Walking a Fine Line:

Israel Straddles between Turkish allies and Kurdish Anger

After months of pursuit, Turkey finally caught up to its "most wanted man," Kurdish separatist leader Abdallah Ocalan, in Nairobi in February and whisked him home to stand trial for treason. But the abduction ignited angry protests among Kurds scattered throughout Europe, including a deadly encounter at the Israeli consulate in Berlin that forced Israel to walk a fine line between its growing strategic alliance with Turkey and rising militancy among Kurdish nationalists.

At 25 million, the largely Sunni Muslim Kurds are the world's largest ethnic group without a nation. They dwell mainly along the rugged frontiers where Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey converge, but chronic disunity has crippled their century-long hope for independence. The notorious Ocalan heads the Syrian-backed Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), which is blamed for the deaths of 29,000 Turks during a 14-year brutal terror campaign for autonomy in southeast Turkey.

Syria expelled Ocalan from Damascus some five months ago following Turkish threats to "drive in one end of Syria and out the other" for granting him refuge. The fugitive Ocalan sought asylum in Lebanon, Russia, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy (sparking a two-month feud between Ankara and Rome) and elsewhere, before dropping out of sight in January.

Spending his last 12 days of freedom hidden in a Greek Embassy building in Nairobi, he was abducted by Turkish agents on February 16 when leaving the compound, and was flown at once to a Turkish island prison. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit emotionally announced Ocalan's capture, saying: "He will account for his actions in front of the Turkish justice system."

Greece and Kenya denied any complicity in the capture, but Kurdish demonstrators immediately targeted their diplomatic missions in more than 20 European cities, even seizing buildings and hostages. Then a German news agency reported possible Mossad involvement, inciting a Kurdish mob armed with clubs and iron bars to storm Israel's consulate in Berlin, taking one woman hostage. Security guards, acting in self-defence, shot 3 Kurds dead inside the building, although details of the incident are still in dispute. A fourth shooting victim died 10 days later.

Israel was quick to "flatly deny" any link to Ocalan's abduction, with Mossad chief Efraim Halevy issuing a highly unusual public statement aimed at placating Kurdish anger. Diplomatic contacts with Kurdish representatives were initiated - despite Turkish warnings - including efforts by Israel's ambassador to Germany to reduce tensions there. Israel made clear it would continue its dialogue with various Kurdish community leaders, but would not have any contact with Ocalan's PKK.

At first, the US also denied "direct involvement" in the murky abduction of Ocalan, although White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said the US was "obviously very pleased with the apprehension of this terrorist leader." But later, The Washington Post reported an official admission that American agents tipped off the Turks about Ocalan's presence at the Greek compound.

Without a homeland, and with little international support for their cause, the ancient Kurds have faced detention, torture, gassing and mass execution at the hands of surrounding regimes. In contrast, the relationship between Israel and the Kurds has historically been warm. Although Israel has never co-operated with the PKK (which has received succour from Israel's enemies, such as Syria), it has helped other Kurdish rebel factions, primarily those in Iraq who oppose Saddam Hussein. But as Israel and Turkey have moved closer diplomatically and militarily in recent years, many Kurds have taken note.

While the rumours of a Mossad role and the Berlin shootings caused a rapid erosion in relations, Israeli reassurances to the Kurds are slowly restoring confidence. A commentator in Yediot Ahronot noted that "since its inception 14 years ago, the PKK has taken pains not to become entangled with Israel. Although Ocalan has operated under Syrian sponsorship, and received considerable assistance from Hizb'Allah and Palestinian rejectionist organisations, he has ensured that the PKK not attack Israeli citizens or installations." In a positive note, a PKK official in Brussels was quoted on the Voice of Israel as saying the group had no intention of attacking Israeli or Jewish targets.

But Israel's pains to stay completely out of the Turkish-Kurdish struggle will not be easy. Commenting on the new surge of Kurdish militancy, Time editor Joshua Cooper Ramo said on CNN that Western intelligence analysts have been concerned for the past 18 months over elements in the PKK calling for actions outside Turkish soil to bring attention to their cause. Pointing to the PLO as a model, these radical elements have argued that widespread terrorist actions eventually were successful for the PLO, producing the current situation where Palestinians soon will have their own state.

As if on cue, Palestinians staged several large pro-PKK demonstrations in the weeks after the Ocalan arrest, including one outside the Turkish consulate in eastern Jerusalem.

A new spate of bombings in Turkey, the broader Kurdish awakening, and lingering protests at Israeli missions in Bonn and Montreal served as reminders that Israel must use caution to avoid incurring the wrath of yet another unwanted terrorist enemy.


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