There are many lessons to be learned,” he concludes.
Editing by G. H. Renaud and Karzan Sulaivany