For Kurds, the War in Gaza Shows the Need for a Democratic Reordering of the Middle East

The war in Gaza has split Kurdish opinion, marked by often strong hostility to Islamism as well as Zionism. But Kurds’ responses also draw on their experience of statelessness — and point toward a democratic order not based on rival nation-states.

Kurdistan Workers’ Party general secretary and military leader Abdullah Öcalan addresses soldiers at the Mahsun Korkmaz Academy military training camp in Lebanon, June 18, 1988. (Maher Attar / Sygma via Getty Images)

For the Kurds, it’s a familiar scene. Jihadist militants, backed by a notorious state sponsor of terrorism, target members of an embattled minority. They run amok, parading and abusing captured women, trampling their naked bodies in the street.

Another familiar scene: a vastly superior, militarized, authoritarian power skulks behind a foreboding border wall, defended by high-tech sensors and automated machine guns, as drones hum overhead. Settler colonies push deep into ancestral territories, as grandmothers are stripped and humiliated at checkpoints that impose a twenty-first-century apartheid. Armed and abetted by its Western allies, the occupier punishes civilians with lifelong control and incarceration, the total destruction of humanitarian infrastructure, and endless, punitive bombing campaigns, killing civilians in vastly greater numbers.

The unexpected, unprecedented assault on Israel launched by Hamas this October 7, and Israel’s total-war response, have sharply divided Kurdish opinion. Prominent figures such as Diliman Abdulkader of lobby group American Friends of Kurdistan have been vocal in repeating the claim that “Hamas = Turkey = ISIS,” using the United States’ “war on terror” rhetoric to cast Hamas-backer Turkey as equivalent to Iran and present the Kurds as the West’s best shield against Islamist terrorism. Conversely, a communiqué from the militant Kurdish movement’s umbrella organization Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) highlights shared struggles and historical ties with the Palestinians. It accuses Turkey of rank hypocrisy in condemning Israel while conducting its own Israeli-style total-war bombing campaign against Kurdish regions.

This is not just due to internal Kurdish political polarization. Rather, the Kurds, the world’s largest stateless nation, have suffered both kinds of violence that typify today’s Israel/Palestine conflict.

Projection Mechanisms

Much Western commentary on the conflict has been typified by repressed wish fulfilment around political violence. Plagued by powerlessness — but unable really to reckon with it — many seem gripped by what critics inspired by Walter Benjamin call “left-wing melancholia.” Leftists dream of past anti-colonial liberation struggles backed by real-world Communist powers, rather than coming to terms with their present, more constrained reality.

Much contemporary anti-imperialist discourse is marked by the fetishization of armed resistance — and the tired repetition of slogans belonging to a past when anti-imperialist struggles could still remake the world. This provides a kind of defense mechanism enabling the Left to avoid a painful reckoning with global capitalist hegemony. Rapid (and rapidly retracted) proclamations of glee at Hamas’s attack betray an unwillingness to think through what the co-option of Palestinian struggle by authoritarian Islamism means for the Palestinian people, or the broader cause of socialist internationalism.

The Right, meanwhile, indulges in its own wish fulfilment of the authoritarian liquidation of dissenting and subaltern domestic populations. This is dressed up in the language of human rights and concerns over domestic antisemitism, often by those who carry water for antisemites elsewhere. Israel — like the Kurds in their fight against ISIS — has become a convenient depository for the Right’s ugliest fantasies of race violence and subjugation.

But in the Kurds’ case, the opposite tendency is present. A mimetic association aligns them with the victims, not the executors, of the present violence. In this light, it’s not hard to understand the sharp division between those Kurds who empathize with civilian victims of Islamist violence and those who empathize with the Palestinian victims of Israel’s brutal occupation — positions which I’ve heard voiced with equal conviction in conversations with many Kurdish politicians, civilians, and militants. This suffering people can empathize with the individual victims of a specific terror attack, or another nation that is also the victim of systematic violence.

It’s easy to stand with, or even cheerlead for, either nation. It’s rather harder, particularly in the fog of war, to imagine a genuinely socialist-internationalist response to the conflict. But this is precisely what we must pursue — and what the Kurdish movement has often managed to articulate. Internationalism is not to be sneeringly dismissed as “both-sidesism,” drawing false equivalences between profoundly unmatched forces or abstaining from judgement altogether. Rather, it is a call to dissolve the foundations of occupation and empire, by enabling repressed peoples everywhere to fight for self-determination in the broadest sense. Not just national self-determination conducted for the benefit of a national elite, but a deeper emancipation, dissolving not only borders but economic and social stratification. As Israel prepares to reduce Gaza to rubble — telling civilians with nowhere to flee that they must do just that — it might be countered that now isn’t the time for such utopian conjectures.

Geopolitically, the conflict is clearly imbricated with both the Kurdish struggle and the wider crisis in the Middle East. Turkey’s support for Hamas is well documented, and both Turkey and Hamas’s key backers in Tehran have sought to eradicate the Kurdish-led self-determination project under the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), built around the Kurdish region known as Rojava.

Fundamentally, Turkish support for Hamas and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s solicitation of the Islamist vote (including among a sizeable chunk of religious, rural Kurds) through vocal attacks on Israel does not translate to any material interest in resolving the occupation in favor of the Palestinians. These contradictions play out on the battlefield. In the present conflict, it’s likely that Turkish funding and support has enabled Hamas to target Israeli soldiers carrying Turkish-supplied equipment, even as Turkey uses Israeli military tech to target the Kurds. By the same token, it’s a myth to think Israel has any interest in the Kurdish vision of dismantling the authoritarian nation-state, or breaking with an ethnonationalist understanding of self-determination.

Rather, as Kurdish political leader Abdullah Öcalan has written, Israel “has no tolerance for the alternative solution to the Kurdish issue” that his movement advances. The state form is not only understood as paradigmatic in ensuring a safe future for the Jewish people, but through the Israeli self-conception as “the only democracy in the Middle East” is represented as capable of providing rights, security, and emancipation to all citizens — the evidence of the present conflict notwithstanding. By definition, the Israeli state is opposed to the broader, communitarian self-determination of what the Kurdish movement refers to as a “democratic nation” (“netewa demokratîk”) of diverse peoples.

This is precisely why the Palestinian people cannot expect state-backed Islamist insurgency to lead to their emancipation. As Frantz Fanon argues, violence can be a necessary and rational response to colonial oppression — and in the Palestinian case, the systematic shutting down of peaceful avenues for political change has surely encouraged the recourse to violent means. But as Fanon also makes clear, violence alone cannot emancipate. Recognition of the Palestinians’ right to resist by even violent means should not preclude a left-wing critique of Hamas’ rule in Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority in what remains of the West Bank, as preventing the Palestinian people from achieving genuine self-determination.

After the “Anti-Imperialist Camp”

Indeed, the militant Kurdish movement has had ties to the militant Palestinian movement for longer than Hamas or Islamic Jihad have existed. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) got its early training and developed its profoundly internationalist sensibility in camps run by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), a secular, Marxist-Leninist organization that declared its fight was against not only Zionism and imperialism, but also, necessarily, Arab reaction.

As the Palestinian resistance took on Islamist forms in the 1980s and the USSR collapsed, the DFLP faded into obscurity. It was at this point that the unique Kurdish perspective began to take form. For the Marxist-Leninist PKK was also engaged in a critique of its own struggle for an independent, socialist Kurdish state. Rather than dwindling into insignificance or resorting to Islamist violence (like some fringe Kurdish-Islamist groups, now vocal in support of Hamas and amplified by Turkey to imply the inherent barbarity and backward nature of the Kurds), the PKK moved on.

Öcalan’s analysis of the Jewish people’s role in history has been the subject of recent, legitimate scrutiny and criticism within Kurdish circles. There is a risk of falling into the familiar trope of ascribing excessive power and influence to the Jewish people in his account of the evolution of the nation-state. But his movement’s ability to analyze and learn from the collapsed prospect of national self-determination as part of a Soviet-led “anti-imperialist camp” is deeply relevant to today’s crisis. His analysis of Israel/Palestine, which attempts to envisage a future in which both the Jewish people and their neighbors contribute to a new political settlement, is thus worth quoting at length:

The solution lies with democratic Middle Eastern civilization. Just as the Middle East would be in ruins without the Jews, the Jews are always subjected to genocides and exiles without the Middle East. History is full of lessons. The Jewish intellectual becomes increasingly aware that their problem is the world’s problem. However, the solution to the problem must be sought in the Middle East. Let us not forget that a Democratic Middle East is not a dream: it is as important as the air we breathe. The Jews should be aware that the only way to commemorate the victims of the genocide and to never fall into new ones depends on the construction of a democratic Middle East civilization, whereas all the Middle Eastern people should be aware that there cannot be a democratic Middle East without the Jews. Hence, we should all be aware that a historical democratic compromise is the only solution and all involved should put their hearts and souls into the construction of the democratic society.

The step back from the state form does not deny the Palestinian people their right to self-determination. Nor does it deny the Israeli people their right to a homeland, free from harm. On the contrary, contemporary Israel is a paradigmatic focus of Öcalan’s critique of the state. If Israel is understood as the occupying, oppressor state par excellence — if its apartheid is the limit case of how authoritarian a state can become in its repression of an indigenous peoples’ rights — the surpassing of the state form that Öcalan elsewhere represents as inherently centralized and authoritarian will ultimately prove necessary, to achieve the true emancipation of all peoples living in and under it.

Difficult Quest for Coexistence

Certainly, Hamas’s surprise attack leaves the long-moribund two-state solution dead in the water. Israel will not (and never would) tolerate Palestinian national self-determination. The one-state solution, with Jews, Arabs, and minorities granted equal rights in a federal system, has often been dismissed as an unrealistic fantasy. A fantasy, but no utopia — rather a messy and doubtlessly deeply painful process, but a proposal that perhaps for that very reason deserves deeper thought and exploration than it normally receives.

Rather than Öcalan’s stated goal of a devolved “commune of communes,” or a resurgence of socialist-Zionist kibbutzim, perhaps a more realistic medium-term vision would indeed resemble a one-state solution marked by careful, managed, intercommunity tolerance. Over in northeastern Syria, the actually-existing implementation of a federal alternative under the AANES has been marked by political and diplomatic compromise and the continued reality of the Syrian state, as well as by bloodshed and sometimes brutal opposition. Any such alternative advanced in Israel/Palestine will again look radically different.

But we could go further still — ultimately, then the socialist goal remains a no-state solution, wherein all peoples are able to live in free, peaceful, dignified association. This is true even in a Marxist-Leninist conception of struggle and national self-determination. In its statement, the KCK makes clear Öcalan’s perspective that the deconstruction of all hierarchies must continue to serve as our political horizon, in which a necessary step along the way comes through the undermining of the centralized state through dual forms of power: “problems can be solved by strengthening society, developing democracy, and developing a life according to the ‘democratic nation’ based on the free, equal, democratic self-government and will of the peoples.”

This is not to glibly suggest that democratic confederalism can serve as a panacea to the Israel/Palestine conflict, today, tomorrow, or in ten years’ time. Israel is unleashing that exponentially, qualitatively different form of violence of which only the state is capable. As the song “Saul has killed his thousands, but David has killed his tens of thousands” is heard once again in the streets of the Holy Land, it will prove difficult to imagine any alternative is possible.

This will be a long and painful process, one the Palestinian people must continue to undertake themselves. As the oppressed class in this conflict, the Palestinians can and must work out their own solution, with the support and engagement of Jewish and other citizens of Israel willing to engage in that process. As the KCK indicates in its balanced statement, while “nothing can deny the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause,” at the same time many Israelis recognize they, too, must find a solution to the Palestinian question, enabling them to coexist in a region that is and must be a home to both nations.

For now, this is what the Kurdish movement can offer: a reminder that another way is possible. In the Syrian conflict, armed opposition to a repressive government rapidly took on Islamist form, defined by Sunni Arab chauvinism and increasingly intolerant of minority rights. But in the Kurdish-led AANES, which is home to millions, Syrians have the option of a serious, organized, alternative to both the brutal Assad administration and the brutal Islamist opposition now primarily represented by al-Qaeda offshoot Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and a gaggle of violent, criminal Turkish-backed militias.

In North and East Syria, it has proven largely possible for communities once engaged in brutal interethnic violence to break bread and operate politically in the same federal system. Indeed, despite severe challenges, it’s proven easier for the Kurdish movement to reckon with the Arab communities within where ISIS once held sway, than it has to achieve the melting-away of the Turkish-Syrian border that still separates Kurdish communities, families, and homelands. In October, punitive, systematic Turkish airstrikes took out the region’s entire energy infrastructure, killing dozens and leaving two million civilians without power, water, or safely functioning hospitals. The parallels with Gaza scarcely need highlighting.

Nothing Is Set in Stone

To adapt a well-known anti-capitalist mantra, we live in an era of state realism, wherein it’s “easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of the state.” But as the great scholars of nationalism, Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson, have suggested, “Minerva’s owl flies at dusk,” and the nation-state form, long assumed to be necessary, inevitable, and permanent by thinkers from G. W. F. Hegel down to Francis Fukuyama, can only be fully understood as it enters into an era of spiraling crisis. If the images emerging from Gaza seem to us apocalyptic, that in turn should remind us that no order is set in stone.

Indeed, Öcalan’s analysis recalls the brave position of Ernst Bloch, the Jewish Marxist, mystic, and prophet of hope in hopeless times. Writing less than ten years after the liberation of Auschwitz, in the context of his own flight from certain death in Nazi Germany, he boldly locates the true Zion not in the nascent Israeli state, but in the anti-Zionist struggle. “Zionism flows out into socialism, or it does not flow out at all,” he writes, stating in typically dashing terms that the Biblical prediction of the wolf lying down with the lamb has been betrayed by “the Suez Canal and Mosul oil, Arab tension and the British sphere of influence, the sinking empire and the American monster.” The bravery of such a position, in such a historical moment, can hardly be overstated.

Likewise, the true spirit of socialist internationalism undoes all nationalisms, even those that might serve for a while as its vehicle. The anti-Israeli, anti-Western, Islamist-authoritarian movement uniting Iran with Hezbollah, Hamas, the Assad government, and other regional political actors styles itself, with a definite article, “the resistance.” In contrast, the Kurdish movement organizes under the slogan “resistance is life.” Here, “resisting” is not a static, negatively defined opposition to empire, but rather a verb, a constant act of doing and undoing. Resistance is life: and, so it follows, life is resistance.

This is not to put the Kurds on a pedestal: they, too, have made their errors, and the Palestinians, too, have trodden the long, hard road of resistance. Rather, it is to point once more to the fundamental role the Palestinian resistance must take in determining its own future, in choosing a path beyond not only Israeli occupation, but also the replication of state violence in microcosm. As Bloch suggests, all struggle and resistance bear in them the seeds of future social transformation. But it’s for precisely this reason that the form of the struggle, and the demands made by the resistance, matter.