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A soldier of the Peshmerga: By aligning with the Kurds, Israel gains eyes and ears in Iran and Syria (credit: Spencer Platt/Getty)

In August, the world collectively held its breath as thousands of Yazidi Kurds — a minority most people had never even heard of — clung on for dear life atop the Sinjar mountains in northern Iraq.

Beneath them, violent Islamic State factions encircled the mountain, determined to starve out the people they considered infidels. Those who did not make it into the mountains in time were tortured, raped or beheaded.

In Israel, itself in the closing stages of a 50-day war with Hamas in Gaza, articles began appearing in newspapers urging the Israeli government to offer the Yazidis asylum. A 17-month-old Yazidi boy was recovering in a Tel Aviv hospital, his father at his bedside, after life-saving heart surgery, facilitated by an NGO. As he had left Iraq just before the massacre began, the father's thoughts were with his wife and five other children, who had to fend for themselves. "They fled to the mountain with just the clothes on their backs," he told me. He described how his four-year-old daughter had to climb the mountain on her own, because her mother was holding her three-month-old twins. The father's relatives saw their neighbours slain and heard stories of local girls captured by IS make furtive calls to their parents, asking to be brought poison as they would rather commit suicide than be held by their notoriously brutal captors. "IS treats them like trash. The people are running away from death. IS treats [Yazidis] like Jews, so they want to come here," he said. "Maybe Israeli soldiers will protect them and not leave them in IS's hands."

Casting Israeli soldiers in the role of protectors may have seemed strange to many in the West, particularly when Israel has been embroiled in a bitter war with Hamas in Gaza that has killed nearly 2,200 Palestinians and 68 Israelis.

Yet while Israel's relations with its neighbours remain deeply problematic, its ties with the Kurds have for years helped nurture a military force that has proved itself more resilient than the US-funded Iraqi army. For years Israel's relationship with the Kurds was kept secret, but gradually the issue has cropped up more and more in interviews in Israeli media and in academic reports.

The Kurds constitute the world's largest stateless people. There are 30 million Kurds, mostly spread across Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. They have been seeking a state of their own for centuries.

Although the links between Jews and Kurds go back centuries, the substantive roots of the relationship go back to the 1930s, when a Jewish journalist stationed in the Kurdish part of Iraq and writing for the Palestine Bulletin began making contacts with local activists.

Years later, that journalist, Reuven Shiloah, became the first director of Mossad, Israel's external intelligence agency.

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October 20th, 2014
10:10 PM
For detailed journalism on the unprecedented Kurdish resistance against Isis there`s `Inside Kobane` by Heysam Muslim at Kurdish men and women united in fighting at the frontline against scum of the earth Isis. It`s the brave Kurds `Stalingrad`.

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