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BEHIND THE HEADLINES Kurdish attack at Berlin consulate marks low point in ties with Israel

JERUSALEM, Feb. 22 (JTA) — Last week’s storming of the Israeli consulate in Berlin by Kurdish demonstrators marked a low point in the Jewish state’s little- known history of relations with the Kurdish people. The demonstration — which resulted in the shooting deaths of three protesters by Israeli guards at the consulate — was prompted by Kurdish anger over reports that Israeli intelligence officials had helped Turkey arrest the leader of the Kurdish separatists, Abdullah Ocalan. Israel has repeatedly denied those reports, as has the United States, which over the weekend acknowledged it played a role in the arrest of Turkey’s most- wanted terrorist. In a sign of how seriously they took Kurdish threats of reprisals for the killings at the consulate, Israeli officials made a point of referring publicly to the many years that Israel maintained friendly relations with the Kurdish people. Some pointed in particular to a 10-year period when Israel secretly trained and armed Kurdish rebels fighting for independence from Iraq. But Kurds in Turkey, as well as in neighboring Iraq, have still not forgiven Israel for having turned its back on the Iraqi Kurds in the mid-1970s, after a decade in which the Jewish state gave direct support to their cause. “The Kurds in Turkey appreciated the Israeli alliance with their Iraqi brethren,” said Professor Jacques Yakar, an immigrant from Turkey who is a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s Archaeology Department. “They said that what we had started was good, but that we ruined it by stopping the aid.” Some analysts believe that Israel cannot afford to ignore Kurdish sensibilities. There are some 24 million Kurds living in five Middle Eastern countries, none of which has shown a willingness to give them any form of national rights. The largest Kurdish population — about 13 million — is found in Turkey, followed by 5 million in Iran, 4 million in Iraq, and between 1 million and 2 million in Syria and Armenia. Iraq’s Kurds, under the leadership of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, approached Israel in the early 1960s, as part of their worldwide effort to recruit support for their ongoing fight with the Iraqi regime then in power. The first senior Israeli emissary to Iraqi Kurdistan was Dave Kimche, a senior Mossad agent who later became director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Kimche visited Kurdistan in May 1965. Upon returning to Israel, he recommended supporting their cause. The ensuing military alliance with the Iraqi Kurds reflected a policy molded by Premier David Ben-Gurion, who sought closer ties with non-Arab entities in the Middle East — Iran and Turkey in particular —as a counterweight to Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Arabs. For the next 10 years, Israeli delegations trained the Kurdish freedom fighters and extended medical and agricultural assistance. “This provided us with an important window into a hostile Arab state,” said Eliezer Tzafrir, author of the recently published book “Ana Kurdi,” which recounts Israel’s involvement in Iraqi Kurdistan. “It was an opportunity to keep Iraqi forces busy, away from Israel,” Tzafrir said. “It enabled us to smuggle out some 2,000 Jews who still lived in Iraq, and it gave us an opportunity to strengthen ties with the Iran of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.” Israeli cooperation with Iran was essential, as Tehran — a close ally of Israel during the shah’s reign — served as the rear command post of the Israeli operation in Kurdistan. The Iraqi Kurds won one of their biggest victories over the Iraqis on May 12, 1966, under the command of Tzuri Sagui, a young Israeli paratrooper officer. After an entire Iraqi brigade was annihilated, Sagui wanted to press on with further offensives against the Iraqis. But Barzani refused, wanting to maintain at least some channel of dialogue with the Iraqi authorities — a decision that perhaps helped extend the Kurdish conflict with Baghdad until the present day. By March 1975, Israel’s involvement with the Iraqi Kurds was over. The shah of Iran had signed an agreement with Saddam Hussein, then vice president of Iraq, under which Tehran withdrew its support from the Kurds in exchange for Baghdad’s willingness to define the international border between the two countries. “The shah had sold the Kurds out, like Chamberlain in Munich,” said Tzafrir. Iran immediately moved its troops out of Iraq — and Israel followed suit. “We were forced to desert them because we had no other choice,” Tzafrir added. “But the Kurds have never forgiven us.” Israel has had no direct involvement in the Kurdish struggle for self- determination since that time. Despite its increasing military ties with Turkey, where Ocalan led the Kurdistan Workers Party’s separatist struggle for the past 14 years, Israel has repeatedly refrained from taking sides — at least publicly. Which explains why last week’s storming of the Berlin consulate came as a particular blow to Israeli officials. Suddenly Israel was being drawn into a conflict that was not theirs — as if they did not have enough troubles of their own in the region. Suddenly Israel found itself the target of terrorist threats from a new quarter. And it took those threats seriously: In the aftermath of the incident at the consulate — whose precise circumstances are still being disputed — Israel beefed up security at its diplomatic missions, on El Al planes and at Ben-Gurion Airport to prevent possible reprisals by Kurdish militants. Israel now has a new set of concerns — and there is not even a specific Jewish angle to the Kurdish situation. The majority of the some 50,000 Jews who had lived in Iraqi Kurdistan left in the early 1950s, after Israel’s War of Independence. The remains of that community made aliyah after the 1991 Gulf War. Israel’s Kurdish community now numbers almost 200,000. The pride of the community is former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, who was born to Iraqi Kurds and is now seeking to become Israel’s next prime minister.