The air is cooler there, the skies bring more rains than the rest of Iraq, but the sea of Iraqi Kurds have waved the same flag since 1919: red, white and green, with a large yellow sun in the middle. It is this flag that represents their cries for independence and equality, having suffered years of oppression as a national minority.
But what of the Kurdistan region's imminent referendum vote calling for statehood on Sept. 25, where rallies leading up to the highly contested vote, feature another flag rippling among the crowds: Israel’s?
The occupier of Palestinian lands has become the only country to support Iraqi Kurdistan’s separatism.
While the long-persecuted Kurds of Iraq ramp up their calls for autonomy, moving away from simply being an autonomous region within Iraq led by the Kurdish Regional Government, to a country entirely separate from Baghdad, the situation begs the question: why does Israel support it?
A second Israel?
It was in 1966 that that Iraqi Defense Minister Abd al-Aziz al-Uqayli made the proclamation that the Kurds of Iraq are seeking to establish "a second Israel" in the Middle East.
Some 51 years later, Iraqi Vice President Nouri al-Maliki has emphatically declared the same, saying, “We will not allow the creation of a second Israel in the north of Iraq.”
While relations between Iraqi Kurdistan and Israel have become more transparent in recent years, the history between the two dates back many decades.
“There’s a preceding history dating back to at least the fifties,” Patrick Higgins, a Ph.D. student at the University of Houston who writes on the history of leftist Palestinian movements, told teleSUR. “These quiet ties are now coming out in the open.”
Indeed, it was just this week that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, “the Kurds have been and will continue to be reliable and long-term allies of Israel since they are, like us, a minority group in the region.”
He added that the referendum is “the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to attain a state of its own.”
The late Israeli President Shimon Peres had also supported Iraqi Kurds and their quest for statehood, with hundreds in the Kurdistan region paying their respects to the former Israeli president when he died in 2016.
But this vocal support is fairly new and precedes a much quieter policy of support that began shortly after Palestine was expunged to make room for the state of Israel in 1948.
In a bid to stave off the influence of neighboring anti-Zionist Arab countries, Higgins explained, Israel began creating an “alliance of the peripheries.”
“In order to undermine the idea of a united pan-Arab socialist state,” he said, one that supports the Palestinian struggle, “Israel (sought) to make ties with non-Arab Muslim actors.”
That policy of undermining pan-Arabism, which, according to Higgins, has expanded now into undermining the “Axis of Resistance” — that is, Iran, Syria, as well as Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements — explains Israel’s underlying motive for supporting Iraqi Kurds.
Indeed, it was also this month that Israeli General Yair Golan openly said that an independent Kurdish region in Iraq would stem the influence of Iran.
“Given Iran’s presence in the east and instability in the region, a solid, stable, coherent Kurdish entity in the middle of this quagmire is not a bad idea,” the general stated during an event at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Iran — which opposes the Sept. 25 referendum — recognizes this alliance. According to an official within Iran’s Expediency Council, Ali Akbar Velayati, the existence of a secessionist Kurdish state in Iraq would only benefit of the United States and the “Zionist regime of Israel,” both of whom seek to “colonize and dominate” the Middle East, Press TV reported.
As Lebanese journalist and political commentator Osama al-Sharif wrote in the Jordan Times, “Netanyahu and his far right allies know very well that a unilateral Kurdish decision to cede from Iraq in the absence of an agreement over a number of contentious issues, least of which is the future of oil-rich Kirkuk province, would trigger a civil war that is likely to spill over.
“Destabilizing the region and weakening central governments will shift attention from Israel’s nefarious policies towards the Palestinians while hastening the process of colonization of what remains of the West Bank,” he continued.
Oil and money
But Israel’s support for Iraqi Kurdistan extends past politics: the two parties have deep-seated economic ties as well.
“The KRG has been quietly making all kinds of money with ties to Israel,” Higgins said.
According to a 2015 report by the Financial Times, Israel imported three-quarters of its oil from Iraqi Kurdistan that year.
Beyond Israel, the oil-rich region and its quest for independence, has already fomented the support of oil corporations, not least of all due to the KRG’s cooperation with their demands.
In hopes of procuring financial support to create their own state, the KRG has violated both Iraqi law and OPEC treaties, subsidizing exports for oil corporations such as DNO International.
As Brad Blankenship wrote in Al-Masdar News, “What is developing in Iraq is a nation that will almost certainly be partitioned, not for the intention of conquering Iraq in the classical sense, but to use Kurdish oil to force the government in Baghdad to loosen public control over its own resources and to slow the rate of social progress.
“This, of course, has always been the goal sought by the West in Iraq even though Western governments are against Kurdish independence — at least on paper,” he added.
The United States has publicly opposed the Sept. 25 referendum — but that, said Higgins, is on the same page as Israel: the staving off of Iran’s influence in Baghdad. However, he added, for the United States, this translates into appeasing Iraq, which fiercely opposes the independence referendum.
Beyond economics: from military to intelligence
Beyond economic cooperation, Israel’s ongoing policy of supporting Iraqi Kurdish separatism, has also seen ties in the areas of agriculture, technology, education and sports.
The first official acknowledgment that Israel had provided aid to the Iraqi Kurds also extends as far back as 1980, when Prime Minister Menachem Begin revealed that Israel had supported them during their “uprising against the Iraqis between 1965 and 1975.” Israel had sent arms and ammunition then, later also helping with propaganda campaigns in Europe, courses for Kurdish medics, and creating schoolbooks in Kurdish.
While this military aid “took a backburner between 1975 and the 90s” due to “political developments in the region,” Higgins said, that has not stalled ties in recent years.
According to a report published in the New Yorker magazine in 2004, Israeli military and intelligence operatives were active in Kurdish areas in Iraq and provided training for commando units.
Mustafa Barzani himself, the most prominent Iraqi Kurdish nationalist leader, and the father of current KRG President Masoud Barzani, had gained the support of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, during his numerous independence struggles against Baghdad.
Beyond Sept. 25
As Iraqi Kurds take to the polls Monday, Israel can rest assured of its popularity among the population.
According to a 2009 poll, 71 percent of KRG’s residents support establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, while 67 percent said they viewed relations between the two as an important step toward an independent Kurdistan.
While there is a split opinion among the group as to whether Iraqi Kurdistan should separate right now — evident by the “No for Now” campaign, that has voiced alarm that the plebiscite is less about Kurdish independence and more about Barzani consolidating his power — the joint flags at the rallies are an indication of Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan’s deep-rooted ties.
“The repression of the Kurdish, that’s where Israel has sought out its political interests,” Higgins affirmed.