Daniella Cheslow Multimedia Journalist

Daniella Cheslow
Israelis document Kurdish fight against ISIS

Print and audio slideshow published by McClatchy Newspapers.

Photojournalist Eddie Gerald remembers the first time he saw Sinan Ben Saleh, an Islamic State fighter who’d been taken prisoner by Kurdish troops in northern Iraq.

“I saw a good-looking guy in his early 20s who was quite frightened,” Gerald, an Israeli, recalled of the encounter. “Of course, we didn’t reveal we were from Israel, and we had a translator.”

The story Ben Saleh told was chilling. He claimed to have slaughtered 70 victims, but “he showed no emotions,” Gerald said.

“He told us he used a blunt knife so his victims should suffer,” Gerald said. “When we asked how long it takes for person to die, he thought . . . and said three or four minutes.”

Gerald and his reporting partner, television journalist Itai Anghel, traveled to Kurdish enclaves in Syria and Iraq in October to report on the war against the Islamic State. The result was the first documentary about the war by an Israeli reporting team – something of a landmark for Israeli journalism, whose practitioners have little direct access to events in Arab countries.

The 48-minute documentary aired on the investigative current affairs program “Uvda” in late December. The gripping footage drew a quarter of Israeli households, 13 percent more viewers than average.

For Israelis, the film was a rare glimpse of Islamic militants, who almost always are seen through the lenses of American or European reporters. Aside from a cold peace with Egypt and Jordan, and some ties with Morocco and Tunisia, Israel has hostile relations with most Arab countries, and its journalists cannot easily travel there.

In one scene, Gerald and Anghel wait in Iraq for a ferry to bring them across the Tigris River and into Syria, and Anghel recalls his mandatory religion studies in Israeli grade school.

“Ever since Bible lessons in school, I hear about the splendor and beauty of the Tigris River,” Anghel narrates.

Gerald said he grew interested in the Kurdish people after snapping still photographs for a documentary in 2010 in Turkey and Iraq with Anghel. At the time, they focused on the Turkish Kurdish guerrilla group, the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known as the PKK, in the wake of deteriorating relations between Israel and Turkey.

In their October visit to Iraq and Syria, Gerald and Anghel evaded travel restrictions by using second passports. Gerald is a dual citizen of a South American country; he prefers not to reveal its name for future travel. It’s the same reason he gave for not being photographed. Anghel used his U.S. passport.

The pair flew to Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan via “a Middle Eastern capital” they decline to name, and then hooked up with a local producer.

As they moved through the borderlands where Kurds and the Islamic State vie for control, they realized their passports were not necessary. There were no border checks at the Tigris River, nor at a dusty abandoned checkpoint where Anghel walked casually across the Syria-Iraq border and noted that Islamic State fighters do the same.

“This spot clarifies very well that the borders we knew no longer exist,” Anghel says on camera.

Ofra Bengio, a scholar at Tel Aviv University who wrote three books on Kurds, said the Israeli documentary put her studies in a more vivid light. She said her students packed a university auditorium last week to hear Anghel speak about the film.

“It gave concrete meaning to the things I know theoretically, from reading,” she said. “I just wrote about this issue, that the borders are porous.”

The Kurds number at least 25 million people, who live in an area that straddles Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. They are the world’s largest stateless minority. Gerald and Anghel’s film showed that their fight against the Islamic State is knitting them together as one unit.

Gerald said he and Anghel were given press credentials in Syria by the YPG, the Kurdish militia that has provided security in Kurdish Syria since Syrian government troops withdrew three years ago. Syrian Kurds call the region Rojava, and it recalls the Kurdish region of Iraq except that a statue of Syrian President Bashar Assad still stands in the town center of Qamishli, Rojava’s de facto capital.

Gerald and Anghel observed the final training ceremony of dozens of teenage Kurdish men and women in camouflage uniforms. The newly minted fighters break into a dance, waving flags and singing traditional Kurdish songs that had been outlawed under Assad. “We will protect ourselves forever and our struggle will lead us to independence,” their commander says.

Gerald and Anghel trained their cameras on the women of the Kurdish guerrillas, focusing on a Turkish PKK commander named Media. She tells the reporters she is driven by love of country and by the atrocities the Islamic State had visited on other women. The documentary notes that the battle against the Islamic State has had a unifying effect on Kurds scattered across four countries, and that PKK fighters from Turkey had helped repel Islamic State fighters from Mahmour in Iraq.

Aside from tales of triumph, the Kurds also sent a message of frustration to Israel via the two reporters. In June 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced support for an independent Kurdish state. In the past, Israel supplied weapons and training to Kurds in Iraq, and the 200,000-strong Kurdish Jewish community in Israel even organized relief to their countrymen in Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.

Yet Israel has not extended the same hand to the PKK organization of Kurds in Turkey, nor does Israel at present supply weapons to the Kurds.

“Almost every person we met over there was saying we should help them,” Gerald said. “They feel they are the only barrier between extremists and Israel, and they don’t understand why we don’t support them openly.”

In Kirkuk, a mixed Arab-Kurdish city in Iraq that is now under Kurdish control, Gerald and Anghel filmed Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State militants house to house. Gerald said he could see the differences in motivation between the Kurds of Syria, organized as the YPG, the Iraqi Kurds’ peshmerga militia, and Turkey’s PKK.

“We saw the PKK fighting, and the peshmerga were 100 meters (about 110 yards) away, sitting and sleeping,” Gerald said. “When they saw the camera they started making victory signs.”

Gerald said he found it jarring to see the peshmerga receiving weapons from the United States and Europe while the PKK remains an outlawed group. But he also said weapons move between groups freely, despite the intentions of the West; he said he saw PKK fighters using armored vehicles the peshmerga had left behind.

Through its focus is on the Kurds, the film provides an intimate glance at their enemy. One Kurdish guerrilla driver eavesdrops on Islamic State two-way radio conversations as he drives along a desert track. Sometimes, these conversations yield valuable information about Islamic State positions; other times, they focus on squabbling over meat rations.

Overall, Israelis get little information about their neighbors, and similar accomplishments reporting from Muslim lands are few. Ilana Dayan, the founder and host of “Uvda,” traveled to Afghanistan in 2010. War correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai reported from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

Arab affairs correspondent Ehud Yaari of Channel 2 TV News, who was arrested for slipping into Lebanon in 1976, lamented the lack of information. He noted that Jordan and Israel recently signed a deal to purchase natural gas drilled off the shores of Israel, but that Israelis heard little about the raucous debate the deal triggered in Amman, Jordan’s capital.

“Israelis should understand the dynamics and the forces of what is happening around them because it’s bound to affect them,” Yaari said.

In Iraq and Syria, the menace of the Islamic State makes reporting a particularly daunting one. Anghel crossed from Turkey into Syria in 2012, days after American journalist James Foley was captured along the same route. Foley was beheaded this past summer by the Islamic State.

Gerald said he flew to Baghdad with confidence because local producers carefully planned and carried out their two-week reporting trip.

Gerald said his report gave him perspective on events in Israel. On Wednesday, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah fired anti-tank rockets at an Israeli military convoy on the Lebanese border, killing two Israeli soldiers. Hezbollah claimed the attack was in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike last week that killed six militants and an Iranian general.

“(Hezbollah) didn’t shoot at civilians, they shot at the military,” Gerald said. “If the Islamic State was on the front line over there, they probably wouldn’t have those calculations.”

Gerald said that during his trip, he met a veteran of Syrian military intelligence who fought in the war of 1973, when Syria tried to regain the Golan Heights that Israel had captured in 1967. The man spoke Hebrew; he learned it to spy on Israel.

“When I met him, I felt we were some old soldiers who put our uniforms aside. I felt we are from the same neighborhood, just with different leaders,” Gerald said. “When I met those Islamic State prisoners, I felt we didn’t belong to the same neighborhood.”

Photos by Eddie Gerald; audioslideshow by Daniella Cheslow.