Israel should provide military training to Kurdish fighters engaged in war with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, says an Israeli-Canadian woman who has just returned from fighting alongside the Kurdish and Christian insurgent groups in those countries.
Gill Rosenberg, believed to be the first female foreigner to join Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State, said the rape and torture of Yazidi women at the hands of IS motivated her to travel to fight with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northeastern Syria last November.
“For me, that was the difference between a regular war and genocide,” she said of the news of ethnic cleansing that she heard while in Israel.
Thousands of foreigners have volunteered to fight in Syria and Iraq alongside Islamic State, but few have joined the war on the side of minority rebel groups currently engaged in battle both against the Assad regime and radical Islamic factions.
Rosenberg said the fact that Kurdish units include both male and female combatants made the decision to join easier. She traveled to Syria via Jordan, and within days was engaged in combat with Islamic State forces near the town of Qamishli, on the border with Turkey.
Islamic State greatly overpowered the Kurdish forces in terms of arms and firepower, said the 31-year-old Canada native, speaking to journalists at the Jerusalem Press Club on Thursday. “They were firing unlimited Dushka [a Russian machine gun] rounds at us, whereas we had to weigh every round we shot,” she said.
Having immigrated to Israel, and then joined the IDF in 2006 to serve in a search and rescue unit, Rosenberg arrived in Syria in 2014 with no combat experience. She said she spent a week training on the Russian weapons owned by the Kurdish rebels before being sent into battle.
Rosenberg said she did not have to hide her Israeli or Jewish identity from her Kurdish or Assyrian commanders, who view Israel favorably. ‘The Kurds were fighting over an Israeli flag a friend gave me’
“For the Kurds, the arrival of foreign fighters, and especially a woman, hugely helps with motivation,” she said. “They believe they’re all alone in their fight against the Islamic State.”
In January 2015, Rosenberg left Syria for northern Iraq, to fight IS near the city of Mosul with a Christian Assyrian rebel group called Dwekh Nawsha. She explained the move was a result of her need to resume contact with friends and family after being reported killed during her time in Syria.
“I had very limited access to the internet,” she explained. “People were writing to me on Facebook as though I were dead.”
Rosenberg said she did not have to hide her Israeli or Jewish identity from her Kurdish or Assyrian commanders, who view Israel favorably. “The Kurds were fighting over an Israeli flag a friend gave me,” she recalled.
But even as Kurds look to Israel as a model of a successful struggle for national independence, the Jewish state has failed them, she said. Even without intervening directly in the war, Israel could send military teams to train Kurdish fighters in combat skills and arm them with more advanced weaponry.
“They don’t have the equipment to defeat Daesh,” she said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
Disillusioned by the Iranian penetration of Iraq and Syria, as well as by the military advances of Islamic State, Rosenberg decided to return “home” to Israel two weeks ago. She had no concrete plans, she said, but would like to help her comrades in Syria and Iraq through humanitarian and political work.
Despite having broken Israeli law by entering an enemy state, Rosenberg was not detained by Israeli security at Ben-Gurion airport upon arrival earlier this week. She was merely questioned about her activities in Syria and Lebanon, left her contact details with the Shin Bet, and was sent on her way.
This was not her first brush with the law. Rosenberg spent nearly five years in an American prison for defrauding elderly American citizens, and was released shortly before her departure to Syria. “I was young and stupid,” she says of that chapter in her life.
But on Thursday Rosenberg was confident that Israel would not legally sanction her for joining the Syrian war.
“It would look bad for the Israeli government to arrest someone for fighting terrorism,” she said.