Turkey Can Teach Israel How to End Terror
ISTANBUL — As I write, the latest war in the Gaza Stripand southern Israel rages on. Both sides have suffered — though in unequal proportions. Israel has now lost nearly 30 soldiers and two civilians. Meanwhile, over 600Palestinians have been killed in Israeli airstrikes, including almost 100 children.
Every time these macabre death tolls arise, we are always reminded by Western politicians that Israel has a “right to defend itself.” One is left wondering why the Palestinians don’t have a right to defend themselves, too. If the answer is that Israel is a state while Palestine is not, then one would wonder who has deprived Palestine of statehood?
Of course, many Israelis — the liberals, moderates and peaceniks — support a two-state solution and view it as an urgent matter that must be resolved. The Israeli right, however, sees such moderation as naïveté, and argues that Palestinian militancy must be crushed by force before there can be any chance for peace.
These debates in Israel remind me of a similar debate at home during Turkey’s decades-long struggle against the terrorism of Kurdish insurgents. The conflict between guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or P.K.K.) and Turkey’s security forces began in 1984, and has claimed more than 40,000 lives. The violence stopped less than two years ago, thanks to a peace process agreed upon by Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the jailed leader of the P.K.K., Abdullah Ocalan. (Mr. Erdogan, despite his growing authoritarianism, deserves to be congratulated for this achievement.)
Reaching this tenuous peace wasn’t easy. First, Turkey had to overcome its own nationalist establishment, which had always dismissed liberals’ calls for a political solution. Their preferred method was a “military solution,” which meant, in the words of a prominent general, “killing all terrorists one by one.”
That was the strategy of the Turkish top brass throughout the 1990s, when military-dominated governments led a brutal counterterror campaign that included extrajudicial killings by death squads and the destruction of more than 3,000 Kurdish villages.
Supporters of this military solution claimed that the P.K.K. survived only because foreign governments supported the insurgent group to serve their own interests, and because of the P.K.K.’s violent fanaticism. But where did that fanaticism come from?
Their answer was that the Kurds were a people prone to violence by nature. They had a crude, harsh and militant culture. Why, otherwise, were some Kurdish mothers raising their sons to be guerrillas, and not doctors or lawyers? The state had no choice but to speak to them with the only language they understood — force. It is a very similar refrain to what one hears when Hamas is discussed in Israel.
Yet, in Turkey then, as in Israel today, there was a gaping hole in this argument: It did not take into account Turkey’s oppression of the Kurds, which was of course the primary cause of the P.K.K.’s militancy. The Turkish state for years denied this oppression, insisting that Kurds were Turkish citizens with equal access to government services. However, Turkey had still banned their language, denigrated their culture, and responded to their political grievances by authoritarian diktat.
The Kurds were not angry at Turkey because they were innately prone to violence. They were angry because Turkey had done something grievously wrong to them. And a peace agreement became possible only when the Turkish public and the state acknowledged this fact.
If Israel is ever going to achieve peace, Israelis will have to overcome their own self-righteous hawkishness as well — and abandon the intellectually lazy reflex that explains Palestinian militancy as the natural product of Arab and Islamic culture’s supposedly violent nature.
It’s true that Hamas is a violent group and that it must stop firing rockets into Israel and calling for the destruction of the Jewish state. The ugliness of anti-Semitism in Palestine and the Arab world (and even in Turkey) must also be confronted. But these phenomena didn’t occur in a vacuum. They were created — and are kept alive — in part by Israel’s continued oppression of Palestinians.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is no fan of Mr. Erdogan. But he would do a service to his nation if he takes a lesson from Turkey, which has, for the moment, achieved peace with a militant group that terrorized the country for decades. If Mr. Netanyahu sought to emulate the Turkish example, there might be hope for achieving genuine peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Thanks to the relentless efforts of the liberals, Turkish society began to realize that P.K.K. militants were not inherently evil, but human beings who suffered traumas under the iron fist of the state. Instead of just demonizing “terrorists,” Mr. Erdogan began to proclaim, “let the mothers cry no more” — on both sides.
He then initiated secret talks with the P.K.K. leadership, and refused to give up on the peace process when hawks on both sides opposed, or even sabotaged it. The issue is still far from resolved, but Turkey’s long struggle with the Kurds, at home and beyond, is moving toward reconciliation and even cooperation.
If Israeli policymakers fail to take such historic, game-changing steps, and simply stick to the tired logic of “kill all terrorists” they will remain mired in the vicious cycle that plagued Turkey during the 1990s. Every dead terrorist — not to mention the deaths of innocent women and children — will soon be replaced by a brother or nephew who wants to take revenge. And so long as that cycle of violence continues, neither Israelis nor Palestinians will find the peace and dignity that they deserve.
Mustafa Akyol is a columnist and the author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.