No issue captures as much international attention as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The October 7 attacks by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and subsequent Israeli war in Gaza have led to an outpouring of international solidarity by foreign backers of both Israelis and Palestinians. The United States and Iran have implicitly threatened war with each other over the issue and have clashed in Syria and Iraq. Given the importance of the issue for the entire Middle East, several Kurdish leaders have weighed in with public statements.
The Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the umbrella organization covering the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its allies, issued a statement on October 13 condemning the “complete massacre” underway. KCK Co-Chair Cemil Bayik followed with a November 22 interview on the topic with movement-aligned news. KCK Executive Council member Duran Kalkan touched on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a November 11 interview with movement-aligned news.
In a November 28 interview with Al-Monitor, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) leader Mazloum Abdi also discussed the issue.
All of the statements expressed empathy with the Palestinian cause — as another stateless nation — while condemning Hamas’ Islamist politics and disregard for civilian life.
“The attacks carried out by Hamas on Israeli civilians are totally unacceptable and we condemn them wholeheartedly. We believe that Hamas was not acting independently and that it was carrying out the agenda of external actors,” Abdi told Al-Monitor. “Israel’s response and the staggering number of civilian deaths among the Palestinians that have ensued are no less acceptable.”
He said that “the Palestinian and Kurdish issues remain the biggest sources of instability and conflict in the Middle East,” and emphasized that “neither the Palestinians nor the Kurds are going to disappear or give up their struggle for justice.”
The PKK has condemned both the government of Israel and Hamas in even harsher terms. Bayik called Israeli actions in Gaza a “genocide,” stating that Israel’s goals were clearly “to erase the Palestinians from their historical territories.” He also said that “Hamas crushed the Palestinian vanguard and derailed the struggle of the Palestinian people,” comparing Hamas to HÜDA-PAR, a Kurdish Islamist party with connections to the Turkish state.
HÜDA-PAR is widely seen as the political arm of Kurdish Hezbollah (no relation to Lebanese Hezbollah), a now-defunct paramilitary group which was allegedly responsible for extrajudicial killings of Kurdish nationalists and leftists in the 1990s. In the May 2023 elections, four HÜDA-PAR candidates entered Turkey’s parliament in alliance with Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Some Israeli politicians have spoken of a strategy to nurture Hamas as a competitor to the secular Palestine Liberation Organization. Israeli officials have nicknamed Hamas military chief Yahya Sinwar “the Butcher of Khan Younis” for his enthusiasm in executing Palestinian opponents.
Bayik called on Palestinians to return to the “socialist paradigm” that Palestinian parties followed in the 1960s and 1970s. “Of course, not all movements at that time followed the socialist paradigm, but even those that embraced a different ideology were in one way or another influenced by socialism and benefited from socialist experiences in politics and social organization,” he explained. “Such developments also followed in other countries in the Middle East, including Kurdistan.”
Kalkan warned Palestinians that “it is not a good thing to fall under the oppression and exploitation of the Arab rulers” as part of their liberation from Israeli rule.
Bayik, Kalkan, and the KCK statement all accused Turkey of hypocritically exploiting the Palestinian cause in order to garner support for the “genocide” of Kurds. They also declared that the Jewish people have a historical right to live in the Middle East.
Kurdish movements are under multiple, sometimes contradictory pressures when dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First and most importantly, many Kurds live among Arab majorities, who identify strongly with Palestinians and the Palestinian cause. It’s an especially important factor where Kurds and Arabs are fighting together, as they are in the SDF in North and East Syria. Second, many Palestinian factions have had foreign patrons — today, Turkey and Iran — who are responsible for oppressing Kurds. Hamas has cozied up to the Turkish government and even praised Turkey’s invasion of Afrin, a Kurdish canton in Syria.
Third, there is a historical bond between some Palestinian and Kurdish movements dating back to the 1980s, when Palestinian leftists sheltered and trained the PKK’s founding members as part of a common struggle against “imperialism.” Fourth, there are also historical links between Israel and Kurdish movements. Some Israeli leaders want to ally with Kurds as part of a “periphery strategy” against the Arab world, and some Kurds see Israel as an example of a successful nationalist project. Fifth, there is a large Jewish Kurdish diaspora, many of whom now live in Israel.
Support for Israel is especially strong in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is ruled by right-wing nationalist parties who have had under-the-table relations with Israel in the past and present. During the Iraqi Kurdish independence vote in 2017, some Kurdish nationalists waved Israeli flags, and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his support for an independent Kurdistan.
The apparent Israeli-Kurdish romance resulted in few political advantages for Kurds. In the long run, it may have backfired. Israel, which had sent military aid to Iraqi Kurdish rebels in the 1970s, did not intervene this time. The Iraqi central government quickly quashed the independence movement through a military invasion of Kirkuk. Since then, Baghdad has passed a series of increasingly vindictive laws banning “normalization” of Israel and has forcibly ended Iraqi Kurdish oil sales to Israel.
“The better days of that relationship are in the past, not the future,” researcher Bilal Wahab told French media in 2020. Indeed, the Iraqi Kurdish response to the Gaza war has been muted. Iraqi Kurdish president Nerchirvan Barzani told reporters that “our position is that we do not want Iraq to become part of these problems.”
The regional dynamics have also shifted dramatically since 2017. The ongoing violence in Gaza is literally unprecedented in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With the mass killing has come mass outpourings of grief and anger in the Arab world. The Abraham Accords only serve to highlight how intense those feelings are. Unlike in past decades, when Arab states encouraged Palestinian nationalism, many of these demonstrations are happening under regimes officially allied with Israel.
Through these changes, the Kurdish left has been much more careful than Iraqi Kurdish parties, sometimes hinting at peaceful intentions towards Israelis while highlighting its solidarity towards the Palestinian cause. PKK co-founder Mustafa Karasu declared in 2017 that “we stand on the side of the Palestinians” but denounced “Islamic fanaticism” and “Arab nationalism.” In response to the Abraham Accords three years later, Murat Karayilan, commander of the PKK’s armed wing, told Israeli media that he supports the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to statehood, and that he welcomes any Arab-Israeli peace treaties.
There are also differences between the stances of different left-wing Kurdish figures. SDF leader Kobane declared his support for a “two-state solution,” meaning an independent State of Palestine alongside an independent State of Israel. This is the solution preferred by the official Palestine Liberation Organization and liberal Israeli parties, as well as the United States and most other world powers.
PKK leaders, however, have called for a solution based on democratic confederalism rather than the nation-state. Kalkan went as far as to say that “the imposition of a statist solution here and the division of that tiny piece of land into two states” would be disastrous. Some factions on the Palestinian and Israeli left, especially among Palestinian youth, back a secular “one-state solution.” J Street, a liberal pro-Israel organization in Washington, has also begun to broach the idea of an Israeli-Palestinian “confederation.”
Of course, talk of one state or two states is mostly theoretical. A peace agreement seems like a distant possibility now, and Kurds will probably not have much say over the outcome. However, these statements are a clear sign of how Kurdish leaders read the regional situation. They do not see any benefit in either attempting to ally with or needlessly antagonizing Israel. Meanwhile, they recognize that the Palestinian question is back on the Arab agenda. The left-wing parties seem eager to emphasize that this pressure is coming from the public rather than governments.
“None of the states and hegemonic powers are in favor of the political solution of the Palestinian question, the equal and democratic coexistence of the Arab and Jewish peoples in the Middle East, nor are they working for it,” the KCK wrote in a follow-up statement on October 18. “The peoples of the Middle East and the world, knowing this approach of the states, have to continue and expand their struggle in solidarity with the Palestinian people.”
The SDF, which fights alongside the U.S. military and is seeking diplomatic recognition, has couched its position in terms of international law and consensus. The PKK, which positions itself as radical opposition, is more free to speak of a revolution against the nation-state. Both recognize a few common principles: the similarities between the Kurdish and Palestinian plights, the importance of protecting Jewish national rights, the dangers of a sectarian approach, and the popular momentum behind the Palestinian cause.
(Photo: Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)