Israeli major general admires the PKK but is the love returned in kind?

by Mohammed Elnaiem   The Region  


Yair Golan, a major general in the Israel Defense Forces said on Monday that "from my personal perspective, the PKK is not a terror organization." Anticipating that the remarks would be controversial, he added that "maybe this will be in the headlines, but that's the way I look at that."

Golan has recently caused other controversies with his casual statements on global affairs. On Holocaust Day in 2016,  he compared the racism that he claimed to witness in Israeli society to the kind of hatred which made Nazi Germany a possibility.  As a result, he lost his position as Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces.  

 So his most recent statements defending the PKK cannot be characterized as the official position of the Israeli State, although they might be indicative of views held in the upper echelons of the Israeli military. The PKK was formed in 1978 as a Marxist organization seeking an independent Kurdish State. Since 1984, it has waged an armed struggle for Kurdish self-determination, and currently falls under the Kurdistan Communities Union , a political organization which covers all four parts of Kurdistan and is committed to Democratic Confederalism.  In the present, the PKK has eschewed its old nationalism in favor of a political ideology which proposes a "flexible, multi-cultural, anti-monopolistic and consensus-oriented" democratic nation. 

NATO member states, Turkey, the US, and the EU consider the PKK as being a terrorist organization. They cite human rights reports claiming that the organization engaged in war crimes since the brutal insurgency of the 90's which resulted in many casualties on both sides of the conflict. But millions of Kurds disagree with this, considering them a guerilla movement that fights for their cultural and political rights.  The International campaign for the freedom of Abdullah Ocalan has collected 10.3 million signatures from across the world in favor of freeing Abdullah Ocalan, an ideological figurehead and co-founder of the organization, currently in solitary confinement in Turkey. The YPG and YPJ, which currently spearhead the fight against IS in Syria also pledges their ideological allegiance to the philosophies of the PKK.   

And while the PKK is currently not demanding a Nation State like it did in the past, Golan still believes that the organization is capable of building a "solid, stable, cohesive entity" that could bring solutions to the problems in the Middle East.   

But Golan's statements on the PKK come as a surprise to many, as the relationship between Israel and the PKK can be modestly labelled as complicated. Unlike the KDP lead by the Barzani clan, the PKK has never been on good terms with Israel. In fact, when the PKK began as a guerrilla movement, much like its counterparts in the Turkish Left, it explicitly aligned itself with Palestinian revolutionary socialists.

 In early 1980, Abdullah Ocalan began drawing the sketches for his armed struggle with Nayif Hawatmah, a leader in the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. After a meeting which was said to last until dawn, the DFLP agreed to train PKK militants in Guerrilla warfare tactics across camps run in the Bekka Valley of Lebanon.  Ocalan also reached out to George Habash and Samir Ghoshesh, each leaders in their own right for the Palestinian struggle waged against the Israeli Occupation.  The PKK considers some of its “first martyrs” as the two dozen fighters who lost their lives against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.  

 Israel has therefore remained vigilant of the PKK ever since, strengthening ties with the Turkish Government, and working for decades in equipping  Turkey with the military equipment it needed to crush the Kurdish insurgency. According to Sedat Laciner, until today, Israeli intelligence “has turned the PKK camps into reality TV shows.  Not just for important exercises: Israel watches everything live, from their folk dances to the food they eat and of course their moves toward Turkey”

 In 1999, on his way to receive political Asylum from South Africa, Ocalan was intercepted in Kenya and sent back to Turkey where he would be sentenced to death. The ruling was later commuted to life imprisonment due to Turkey’s EU bid, which obligated the country to abolish the death penalty. Ocalan has been living in solitary confinement in Imrali prison ever since.

How did the operation happen? Ocalan believes that the MOSSAD (israeli intelligence agency) was responsible for his interception in Kenya, Israel denies this.

A New York Times article from February 20th 1999 claimed that while there was no evidence that Mossad was involved in the capture, when Ocalan left from Damascus to seek refuge, "Israeli intelligence monitored his departure". William Dowell, a correspondent with the Time said that there was circumstantial evidence that Mossad was involved, and that "Ocalan's capture certainly carried some of the hallmarks of a Mossad operation." Mossad itself responded to the speculative reports with a surprising and rare statement saying they had nothing to do with his extradition.  

The PKK has officially held a position of anger towards this perceived betrayal ever since, and has also expressly raised concerns with Zionism, comparing it to the Arab nationalism that has caused Kurds to suffer for so long.  In 2005, Ocalan argued that he would like to "prevent Kurdish nationalism from becoming the second Zionism." In his most recent writings, he has called Israelis and palestinians to imagine a radically democratic solution to the problems that divide them. 

The question of supporting Israel has historically divided Kurds. In a poll conducted in 2009, 71 percent of respondents working for the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq supported cooperation and diplomatic relations with Israel. Their rivals however, who fall under the camp of the KCK, hold diametrically opposed views. Commander Cemil Bayik for instance goes so far as to claim that Israel is complicit with what he calls Turkey's war on the Kurds. 

As far as the present is concerned, if there is anything that is almost certain,  it is that Yair Golan’s admiration for the PKK is unrequited. Three Kurds were shot by Israeli Guards outside of the embassy in Berlin in the aftermath of Ocalan’s arrest. It’s hard to imagine that the PKK will forget this.