How Palestinians came to reject Kurdish demands for a homeland

How Palestinians came to reject Kurdish demands for a homeland
Comment: Among the strangest realities uncovered by the referendum in Northern Iraq is the Palestinian denial of Kurdish hopes for independence and a state of their own, writes Roger Hercz.
8 min read
25 Sep, 2017
The Kurdish independence referendum is going ahead, despite widespread international opposition [AFP]
After months of preparations, expectations in Erbil are high.

On September 25, millions of Kurds in northern Iraq will finally vote in a referendum that touches a raw nerve in the history of nations - do the Kurds deserve a state of their own?

The question to which the Kurds will give an answer in the ballot is not short: "Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region's administration to become an independent state?" The ballot will, in a sign of its complex reality, be available in four languages - Kurdish, Arabic, Turkmen and Syriac.

This is asking for trouble.

Baghdad has called the referendum "unconstitutional", and said it would take "all means necessary" to prevent it. Both Turkey and Iran, who both have large Kurdish minorities, have threatened military action. Syria, weakened after six years of civil war, cannot make a viable threat, but instead poses as an example of what ethnic and religious strife can lead to.


However, the Kurds seem tired of paying the price of the ever-relevant "realpolitik" in the region, or for that matter the considerations of the greater powers like the US and Russia, and will go ahead with the referendum. Many Kurds hope for a historic game-changer, a Krexit, if you will.
Following the collapse of the Ottoman empire at the end of the First World War, the Kurds were left stateless and frustrated, despite earlier promises

But few reactions have been more surprising than that of the Palestinian government - the representatives of another people fighting for independence and a state of their own.

Palestinian diplomats even travelled to Erbil in the semiautonomous area of the Kurdistan Regional Government in order to tell the Kurds that their aspirations would not fly.

Around 30 million Kurds live in the Middle East, the largest nation in the region to be denied independence. Following the collapse of the Ottoman empire at the end of the First World War, the Kurds were left stateless and frustrated, despite earlier promises.

This was the first time the Kurds were asked to pay the price of stronger nations' interests, a request they have served many times since. It is this historic injustice which is on the table.

The Yasser Arafat Museum in downtown Ramallah is a testimony to the Palestinian leader's fight for freedom. Visitors are shown the hardships of life under Israeli occupation, of the loss of land and the justice of the Palestinian struggle.

The museum is even adjacent to the Muqata, the famous headquarters of the Palestinian leadership. Built originally in the 1920s by the British, then known as the Tegart Fort, named after architect Sir Charles Tegart, the headquarters housed troops meant to ensure British mandatory rule over Palestine.

In 1948, when the Jordanians occupied the West Bank, it also housed a prison. Then Israelis ran their hated military rule from exactly the same headquarters - which, in 1996, became the offices of Yasser Arafat.

The Palestinian struggle has been long, and a solution is not anywhere near.

Back in 2002, Israeli tanks were stationed outside the Muqata, literally on the doorstep of Arafat's office, where he lived under siege. Visitors to the Arafat museum are invited to see the Palestinian leader's simple bed standing next to a cupboard with a few of the president's fabled green army uniforms - his famous day-to-day dress.


Despite the Palestinian struggle for freedom, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has decided to oppose a Kurdish independent state, regardless of the similarities of their historic struggles. Many Palestinians, however, are aware of the dissonance, and several have sought to distance themselves from the government's decision.

"Purely on a personal level, I understand the Kurds, and believe they do deserve a state," Ghassan Khattib, a former minister and adviser to the late Arafat, told The New Arab. "If you ask ordinary Palestinians, you will also hear the same sentiment."

Still, the Palestinian position on Kurdish independence is not new. In 2015, before the issue of the referendum hit the wider Arab agenda, the Palestinians said no.

"Kurdish independence would be a poisoned sword against the Arabs," Saeb Erekat, a long-time peace negotiator and an adviser to President Mahmoud Abbas, told Al Arabiya. But the Palestinian leadership could not have approached this any differently, says Khalil Shikaki, a renowned political analyst and the leading pollster in Palestine.

"It is unthinkable that the Palestinians would go against a decision of the Arab League and support the break-up of an Arab state," Shikaki told The New Arab.

Shikaki also rejected any comparison between the Palestinian and the Kurdish struggles: "If we were talking about a hostile military occupation in Iraq, I would imagine the Palestinian people would be against it. But the perception here is that the Kurdish region is not controlled by an occupying army."

Shikaki himself has paid a personal price for the long struggle against Israel. In October 1995 his brother Fathi Shikaki, the head of the militant Islamic Jihad faction, was assassinated by the Israeli Mossad during a trip to the island of Malta.

What few people know, however, is that a significant Kurdish minority live among the Palestinians. They were brought to Palestine during the 12th century by Saladin, the Kurdish conqueror who established the powerful Egypt-based Ayyubid-dynasty. The Kurds were brought to Palestine as guards in the new empire.

Today, nearly a third of the population of Hebron, a city of more than 500,000 inhabitants, is considered of Kurdish background. The Palestinian Kurds no longer speak Kurdish, as they have been fully assimilated into the wider Arabic-language culture. But during a recent visit to Erbil, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas bragged that the mayor of Hebron, Tayseer Abu Shneini, was Kurdish - and that a neighborhood in the city is still called Harat al-Akrad, the Kurdish quarter.


Israel also has a large Kurdish minority, though not of Muslim, but rather Jewish background. Nearly 200,000 Jews of Kurdish origin live in the Jerusalem area, not far from Hebron, though the two groups have no cultural interaction.

The vast majority of Kurdish Jews emigrated to the newly established Israeli state in the early 1950s, together with other Iraqi Jews. However, to this day, the Kurdish Jews maintain an identity distinct from the Jewish-Iraqi identities stemming from Arab-majority cities like Baghdad or Basra.

Of all world leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has come out as supportive of the Kurdish aspirations for a state of their own in northern Iraq. Here is a prime minister who, at best, has only given lip-service to the idea of a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution, and has done what he can to prevent the birth of such a state - instead overseeing the 50th year of a dehumanising Israeli occupation.

"Israel supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state," Netanyahu said recently. Secret relations between Israel and the Kurds go back to the 1960s, when Israel sought alliances with the non-Arab Muslim players in the region.

During those days, even Israel and Iran enjoyed close relations.
The Israelis and the Palestinians agree on one thing - though for opposite reasons - that the struggle of the Kurds is nothing like the Palestinian struggle

According to Netanyahu, the Kurdish struggle cannot be compared to the Palestinians' aspirations for a state of their own.

"The Kurds have proven a commitment to political moderation, and they are worthy of their own political independence," Netanyahu said in 2014.

So finally the Israelis and the Palestinians agree on one thing - though for opposite reasons - that the struggle of the Kurds is nothing like the Palestinian struggle.

In the past few days, a ferocious campaign has started against the Kurds, using Israel as a scapegoat. In Turkey, newspapers allied with president Recep Tayyip Erdogan "uncovered" a secret plan to move 200,000 Israeli Kurds to Northern Iraq, a "scoop" that seems to appeal to anti-Semitic elements in Turkey.

Meanwhile, both Iraq and Iran have said that the establishment of a Kurdish state would be "a new Israel" in the region. In a further sign of the uncommon bedfellows the Middle East produces, pro-Kurdish demonstrators in Oslo, Stockholm, Geneva and Brussels have marched with Israeli flags besides their own red, white, green and yellow.

Long road

Kurds know the road to independence will be long and painful. Back in February, before the decision on a referendum was taken, but after Kurdish forces had proven successful in their war against the Islamic State group, Kurdish leaders decided to try and translate their military advances into new power.

"We are working on various fronts," the Kurdish de facto Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa said. But he got clearly wary when asked about the possibility of a referendum, well aware it might raise regional hell.

For other Kurds there is no other option. Relations with Baghdad are always based on suspicion, and no one has forgotten the chemical missiles Saddam sent their way in 1988.

In the referendum, the majority is expected to endorse the hope of an independent state. Khawla Khanekah, a university lecturer from Erbil, has, of course, never lived in a Kurdish state.

"This is a life-long dream," she said. "Being ruled by others has not brought us much good."

Roger Hercz is the Middle East correspondent of the Norwegian newspaper Dagsavisen