Iraqi Kurdistan–Israel relations

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Iraqi Kurdish–Israeli relations
Map indicating locations of Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan


Iraqi Kurdistan

The Iraqi Kurdistan–Israel relations covers the historical background of relations between the Kurdish and Jewish peoples, and the current political and economic relations between the Iraqi Kurdistan and the State of Israel.

Iraqi Kurdistan and Israel do not have an official status of relations, though there are claims that there are numerous contacts between the entities on government and business levels. Iran and Syria have accused Iraqi Kurdistan of having relations with Israel.[1] Massoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, claimed in 2005 that "establishing relations between the Kurds and Israel is not a crime since many Arab countries have ties with the Jewish state."[2]

Historical background[edit]

History of the Jews in Kurdistan[edit]

The Jewish community in Mesopotamia was one of the oldest in the world, dating back to the Babylonian conquest of the southern tribes of Israel, (mostly the tribe of Judah) in 586 BCE. A smaller group of Israelites were taken into captivity almost 150 years earlier from the northern part of Israel by Assyria, in 722 BCE.

There were times when Jews flourished in Babylon, producing the Babylonian Talmud there between the years 500 and 700 CE.

Based on these relations, the Jews of Kurdistan lived freely alongside Muslims and Christians for generations in relative security. Those that immigrated to Israel would reminisce about the positive experiences they and their fathers and forefathers had in the tribal Kurdish society. Without these roots, the state of Israel would have never been able to connect sincerely with the Kurdish leadership, which was mostly tribal.[3]

Kurdish Jews in modern times[edit]

The Sufi Shaikhs of the Naqshbandi from the Barzani family were among the most respected and influential in Kurdistan.[4] The family became an influential tribe that played an important role in the Kurdish national movement. Wigram[who?] noted that the Shaikh of Barzān was "a merciful over-lord," noted for his fair treatment of his followers. The leaders of this particular Naqshbandi family, during the first half of the 20th century, notably Shaikh Ahmad and Mustafa Barzani, had "special relationships with the Kurdish Jews under their patronage."

Zaken also provides details on the good relations between the Khawaja Khinno patriarchs and the Barzanis, which, reportedly, the authorities wished to use. In one case the Turkish authorities asked the Jewish merchant Eliyahu Khawaja Khinno from Aqrah to mediate between them and Shaikh Abd al-Salam Barzani, who was an insurgent tribal leader. In the second account, it was the British authorities who wanted to use the good trust between the Barzanis and the Jewish leaders of Aqrah.[3]

Another account that symbolizes the trust between the tribal heads of Barzanis and the Jews of Aqra, takes place in 1944, when Mullā Mustafā concluded a tribal pact with the heads of the Zībarī tribe, in order to reinforce his leadership among the Kurdish tribes. To seal this pact with a marriage contract, Mullā Mustafā and Shaikh Ahmad were to marry daughters of the Zībarī tribal leaders. According to members of Khawaja Khinno family, in 1944, Mullā Mustafā was about to depart from Aqraj and Both David and Yitzhak Khawaja Khinno, accompanied him to say farewell. Before his departure, at the courtyard in front of the police station of Aqra, he distanced himself from the crowd and consulted with the two brothers. Mullā Mustafā told David: "Hājjī Qādir Agha [Zībarī] spoke with me about marrying his sister and Shaikh Mahmūd Agha [Zībarī] spoke with me about marrying his daughter... What do you think?" David Khawaja Khinno told him: "I suggest that the sister of Hājjī Qādir Agha be given to Shaikh Ahmad and you should take the daughter of Mahmud Agha." Mullā Mustafā Barzani told him: "well, in that case, would you prepare gold [jewelry] for her?"[3]

In 1944, when Eliyahu Khawaja Khinno died, Mullā Mustafā came in person to Aqrah to pay his condolences. This memorable visit demonstrates, in the eyes of the Jewish residents of Aqrah, the special bond between the two families. To the amazement of the Kurds of Aqrah, Barzani visited them first, before he visited important Shaikhs such as Abd al-Wahhāb and Mustafā Mullā Jibrā’īl. During this visit, David Khawaja Khinno honored Barzani with a golden dagger, decorated with three gold buttons, and a pistol. According to Aryeh Gabbai, Barzānī told them: “I am taking the dagger but not the pistol, which you may need. We have [enough] weapons.” On the same occasion, in front of the tribal chiefs who accompanied him, Mullā Mustafā emphasized the bond that existed with the Khawaja Khinno family, and the need to continue to protect the family which was dear to him:

"You know very well that this family is dear to me... We are regarded one family, in spite of our different religions. I do not want any harm to happen to them. One sentence that seemed to capture the essence of this unique visit among the Jews was: “We felt very unique, [we did] not [feel] the usual feeling [of inferiority] that Jews would feel towards the Muslims, fearing that some harm may come to us.”

The special relations between the Barzani tribal chiefs and the patriarchs of the family of Khawaja Khinno continued even after the exodus of Mustafa Barzani to Russia in 1947 and the mass migration of the Jews to the State of Israel from 1951 to 1952. Following the collapse of the Republic of Mahabad at the end of 1946, Mustafa Barzani went into exile in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. His wife and son, returned to Iraq.

During World War II and especially at the end of the British Mandate of Palestine in 1947, a drastic reduction in the Jewish population of Iraq began, affecting also the Jews inhabiting the northern Kurdish-dominated regions. In 1950, Iraqi Jews (including Baghdadi, Kurdish and other Jews of Iraq) were given permission to leave within one year, on condition that they renounce their Iraqi citizenship. One year later the Jews who left had their property frozen. Jews who had chosen to stay in Iraq had economic restrictions placed on them. The Jews of the Kurdish regions evacuated entirely, all coming to Israel.

In response to intense international pressure in the early 1970s, Iraq caved in and allowed whatever Jews still remained there to leave. As of 2004 about 35 Jews were still living in Baghdad, but by 2008 that number declined to less than 10.[5]

Since the mid-20th century the population of the Jews in northern Iraq, specifically in Kurdistan, was hence decimated. However, there are signs that there are some "hidden Jews" still residing in Kurdish areas and some came back from Israel to stay.[6]

These were the foundations upon which, during the 1960s and 1970s, the Israeli government established relations with the Barzani chieftain, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, who had become the most important leader of the Kurds.

Israeli support for KDP in 1960s and 1970s[edit]

According to Eliezer Tsafrir, a former senior Mossad official, in 1963–1975[7] Israel had military advisers at the headquarters of Mulla Mustafa Barzani, and trained and supplied the Kurdish units with firearms and field and anti-aircraft artillery.[8]

Political relations[edit]

Jewish organizations worldwide started lobbying campaigns to aid the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan during the Operation Desert Storm to stop the Iraqi government's persecutions.[9] Israel also provided, through Turkey Kurdistan, first aid items to Iraqi Kurdistan, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, during a meeting with US Secretary of State James Baker called on the American government to defend the Kurds.[10]

Israeli media in 2004 reported about the meetings of Israeli officials with Kurdish political leaders when Massoud Barzani, Jalal Talabani and the former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon publicly confirmed the good relations with the Iraqi Kurdistan region.[11]

The president of the Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, answered a question while visiting Kuwait in May 2006 about the Kurdish–Israeli relationship: "It is not a crime to have relations with Israel. If Baghdad established diplomatic relations with Israel, we could open a consulate in Erbil." Israeli television has in the past broadcast photographs from the 1960s showing Massoud Barzani's father, Mustafa Barzani, embracing the then Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan.[12]

In a policy address in 2014, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu supported the establishment of an independent Kurdish state. He claimed that: "The Kurds are a fighting people that have proven political commitment and political moderation, and they're also worthy of their own political independence."[13]

According to recent reports, there are between 400–730 Jewish families living in the Kurdish region. On 18 October 2015, the Kurdistan Regional Government named Sherzad Omar Mamsani, a Kurdish Jew, as the Jewish representative of the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs.[14]

Israel became the first state to support the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, however it has not recognise it as an independent state.[15]

Military relations[edit]

In 2004, it was reported by the New Yorker magazine, that allegedly Israeli military and intelligence operatives are active in Kurdish areas of Iran, Syria and Iraq, providing training for commando units and running covert operations.[16] In response, Israel's embassy in Washington denied the claim, which was sourced in the magazine mainly to an unnamed former and current intelligence officials in Israel, the US and Turkey.[16]

According to 2006 BBC report, there was evidence that Israeli experts were dispatched to Iraqi Kurdistan to provide training to Peshmerga.[17] Kurdish officials refused to comment on the report and Israel denied it knows of any involvement.

Humanitarian aid[edit]

Israeli aid during the 2010s[edit]

In September 2014, following an ISIS offensive in North Iraq, the Israeli NGO agency IsraAid announced to provide urgent assistance to Christians and Yezidis in Iraqi Kurdistan, together with the American Jewish Committee.[18] In October 2014, IsraAID agency provided humanitarian supplies to refugees within the Kurdish region of Iraq, fleeing the ISIL terror campaign.[19] The IsraAid provided supplies to 1,000 families in Dohuk towards the winter, including beds, baby milk and blankets.[19] The IsraAid assistance was provided in collaboration with the Canadian ONEXONE agency and was coordinated with the KRG.[19] IsraAID's Founding Director Shahar Zahavi told Arutz Sheva that the Israeli team were warmly received by the Kurdish residents of the camp.[19] By early 2015, IsraAid trucks provided 3,000 items to Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan, helping Christian and Yezidi refugees.[20]

Role of Kurdish Jews in Israel[edit]

Jewish immigration from Ottoman Empire to the Land of Israel (then Damascus Eyalet and Mutasarrifate of Jerusalem) began in the 16th century,[clarification needed] with the first Jewish immigrants from Kurdistan settling in Safed. Kurdish Jewish immigrants later on in the 20th century arrived in the 1920s and 1930s, and by the year 1948 there were some 8,000 Kurdish Jews in Israel. Today, the Jewish population of Kurdish background in Israel is estimated over 150,000; the largest concentration of Kurdish Jews can be found around Jerusalem.[21] The Jews of Kurdish origin play an important part in maintaining unofficial cultural and business relations between Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Israelis 'train Kurdish forces'". BBC News. 20 September 2006. Retrieved 27 March 2011.
  2. ^ "Iraq's Kurds support relations with Israel, Massoud Barzani". Kurd Net. 8 June 2005. Retrieved 27 March 2011.
  3. ^ a b c Mordechi Zaken (2007). Jewish Subjects and Their Tribal Chieftains in Kurdistan: A Study in Survival. p. 375. ISBN 9789004161900.
  4. ^ Van Bruinessen 1978: 344-48.
  5. ^ "Jews in Islamic Countries: Iraq". Jewish Virtual Library. 2013. Retrieved 3 September 2014.
  6. ^ Shefler, Gil (8 November 2013). "In Iraq's Kurdish Zone, Israelis and Long-Hidden Jews See Hope for Revived Ties". Tablet. Retrieved 3 September 2014. In recent years, a trickle of Jews of Iraqi origin have returned for visits or to do business, and a handful of individuals have even come back to stay.
  7. ^ Trita Parsi (2007). "Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S." (PDF). New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. p. 1.
  8. ^ Nader Entessar. Kurdish Politics in the Middle East. p. 161. ISBN 9780739140390. Retrieved 13 January 2013.
  9. ^ Barron A. "US and Israeli Jews Express Support for Kurdish Refugees" // Washington Report of Middle East Affairs, May–June 1991, p. 64.[verification needed]
  10. ^ "Kurdistan: The Next Flashpoint Between Turkey, Iraq, and the Syrian Revolt". Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. 5 August 2012. Retrieved 13 January 2013.
  11. ^ Gary Younge (21 June 2004). "Israelis 'using Kurds to build power base'". Guardian. Retrieved 12 January 2013.
  12. ^ Sadi Baig (30 June 2004). "A clean break for Israel". Asia Times. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
  13. ^ "Netanyahu expresses support for Kurdish independence". Los Angeles Times. 29 June 2014. Retrieved 30 June 2014.
  14. ^ Sokol, Sam (18 October 2015). "Jew appointed to official position in Iraqi Kurdistan". Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 18 October 2015.
  15. ^ "Israel becomes first state to back an independent Kurdistan". The Telegraph. 14 September 2017. Retrieved 9 October 2017.
  16. ^ a b "Israel accused of covert Kurdish operations". Sydney Morning Herald. 22 June 2014.
  17. ^ "Israelis 'train Kurdish forces'". BBC News. 20 September 2016.
  18. ^ "Israeli NGO delivers aid to refugees in Iraq". The Times of Israel.
  19. ^ a b c d "Iraq: Israeli NGO Delivers Emergency Aid to Kurds - Middle East - News - Arutz Sheva". Arutz Sheva.
  20. ^ "IsraAID scales up winter relief operation in northern Iraq 9 Feb 2015". GxMSDev.
  21. ^ "Kurdish Jewish Community in Israel". Archived from the original on 28 July 2013. Retrieved 11 April 2013.

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