Gaza and Afrin: in struggle against colonialism and occupation

by Marcel Cartier    


The clash of the colonisers is intensifying.

As resistance to the occupation of the Turkish state in Syria’s Afrin turns to guerrilla warfare on behalf of the Kurdish-led People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG/J), the Palestinian people of Gaza are putting their bodies on the line to defy their confinement in what has been described as the world’s largest open-air concentration camp.

In this battle between occupying forces, both Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believe they have the authority to speak in terms of ‘anti-terrorism’. They both see their own government’s actions as legitimate, while believing they can call the other’s hypocritical. This war of words shows a deep and sickening irony given the similarities between both brands of occupation.

A New Intifada as the Nakba Approaches?

The whole world is watching the events in Gaza unfold as the Palestinian people near the 70th anniversary of the ‘Nakba’, or catastrophe, on May 15th. This means seven decades since their expulsion from their homes during the ethnic cleansing which laid the groundwork for the establishment of the State of Israel. In the events of 1948, at least 700,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes and have never been granted the right of return, living as semi-permanent and stateless refugees waiting generation after generation for the opportunity to eventually see their homeland again.

Palestinians have been teetering on the brink of a new intifada, or uprising, for years. U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement late last year that he would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel set off massive protests.

However, it was during Land Day commemorations on March 30, which marked the 1976 massacre of six Palestinians by Israeli forces after which the world could no longer turn its head from the gravity of events. The Israeli military murdered 17 Palestinians in cold blood, even tweeting that they knew ‘where every bullet landed’, a sign of the premeditated nature of the massacre.

A New Moment of Serhildan for the Kurdish Resistance

Turkey’s occupation of Afrin is manifested in the most blatant fashion, in which the flags of the so-called Free Syrian Army take a background role to those of Erdogan’s autocracy.

Children who just weeks ago were able to study and speak in their native Kurdish are now being once again driven down the path of having to assimilate. This time it isn’t within the monolithic Syrian Arab state (the Kurdish language was illegal when Afrin was under the control of the Ba’ath government), but that of Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman dictatorship. The scenes of children being forced to wave Turkish flags in classrooms are revolting. In a sign that Ankara intends to stay, Erdogan’s government has pushed ahead with forming the organs of administration for the Afrin occupation.  

The Kurdish equivalent of the Palestinian ‘intifada’ is the ‘serhildan’. The uprising of the Kurdish masses isn’t limited to Afrin, given that their historic homeland spans the contemporary nation-states of Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.

However, Afrin currently provides the focal point for the resistance against attempts by Erdogan’s government to subjugate Kurds not only within Turkish borders, but across the region. Afrin is the rallying cry for the Kurdish cause, but at the same time Turkish forces are rolling into northern Iraq at this moment, threatening to follow in the footsteps of the so-called Islamic State by capturing Shengal, which was the sight of the Yazidi genocide of 2014.

Cities such as Cizre in southeast Turkey were levelled by Erdogan’s military in its ‘anti-terrorism’ operations in 2015. Images from these cities could easily be confused with those of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank.

Erdogan vs. Netanyahu: The Hypocrites Speak

In the aftermath of the Land Day massacre in Gaza by Israeli forces, Erdogan attempted to position his government as the natural ally of the Palestinian masses. This is as absurd today as it was when he hosted a summit of Muslim leaders after Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem in late 2017.

Erdogan said of Netanyahu in a speech in Adana last week,“Hey Netanyahu! You are an occupier. And it is as an occupier that you are on those lands. At the same time, you are a terrorist. What you do to the oppressed Palestinians will be part of history and we will never forget it. The Israeli people are uncomfortable with what you’re doing. We are not guilty of any act of occupation.”

What a noble man! Of course, one could easily hear these words being spoken by anyone – including Netanyahu – against Erdogan himself and have to agree that they would suit that context, as well. All one would need to do is replace ‘Palestinians’ with ‘Kurds’, and ‘Israeli people’ with ‘Turkish people’.

Likewise, the response of Netanyahu to Erdogan is one that reveals he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Firing back at the Turkish President, he said, “Someone who occupies northern Cyprus, invades the Kurdish regions, and slaughters civilians in Afrin — should not preach to us about values and ethics.”

Of course, Netanyahu is correct about Erdogan having no right to preach about ethics. However, he is no true friend of the Kurdish people either. Support for the feudal-capitalist Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq is not the same as support for a genuine revolutionary, anti-colonial movement such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose first martyrs perished in the Bekaa Valley in a fight side by side with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) against the Israeli state. (for more on this, see my article ‘The Link Between the Kurdish and Palestinian Revolutionary Struggles’)

Likewise, the fact that Erdogan gives material and political support to Hamas, the party that has governed Gaza since 2006, doesn’t mean that Erdogan can ever be a true friend of the Palestinian masses. No amount of semi-official news broadcasts from  Turkey, aim to present Ankara as anti-colonialist can obscure this contradiction.

For its part, Hamas has reciprocated Turkey’s support by hailing the occupation of Afrin. Former leader Khaled Mashal said in the aftermath of the capture of the city that, “Victory in Afrin was a model of the Turkish will, and God willing we will record heroic victories to support our Islamic nation."

The Positions of Hamas & Leila Khaled

A fundamental point needs to be understood here. The position of Hamas vis-à-vis Turkey seriously undermines any assertion that it aims to put forward that it is a movement grounded in anti-colonialism.

One cannot take a position against occupation in one context and yet opportunistically cheerlead for occupation and colonialism in another. The same is true of Kurdish reactionary organizations, whether it’s the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Massoud Barzani, or any of the other parties that see Israel as an ally in their struggle against Arab assimilation. Principles are vital.

Fortunately, there are examples within the Palestinian movement who defy the position of Hamas and have stood with the Kurdish people in their fight for Afrin. In February, Leila Khaled of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) attended the Congress of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a majority Kurdish formation in Turkey which has been the primary victim of Erdogan’s political crackdown. Speaking to the Congress, she said “Today in Ankara I saw two different scenes. On the one hand all the policemen who surrounded the congress hall and filled the streets. The same picture we see in Palestine. But on the other hand I have seen here the peoples of Turkey and Kurdistan. The voices that rise in this room will drown out the shackles of all prisons and become the echo of the voices of all peoples. Wherever there is colonialism, oppression and violence, resistance will gain strength. You are resisting. You are the voice of those who resist colonialism. I greet you on behalf of the fighting Palestinian people. We also raise our voice against the war in Afrin. Wars do not promote life but lead to death. The peoples build up life and the future. From this room I greet all the resisting peoples."

The Case of Lowkey

Days ago, I received a troubling message. An artist I have known for nearly a decade who I have considered a friend, comrade and all around genuine and principled human being was traveling to Turkey to perform at a university which celebrated the Turkish occupation of Afrin.

The artist in question is Lowkey, an Iraqi-British hip-hop artist known for being a staunch supporter of the Palestinian struggle. It was in this context that we got to know each other in 2009, as we both performed at Palestinian solidarity shows in the United States before traveling to Palestine the following year together. Although in recent years we haven’t seen each other often or been in frequent communication, I have always continued to hold tremendous respect for his work. Hence, what made it so difficult to hear that he would be performing in Istanbul, a move which I considered akin to performing at a university within the state of Israel. As an advocate of BDS himself, he could do better. 

As far as I understand, Lowkey decided to cancel the show. This came in the aftermath of tremendous pressure from Kurdistan solidarity campaigners. For instance, the Kurdistan Students Union in the UK put out a statement which spoke of his decision to perform in Turkey, saying “We find this very insulting as the same song ('Ahmed') he is planning to perform tomorrow is based on Aylan Kurdi, the Kurdish toddler who was washed ashore as a result of the attacks by ISIS, whom are widely known to have been supported by Erdogan’s Turkish government. This is very disappointing as Lowkey has called out artists not to perform in Israel, which is as fascistic as the Turkish state. By inviting him to perform his work about refugees, they are attempting to whitewash their war on Kurds using 'progressive', 'liberal' voices. This functions like the EU-Turkey refugee deal: to provide political cover for their war crimes against Kurds.”

If indeed Lowkey didn’t go ahead with his show in Istanbul, it was an honourable decision. However, it is still essential that he doesn’t sweep the issue under the rug, but that he resolutely condemns the stance of the Turkish government vis-à-vis Afrin, and the Kurdish masses. Any other position is inconsistent with revolutionary principles and the politics which I know him to advocate.

BDS from Palestine to Kurdistan

In response to the events in Gaza, the Kurdistan Students Union has also decided to participate in a major London mobilization for Palestine at Downing Street today. The solidarity action in the form of a Kurdish bloc at the demo is an important move toward fostering solidarity between the two anti-colonial movements.

One can only hope that this solidarity will be reciprocated by significant sections of the Palestinian left, who understand that anti-imperialism and anti-colonial politics mean building links with other movements who share common struggles.

In recent years, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has raised the profile of the Palestinian struggle globally. Refusal to purchase goods manufactured in Israeli settlements has been a concrete way of elevating the Palestinian cause to a global audience. It picks up on the boycotts of South Africa that persisted during the reign of the apartheid government until its demise in 1994.

Now, Kurdish campaigners are picking up on the example of the Palestinian movement by calling for a boycott of Turkey. The Group of Kurdistan Communities (KCK) has issued the call, saying "The biggest blow to be dealt to the war economy, is the boycott of all goods produced by the colonialist Turkish regime and companies, mainly in the sectors of industry, food, construction and textile. The boycott of every single Turkish commodity, especially by the Kurds and in Kurdistan, will weaken the war economy of Turkey. Such an organizational orientation and boycott actions could bring down the already shaky Turkish economy through a chain reaction.“

Let nobody who considers themselves to be progressive or revolutionary be fooled into siding with either Erdogan or Netanyahu because they are saying the ‘right’ things about the brutality of the other. Their hypocrisy should need not be mirrored by our own hypocritical statements and actions. Those on the left lose all semblance of respect the moment that they stand with one anti-colonial struggle yet refuse to do so with another. Our unity is our strength. The intifada and the serhildan should both be resolutely supported.