The Kurds Who Died for Palestine

The remarkable story of the ‘Beaufort Castle Heroes,’ who had been training at a Palestinian base in Lebanon when they were captured in 1982

The Kurds Who Died for Palestine
Kurdish militants at the Mahsun Korkmaz Academy training camp in Lebanon, 1988. (Maher Attar/Sygma via Getty Images)

Reza Pahlavi, the son of Iran’s late, deposed monarch, visited Israel on April 17 on a tour led by Israeli Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel. The trip was expected to be controversial, not only because anti-Israel rhetoric is an ideological cornerstone of the Islamic Republic but also because Pahlavi was arriving during a period of serious political upheaval in Israel and Palestine.

While Pahlavi himself remained aloof from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his wife, Yasmine, weighed in. She posted an Instagram story of a female Israeli gendarme in Jerusalem with the caption “Woman, Life, Freedom,” the slogan of the Iranian uprising. No stranger to social media controversy, Yasmine Pahlavi has previously used Instagram to wish death upon “clerics, leftists and the Mojahedin-e Khalq,” a rival opposition group.

It’s easy enough to recognize the irony in Pahlavi lauding an occupying soldier with the slogan “freedom.” But there’s an even deeper historical irony. The slogan “Woman, Life, Liberty” was coined by supporters of a left-wing Kurdish party that got its start fighting alongside Palestinian guerrillas against the Israeli army.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is arguably one of the most important non-state actors in modern West Asia. While fighting a brutal guerrilla war against the Turkish government, it has also managed to inspire Kurdish movements in Syria, Iraq and Iran, as well as Iran’s non-Kurdish protesters. In a region where many parties are nakedly sectarian, the PKK has gone from Marxist-Leninist nationalism to a form of radical-democratic “libertarian municipalism” inspired by the late anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin.

For better or worse, the PKK exists today only because the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), a now-obscure Palestinian force, agreed to shelter some Kurdish exiles in the 1980s. That experience in the Palestinian camps permanently affected the worldview of the PKK’s founding generation. Not only did the PKK learn how to fight a guerrilla war, it also walked away with a strong sense of internationalism.

In fact, some of the PKK’s founding figures spent time in an Israeli detention camp as prisoners of war. Old issues of the party magazine Serxwebun tell the remarkable story of the “Beaufort Castle Heroes,” a group of Kurds who had been training at a Palestinian base in Lebanon when they were captured by Israeli forces in June 1982. (Serxwebun means “independence” in Kurdish.) New Lines is reporting much of their story in English for the first time.

The June 1984 edition of Serxwebun features drawings and poetry from the prisoners, including one Iranian Kurdish fighter. The Iranian Kurd, codenamed Sami, recalled being beaten by an Israeli interrogator who shouted, “You came to kill Jews, you’re lying … Kurdistan, Turkistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Arab, you are all antisemitic, we will kill you all.”

The PKK was just one of many foreign fighter contingents in Lebanon. (Sami was captured alongside a Bangladeshi fighter, and another Serxwebun article mentioned the presence of an Iranian from the left-wing People’s Fedai Guerrillas.) At the time, the Palestinian movement was the international leftist cause celebre, and leftists understood it to be part of an unbroken chain of Third World liberation struggles.

“If you know Vietnam, you know Kurdistan … a new Vietnam in our hearts,” Sami wrote in a poem. “To the defenseless prisoner in Diyarbakir, to the leaf on the tree in Vietnam, to the living being in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the orphan baby in Sabra and Shatila.”

Another of the prisoners was Seyfettin Zoğurlu, at whose family’s house the founding meeting of the PKK took place in 1978. He returned to Turkey and was killed in 1986.

The DFLP, the Palestinian faction that hosted the PKK, had a long history with leftists from Turkey specifically. The famous Turkish journalist Cengiz Çandar volunteered in the DFLP as a young man in the 1970s. In his memoirs, he recalled the absurdity of foreign fighters listening to lectures about Palestinian factional politics and chanting “we will return” to Palestine.

Moments like that aside, all these groups had a common language in Marxist theory. Without fully understanding one another’s local contexts, rebels from Nicaragua to Namibia could figure out who their allies were in the global struggle between imperialism and communism.

The June 1984 edition of Serxwebun includes a joint communique written by the PKK and two other left-wing factions — the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front — extolling the “martyrs who fell confronting the imperialist-Zionist scheme on the region” and the “militant solidarity between the Palestinian and Kurdistani peoples.”

The DFLP official Qais “Abu Layla” Abd al-Karim was impressed with PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan’s ability to speak that language. At their first meeting, Öcalan spent all night lecturing his Palestinian host about “how important it is to get rid of the revisionists in order to make war against the enemy,” which showed how serious the Kurdish activist was about his cause and his principles, Abu Layla later told the journalist Aliza Marcus.

The exact route that Öcalan took to Abu Layla’s camp is a contested piece of Kurdish history. The Kurdish militant made contact with Palestinian factions some time in 1979 or 1980. Different sources report different people setting up the connection. According to the researcher Hamdi Akkaya, the Kurdish-Palestinian meetings were initiated by both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, now one of the two ruling parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, and a small Syrian Kurdish socialist party called the PÇDKS.

Family connections and smuggling networks on the Syrian-Turkish border also played a role. All this activity took place under the watchful eyes of the Syrian intelligence services, which were encouraging international leftists to fight for the Palestinian cause. Of course, those leftists were expected to steer clear of applying their principles in a way that led them to oppose Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s own Machiavellian police state, whose targets included Syrian Kurds and the Communist Party.

Kurdish activists debated how much they could afford to depend on Syria, practically and morally, reports Marcus in her book “Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence” (2007). But there was not much of a choice. The situation in Turkey had been rapidly deteriorating. In September 1980, the Turkish military launched a coup d’etat. Mass purges followed. Authorities imprisoned over 650,000 people, hundreds of whom died in custody, many under torture.

Before the coup, the PKK was one of many feuding Kurdish factions. (Abu Layla recalled rival Kurds warning him about Öcalan’s fractious and violent nature.) After the coup, it was one of the few Kurdish parties in Turkey with a base outside the government’s grasp, allowing it to take control of the Kurdish struggle.

The PKK and its Palestinian hosts initially agreed to stay out of each other’s struggles, Aliza Marcus and Hamdi Akkaya report. Kurdish fighters would come to the Palestinian camps in Lebanon — camps of multiple factions, not just the DFLP — simply to train. Along with military tactics, the Kurds “learned about making demonstrations for martyrs, about ceremonies” and “did a lot of reading on a people’s war,” one former fighter told Marcus.

The PKK presence in Lebanon ballooned from a few fugitives to several hundred fighters. Although the party has renounced Marxism-Leninism as an ideology, its political culture still bears the marks of that time: secular martyrdom culture, strict internal discipline, Maoist-style self-criticism sessions and an emphasis on reading political theory.

Decades later, many PKK veterans found themselves hosting foreign fighters. The Syrian Democratic Forces, a revolutionary movement inspired by Öcalan’s teachings and led by former PKK cadres, has taken in hundreds of Kurdish and non-Kurdish volunteers from other countries. Their presence boosted global media attention on the Kurdish cause — and helped spread the “Woman, Life, Liberty” slogan in other contexts, as in Iran.

There were also much darker lessons that the PKK gleaned from the Palestinian movement. Parties like the DFLP and PFLP had carried out wanton acts of violence against accused collaborators, Israeli civilians and foreign tourists. The PKK brought those practices to its own war against the Turkish state.

Islamists would later take many pages from the “people’s war” playbook. Sunni Islamists in Iraq promoted the maxim “nine bullets for the traitors and one for the enemy,” initially attributed to the secular Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the longtime chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). And the exchange went both ways. Shiite Islamist fighters in Lebanon pioneered the tactic of suicide bombing, which was later picked up by secular Palestinian factions as well as the PKK itself.

Perhaps the Islamists should not get all the credit, however. Israeli military intelligence introduced large-scale car bombings to Lebanon during a false-flag campaign meant to provoke a Palestinian response, reports Ronen Bergman in his book “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations” (2018).

Israel launched a fateful, full-scale invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. At that point, Israeli goals were far more ambitious than a tit-for-tat with Palestinian guerrillas. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon wanted to “remake the whole of the Middle East” by installing an Israeli puppet leader in Beirut and expelling Palestinians to Jordan en masse, Bergman writes.

Kurdish trainees had been staying at Beaufort Castle (known locally as Shaqif Arnun), a fort from the times of the Crusades that had been transformed into a Palestinian camp. Less than five kilometers from the Israeli border, it was directly in the path of the invasion. After a day of heavy bombardment and an assault by commandos from Israel’s Golani Brigade, the fighters attempted to beat a retreat to the coastal city of Sidon, but suffered further losses in the South Lebanese countryside.

Sharon probably did not even know about the PKK’s existence, but the PKK remembers itself as a major player. “Besides the Lebanese and Palestinian insurgents, the most serious resistance came from the PKK,” the December 2017 edition of Serxwebun states, recounting the intense fighting around Beaufort Castle.

Ten Kurds died in that battle and the retreat from the castle, becoming some of the PKK’s first-ever martyrs. An additional 15 were captured by the Israeli army and taken to Ansar, an Israeli prison camp built on occupied Lebanese territory. Serxwebun states that the Kurds were interrogated not only by Israeli troops but also by Turkish intelligence officers.

Such cooperation would not be unheard of. When Israeli forces came across bases of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, a Lebanese-Armenian militant group plotting attacks against Turkey, they handed over the materials they found to Turkish officials, according to diplomatic cables unearthed by the historian Eldad Ben Aharon.

Serxwebun described harsh conditions in the Ansar prison. In the first few months of the invasion, reports emerged in foreign media about beatings and inadequate living conditions in the camp. At one point, an Israeli soldier fired randomly at the prisoners, killing three. He was eventually court-martialed.

“No law was applied in Ansar or in other detention places, except for the instructions of the Israeli camp commander and the whim of the guards,” wrote the former prisoner Salah Tamari, who described “constant humiliations” and “continuous interrogation.”

By 1983, the Washington Post and the New York Times reported that conditions were improving after considerable international pressure. At the end of the year, Israel agreed to a prisoner exchange with the umbrella PLO. Several thousand prisoners from Ansar were let go — including the Kurdish captives.

Their story wasn’t over, yet. About 1,000 prisoners, including the PKK members, were set to be flown to Algeria on passenger jets. But during a stopover in Greece, the Kurds chained themselves to airport chairs and demanded asylum. They won their request. Some returned to Turkey, while others began organizing Europe’s Kurdish diaspora.

One of the prisoners, Seyfettin Özen, went on to participate in the first PKK operation inside Turkey since the 1980 coup, a series of guerrilla raids against police stations on Aug. 15, 1984. He was killed a year later. Another former prisoner, Nazif Aktaş, set up the PKK’s political front in Europe. He was murdered in a dispute with a rival Kurdish party in 1985.

The PKK eventually set up a permanent training camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, then under Syrian occupation. But as Syrian-Turkish relations warmed in the 1990s, the Syrian government ended the PKK’s safe haven. Öcalan bounced around the world until Turkish operatives captured him, with the help of the CIA, in 1999.

There was a silver lining: The end of Syrian patronage gave the Kurdish left a free hand to act against Assad. A few years later, PKK supporters and veterans helped organize the Democratic Union Party, which later gave rise to the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Because of rumors that Israeli intelligence had been involved in hunting down Öcalan, diaspora Kurds demonstrated outside the Israeli embassy in Berlin after the arrest. Embassy guards fired on a group of protesters who had broken through the police cordon, killing three of them. A few days later, 500 DFLP supporters held a rally in the Palestinian city of Nablus. Along with displaying typical Palestinian leftist symbols, they stomped on a Turkish flag and waved around a portrait of Öcalan.

Since then, the Palestinian left has largely been sidelined in favor of Islamist parties. The Islamists’ patrons have included Turkey and Iran, two states hostile to the Kurdish nationalist movement. Partly in order to thumb its nose at those two states, Israel has grown more vocal in support of Iraqi Kurdish aspirations, a favor some Kurds have returned by waving Israeli flags.

Still, the Palestinian left continues to show support for the Kurdish cause. In a 2010 letter, DFLP leader Nayef Hawatmeh said that “we stood with the Kurdish right to self-determination from the beginning,” although he did not specifically mention his relationship with the PKK. In more recent years, veteran PFLP guerrilla Leila Khaled has visited Turkey several times to show support for Kurdish dissidents.

Nor has the PKK forgotten its history. The party continues to mention the Battle of Beaufort Castle in its hagiographies of fighters and statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But perhaps the most remarkable document is a 2009 letter published online by the Palestinian writer Mazen Safi, addressed to himself, from “Polat Can in the mountains of Kurdistan.”

According to Safi’s introduction, he received the letter after publishing an article about the Battle of Beaufort Castle. The letter, written in Arabic, blames the “deadly poison” of racism spread by “Zionists, imperialists and reactionary powers in the region” for causing Palestinians to forget about the Kurdish contribution to their cause.

“Let everyone realize that Kurdish and Arab blood were and still are united and pure in defense of the dignity and freedom of the Kurdish and Palestinian peoples, from the days of Saladin to the dozens of Arab comrades who fell martyr in the mountains of Kurdistan,” it says. “The important point, my brother and comrade, is that the factors that bind us are a thousand times greater than the factors that divide us, in spite of the tyrants, agents, and racists. Victory to occupied Jerusalem.”

A few years later, Polat Can served as a commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces. The Battle of Beaufort Castle is not just an interesting historical tidbit. It is a history that continues to ripple through the region. The Kurds who fought in South Lebanon now command followers and mourners across the region. Although Marxist-Leninist movements and “national liberation” struggles have (largely) exited the stage of history, the legacies of internationalism and party discipline from decades past remain alive in the Kurdish cause.

Serap Güneş contributed translation.

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