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Who is Elizabeth Tsurkov, the missing Israeli-Russian?

Who is Elizabeth Tsurkov, the missing Israeli-Russian in Iraq?
4 min read
07 July, 2023
The Iraqi government has opened an investigation into the kidnapping of Israeli citizen Elizabeth Tsurkov in Baghdad in March, a government spokesperson told Reuters on Friday. Who was Tsurkov, former Israeli settler turned anti-occupation activist?
The Iraqi government has opened an investigation into the disappearance of Israeli citizen Elizabeth Tsurkov in Baghdad in March, a government spokesperson told Reuters.

The disappearance of Israeli-Russian citizen Elizabeth Tsurkov, 36, in Iraq, has sparked discussions and varying perspectives online and particularly in Israel.

Some admire her as a brilliant, original, and brave woman who fought against the Israeli occupation and apartheid. However, there are some who perceive her as a controversial figure and questioned her visits to Iraq and other Arab countries which strictly do not allow Israelis into the country. 

On Wednesday, the Israeli prime minister's office issued a brief statement stating that Tsurkov has been missing in Iraq for several months and is being allegedly held by the Shia militia Kataeb Hezbollah, a paramilitary group that is one of the elite factions closest to Iran. 

"Elizabeth Tsurkov is still alive and we hold Iraq responsible for her safety and well-being", the statement said. 

Tsurkov is believed to have been abducted in Baghdad last March. She's reportedly been to the country multiple times. 

"She is an academic who visited Iraq on her Russian passport, at her own initiative pursuant to work on her doctorate and academic research on behalf of Princeton University in the US," the statement added. 

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On Thursday, the pro-Iran armed group accused by Israel of holding the Israeli-Russian academic suggested that it was not involved in her disappearance.

The group said it was doing everything it could to uncover the fate of "Zionist hostage or hostages" in the country.

According to an unnamed Western diplomat stationed in Iraq, Elizabeth Tsurkov arrived in Baghdad "at the beginning of December 2022."

Elizabeth Tzurkov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, to a Jewish couple who immigrated to Israel when she was four. Initially residing in a kibbutz, they later relocated to the illegal settlement of Kfar Eldad in Gush Etzion near Hebron, in the southern part of the occupied West Bank. 

As a child, according to the Israeli media, she was heavily influenced by extreme right-wing views, partaking in demonstrations against the Oslo Accords and even celebrating the assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, aged nine. 

However, Tsurkov's right-wing childhood views shifted. According to an interview done by Zohar Be'er, former B'tselem chairman, the metamorphosis happened sometime during her military service.

Tsurkov then pursued a career academia, obtaining degrees in international relations and communications. Then she further specialised in Middle Eastern studies and political science. 

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At the time of her abduction, she was a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at Princeton University and a researcher within the Forum for Regional Thinking in Israel and at the Newlines Institute in Washington. 

"I deal with issues of classism and nationalism in the Middle East with an emphasis on countries that have experienced civil wars and have ethnic diversity, such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon," Tsurkov said in an interview in 2021. 

As part of her research in Iraq, Tsurkov focused on the protest movement in 2019, in which hundreds of protesters were killed. 

The protests brought about "a significant change in the country in terms of the perceptions of the population, the behaviour of the population, but did not bring about any political change", Tsurkov remarked. Adding that the demonstrations elevated "repression" from the regime and Iranian militias who want the government to remain intact. 

Tzurkov appeared to have sympathised with the demonstrators' demands for reforming the government that divides power according to ethnicity. 

Under Iraq's constitution, the president will always be Kurdish, the prime minister will always be Shia, and the ministries are also divided according to ethnicity. 

"The appointments are based on loyalty to the community and the party leader and not on the basis of talent. A country where pro-Iranian militias operate freely, carry out assassinations in broad daylight, blackmail people," Tsurkov said. 

The Kataeb Hezbollah group fielded a political party for the first time in Iraq's 2021 general elections and won several parliamentary seats. The group is not affiliated with Lebanon's Hezbollah. However, they're widely believed to be behind many attacks on US military and diplomatic targets in Iraq though the group did not openly confirm or deny involvement.

Kataeb Hezbollah has no publicly announced leadership structure, but its senior member is thought to be Abdul Aziz al-Mohammedawi, who is reportedly the military chief of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). 

Other heavily armed militias include Amiri's Badr Organisation, Khazali's Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Sadr's Peace Brigades, and a number of other groups mostly aligned with Iran.

Tsurkov's views on Iraq's ruling structure must have been known to the various parties, and the fact that she was Israeli must have raised suspicions, and some must have seen value in kidnapping her. 

Asked about lessons and comparisons from her research in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Tsurkov answered: "Israel has a significant problem because of the strong nationalism of the Jewish people. When we talk about the people of Israel, then we talk about Jews. A national, Israeli, inclusive identity was not created here."