Prof. Ofra Bengio is senior research associate at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. She is the author of the forthcoming The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State within a State and editor of the monthly newsletter Tzomet Hamizrah
7.12.2012 : At a conference I attended in the mid-1990s, I dared to compare the Kurdish national movement in Iraq with that of the Palestinians. The conference dealt with the changing political map of the Middle East against the background of the 1991 Gulf War, the Oslo Accords of 1993 between Israel and the Palestinians, and the burgeoning autonomies that were developing concurrently in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG ) and the newly established Palestinian Authority. At the time, both groups spoke of their peoples’ right to self-determination, and it was only natural to pinpoint the similarities and differences between the two national movements. The comparison, however, caused an uproar among the participants, who were mostly Palestinians and other Arabs, with some even leaving the conference hall in protest.
Indeed, for many years, such a comparison was considered taboo, both because of a pro-Palestinian bias in the world and the unwillingness of the states where the Kurds lived to accord any legitimacy to their unique identity, let alone fulfill their right to self-determination. The international community, with its own vested interests, followed suit. Today, though, one can reasonably ask if the time has not come to declare the taboo passe, and demonstrate that such a comparison is not far-fetched. In fact, any comparison would show clearly that the Kurds are no less – and perhaps even more – eligible for their own state.
To start with, the Kurds in general are an ancient nation who have lived in their homeland from time immemorial. They have a unique language, culture and identity, all of which differentiate them from their neighbors in the various lands where they live. Demographically speaking, the Kurds of Iraq today number more than five million – a sixth of the world’s total – compared to four million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Historically speaking, their right to self-determination was proclaimed publicly by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in his famous Fourteen Points speech of 1918, as well as in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, though that remained a dead letter. As with the Palestinians, the British were also deeply involved in the Kurdish case, post-World War I, with some British officials encouraging the establishment of a Kurdish state while others opposed it. Unluckily for the Kurds, the second group gained the upper hand, leaving those in Iraq to struggle for the rest of the 20th century to fulfill their right to self-determination.
Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, the achievements of the KRG in the realm of both nation building and state building have been much more impressive than those achieved by the PA during the same period. This is all the more striking if we consider the genocide perpetrated against them by Saddam Hussein in 1987-88. Yet, within a short while, the Kurds rose from the ashes to build an entity with all the trappings of a state: A working parliament, an effective government, strong security forces and a more or less functioning democracy.
The KRG has also become a model for many countries in the region, with its prosperous economy and thriving and cohesive society. The Kurds of Iraq also compare positively with the Palestinians in that they have rarely resorted to terrorist activities, and that political Islam has not set down roots among them.
According to the Montevideo Convention of 1933, to claim statehood a national entity should possess the following qualifications: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. If we examine the status of the KRG, we can only conclude that it fulfills most of these criteria, certainly no less than the PA.
As to the criterion of permanent population, no one would contest the fact that the Kurds have been present in the region since at least the seventh century, and even established principalities beginning in the 16th century, although the last of these was defeated in the middle of the 19th century. To our best knowledge, no such Palestinian principality has ever existed.
The question of defined territory is common to both the Kurds and the Palestinians, but according to Prof. Ruth Lapidoth, an expert on international law and professor emeritus at the Hebrew University, the lack of definitively established borders need not be an impediment to statehood.
With regard to the third condition – the existence of an effective government with control over the population – there is no doubt that the KRG is much more effective than the PA on this score. Though it did lag behind the PA with regard to entering into relations with states, it has made good progress in this area in recent years. True, it has no representation in the United Nations or other international forums. This is not, however, for any lack of moral justification, but is part of the double standard encountered in international relations.
In a recent newspaper column, a Turkish analyst expressed disgust at the American pro-Israel bias and its alleged double standard with regard to the Palestinians. He posed the following question: “Why is Israel a state, but Palestine not?” Can we not ask in the same vein, why Palestine should be a state and the Kurdistan Regional Government not?
Prof. Ofra Bengio is head of the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University and author of The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State within a State.The writer is a professor at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies.