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Justice for the Kurds?

Pro-Kurd protest

Photo Credit: Gili Yaari/Flash 90

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Much ink has been spilled about the desirability or even the inevitability of a separate State for Palestinians, whose identity stems from the middle of the 20th century, but what has been much less discussed by the international community — and for the most part ignored — is a similar claim by the Kurds, a people with a truly separate ethnic identity as well as a long history.

A Palestinian state would encompass 5 to 6 million people, the separate identity of whom stems only from the middle of the last century. Until that time those living in the area of Palestine did not consider themselves Palestinians, but as part of the Pan-Arab or Pan-Islamist movement. A Palestinian identity was not regarded as distinct from the identities of other Arabs who inhabited adjacent regions. The concept of such a separate identity arose, among other reasons, partly as a response to the Zionist movement and the establishment in 1948 of Israel, which until then was called Palestine: all citizens, including Jews, had on their passports that their country of origin was Palestine. There is now a demand for a Palestinian state separate from that of other Arabs.

The Kurds, on the other hand, are a frequently forgotten people, numbering over 35 million, who have a distinct identity and who have been pleading, fighting and dying for an independent state of their own since the 19th century.

The Arab League with its 22 members, along with Turkey, and many countries and groups in the international community have passionately advocated that part of the disputed land in the formerly Palestine area become a Palestinian state. The same individuals and groups, however, have opposed the creation of a Kurdish non-Arab state, on territory it claims as its own, and with it is unwilling to cooperate in sharing, even as they discount Israel’s claims – from 1800 BCE, up to the Balfour Delaration, the British White Paper and UN Resolution 242 — to all or part of what they want as Judenrein [with no Jews] Palestinian land.

By any reasonable and objective historical and cultural criteria, however, the claim of the Kurds for political sovereignty is infinitely stronger than that of Palestinians. In contrast to the Palestinians, the Kurds have few friends in the international community. Kurdish nationalism emerged a century earlier than did Palestinian nationalism. Collectively the Kurds, who are not Arabs, live in an area usually referred to as “Kurdistan,” despite its uncertain borders. The Kurds make up a significant ethnic group that speaks its own language, part of the Indo-European language group.

During the late 19th century the Kurds made demands, mounting uprisings, and pressed for political autonomy in the areas in which they lived or independence free of any control by the Ottoman Empire or Persian authorities, each of which ruled Kurdish areas. Although the uprisings for an independent state in 1880 were particularly fierce, the Ottomans and the armies of Qajar Persia suppressed them.

After World War I, the Treaty of Sèvres in August 1920, the peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire and the victorious Allies of the war, dissolved the Empire and replaced it with a number of new nation-states — Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and Turkey — but not by a Kurdish state. The newly created Turkey renounced all rights over Arab Asia and North Africa. Two Articles in the Treaty were relevant to the issue of the Kurds. Article 62 of the Treaty suggested the creation of an autonomous region for Kurds in the new Turkey. Article 64 proposed the later possibility of an independent Kurdish state “inhabiting that part of Kurdistan which has hitherto been included in the Mosul vilayet(of the Ottoman Empire).”

However, the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in July 1923 and put into effect in August 1924, ended the continuing state of war between Turkey and a number of the victorious Allies. Between the time the two treaties were signed, the monarchy in Turkey had been overthrown and a republic establish under Kemal Ataturk. The new Treaty defined the borders of the modern Turkish state and ignored the earlier proposal for a Kurdish state. Political machinations, particularly by the British who were concerned with the threat of Communist Russia, led to decisions by which the territorial integrity of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey were heightened to counteract that threat.

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About the Author: Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University, and author of the forthcoming book, Should Israel Exist? A sovereign nation under assault by the international community.


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