TEL AVIV, Israel – On December 22, Israelis sat down before their TV sets to watch the popular investigative news program “Uvda,” or Fact. They saw a familiar personage in Itai Anghel, well-known to Israelis for his reports from war zones around the world, including Kosovo, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iraq.
This time Anghel was reporting from the frontlines of the war with the Islamic State (ISIS), focusing on the role of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
His report on the Kurdish fighters made a splash: Israelis were especially captivated by the female fighters of the YPJ, the YPG’s women’s wing.
As a liberal democracy in a part of the world where women’s rights are routinely violated -- if they exist at all -- Israel takes pride in the status of women in the Jewish state. In the Israel Defense Forces women fulfill a variety of combat roles, including as fighter pilots, in combat intelligence and light infantry.
But to see women from another Middle Eastern nation fighting -- and defeating -- ISIS in entirely female fighting units was remarkable. Israelis saw proud, young female Kurdish fighters going in to battle ISIS with no discernable hesitation. In fact, they even announced their presence with ululations, meant to strike fear into the hearts of the jihadists, who believe they will be deprived of heaven if killed by a woman.
One female Israeli artist was so inspired by the Kurdish fighters that she painted a picture of Medya, a senior YPJ commander featured in the news report and asked Anghel to send it to her.
The TV report, narrated by Anghel, showed him crossing the Euphrates River into Syria and being welcomed by Kurdish guides in Syrian Kurdistan, known to Kurds as Rojava.
“Daesh shoot and kill everything that moves, and are taking control across the region, and the world stammers,” he narrated, using the name Arabs have given to ISIS. “We are now seeing the story through the eyes of the only fighters who have succeeded in stopping them: the Kurdish fighters in Syria and Iraq.”
The YPG has been fighting ISIS in Syria, while the Kurdistan Region’s Peshmerga forces have been a bulwark against the extremists in Iraq. Both forces sometimes cooperate, as the Peshmerga did in evicting ISIS from the Syrian city of Kobane more than a month ago.
“Are you afraid of Daesh?” viewers saw Anghel ask a female fighter named Ahin. “No, the opposite. They are afraid of us,” she replied with a grin. “We are the nightmare of Daesh. I’m waiting for them.”
Indeed, one captured ISIS terrorist told Anghel that when the female fighters approached, the jihadi commanders ordered their men back so they would not get killed by women.
Anghel’s report gave a particular focus to the female fighters, especially the commander Medya, whom the reporter first met in 2010 on the Turkish-Iraqi border.
Though she is one of the top targets for ISIS, she isn’t especially fazed by the group.
“You visited us in the past and saw how we operate against countries that are supposed to be bigger and stronger than us,” she told Anghel on camera. “Listen: whoever thinks of them as a powerful military force simply falls into the Daesh propaganda trap. The truth is they are not such mighty fighters. They don’t have the bravery and fighting spirit that they show in the propaganda videos.”
Medya told Anghel that she felt a special responsibility toward her female fighters –- to keep them from falling into ISIS hands, to free female prisoners and to avenge what the jihadists have done to women.
“For these types, even hell isn’t enough of a punishment. Our job is to make sure they get a one-way ticket there,” she said.
Anghel told Rudaw he was “really impressed by the YPJ women, because they weren’t trying to impress me.” He said he was especially struck by their dignity.
He still is in awe of the level of education and knowledge of the YPG and YPJ fighters, especially about Jews and Israel.
Anghel said Medya spoke to him in-depth about Jewish history -– Zionist leaders, philosophers, the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. He added that the YPG sees Jews as a model, an oppressed people who were able to recover from a horrific genocide and form a prosperous state in a hostile region.
“If there is one nation in the world that suffered like us, it’s your nation,” said Medya in a message to Israelis. “We learn and study a lot about the history of Israel and the Jewish people. And in so many ways, we suffered a similar fate of pogroms, genocide and Holocaust. And here, you created an important country that has created philosophers, scientists and intellectuals. That is something we dream about as a model for our future.”
Anghel told Rudaw he felt his documentary had an important effect on the Israeli public, opening their eyes to Syrian Kurds and why the Kurds in general should be supported.
Among other things, Anghel’s report also touched on the role of Turkey in the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS. All of the captured passports a Kurdish commander showed him were stamped by Turkish immigration, and many of the fighters themselves were Turkish.
There is also an important realization and feeling of guilt, said Anghel, that Israel’s close ties with Turkey meant that Kurds were being harmed.
Medya told Anghel that Israeli support for Turkey still leaves feelings of betrayal among the Kurds. “She did not elaborate,” Anghel remembered, “but said with Kurdish understatement, ‘It hurts. It hurts us.’”
Despite the shared suffering and pain, the lack of empathy from Israel and its policy toward Kurds was saddening, Medya said. “You are also a Middle Eastern country, facing the same danger; the war today in Kurdistan may be tomorrow in Israel.”