Israel Owes It to the Kurds to Recognize Halabja as Genocide

The Jewish people share with the Kurds a common history of suffering from the terror of chemical weapons. With Holocaust Remembrance Day in sight, Israel has a special responsibility to recognize the genocide that Iraq perpetrated against the Kurds.

Ofra Bengio
Ofra Bengio
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Ofra Bengio
Ofra Bengio

On March 16, Kurds commemorated the 25th anniversary of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s chemical attack on the town of Halabja, in which 5,000 Kurds perished in one day. The "Hiroshima of the Kurds," as they call the gassing, was just a small part of a much wider campaign known as Anfal. The Iraqi ruler unleashed the campaign against the Kurds toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), causing the deaths of some 180,000 Kurds.

Saddam cynically took the name of the Anfal campaign from the titles of the Koran's eighth sura, which calls for the extermination of infidels. While the Anfal was the deadliest campaign waged by Iraq's Ba'athist regime in its 32 years in power, it was preceded by many other operations, involving the destruction of no fewer than 4,000 villages and the disappearance of 8,000 men of the Barzani Kurdish clan in 1983. Documents recovered after Saddam's fall in 2003 show how systematic, well-planned and encompassing the campaign was.

At the time, the world turned a blind eye to the Kurds' plight. The American administration even went so far as to falsely blame the Halabja attack on Iran. But since then, things have changed dramatically. The Kurdistan Regional Government has been working assiduously to etch the tragedy in the collective Kurdish memory and no less importantly to awaken the world's conscience to the atrocities committed against the Kurds by the Iraqi state.

On the domestic level, the Kurdish leadership turned Halabja and the Anfal into the symbol and driver of Kurdish revival. Much like the Jews following the Holocaust – which will be recognized next week – the Kurds used their national trauma as a springboard for nation and state-building. Externally, the Kurds attempted to win international recognition of the events as genocide. As early as 1993, after an extensive investigation, Human Rights Watch reached the conclusion that Iraq had committed genocide against the Kurds. Among other things, the organization cited the murder and disappearance of tens of thousands of non-combatants targeted on the basis of their ethnic-national identity, the use of chemical and nerve agents against civilians and the near-total destruction of Kurdish assets and infrastructure.

The Kurdish diaspora in Europe and elsewhere has also been tireless in awakening the world’s conscience to the Kurds' traumatic experience under the Ba`athist regime and in encouraging countries to recognize Halabja and the Anfal as genocide. Legislators of Kurdish origin have been instrumental in bringing the Kurdish voice to some parliaments in Europe. Also, petition campaigns proliferated in 2013, termed "The Year of Recognizing the Kurdish Genocide" by Kurds.

Cynics say that only after abundant oil and gas were discovered in Kurdistan and the Kurds of Iraq became a power to be reckoned with did the world awaken to their tragedy. And the fact is the change took 25 years.

Kurdish efforts to promote awareness only began to bear fruit in November 2012 when Norway became the first country to describe Iraq's attacks as genocide, followed by Sweden and Britain. Other countries, including Canada, the Netherlands, Germany and France are discussing taking the step, too.

In a speech marking the anniversary of Halabja, Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani called for its recognition as genocide and for March 16 to be declared as an international day of opposition to chemical weapons. Addressing the United Nations, Barzani said: "We want the UN to consider what happened in Halabja as genocide. How many more Halabjas should happen? How many more Kurds should be massacred? If the UN had recognized Halabja as genocide, there would have been no al-Anfal campaign and no mass graves."

Barzani’s words should not go unheeded by Israel. The Israeli Knesset should consider joining other countries in debating recognition of the Kurdish genocide. Representing a people that have also suffered the terrors of chemical weapons, Israel cannot remain aloof when it comes to the Kurds who suffered the same fate. Indeed, Israel has a moral debt to the Kurdish people who helped Iraqi Jews flee persecution in Iraq especially during Saddam Hussein’s regime.

For those in Israel who are driven more by practical calculations than moral values, it is worth nothing that in this case; Israel is at no risk of antagonizing another state with its actions – certainly not the central government in Baghdad, with which Israel has no relations. In fact, already in 2008, the Iraqi parliament deemed the Anfal campaign an act of genocide against the Kurdish people. If all these points are not convincing enough, the fact that chemical weapons are at large in the collapsing state of Syria calls for an international condemnation of chemical weapons to deter Damascus from using them. Israel should be at the forefront of an endeavor of this kind.

Prof. Ofra Bengio is head of Kurdish Studies program at the Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University and author of The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State within a State.

A memorial for victims of the 1988 chemical attack at a cemetery in the Kurdish town of Halabja, near Sulaimaniya, Iraq, March 16, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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