Ali Abunimah, Tamara Nassar & Asa Winstanley
The Electronic Intifada / July 12, 2023
When the news broke last week that former Israeli military intelligence officer Elizabeth Tsurkov had gone missing in Iraq months ago, Israeli officials went into damage limitation mode.
Briefing a select group of Israeli journalists, an anonymous “senior Israeli official” vehemently denied that Tsurkov is an officer of Israel’s notorious foreign spying and assassination agency.
She “is absolutely not a member of Mossad, period, exclamation point, underline,” the official claimed.
Of course that’s exactly what Israel would say – whether it is true or not. Given Tsurkov’s sloppiness, it would indeed be surprising if Mossad would actually be running someone like her.
Sources have claimed – albeit without corroboration – that she could nonetheless be an “intelligence asset” whether she knew it or not.
It is therefore important to separate what is known about Tsurkov from what is not known.
Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the report within hours.
The Israeli prime minister’s office confirmed that Tsurkov had “been missing in Iraq for several months” and said she was being held by Kataib Hizballah, an Iraqi paramilitary group with strong links to the state.
“Elizabeth Tsurkov is still alive and we hold Iraq responsible for her safety and well-being,” Netanyahu’s office said.
Iraq opened an investigation into her disappearance but has said little about her fate so far.
Kataib Hizballah also issued a statement appearing to deny responsibility for Tsurkov’s disappearance, but describing her as “an Israeli security agent” and calling on Iraqi authorities to expose what the group described as an Israeli spy ring.
Although news of Tsurkov’s disappearance mostly flew under the radar until last week, the report in The Cradle turned it into a major international story.
A dual Russian-Israeli citizen, Tsurkov entered Iraq using her Russian passport, Netanyahu’s office said.
She went there to “work on her doctorate and academic research on behalf of Princeton University in the US,” according to Netanyahu.
However, Princeton strictly bans its students from conducting any university-related research in Iraq for safety reasons, so whatever she was doing there, it was not work Princeton would recognize as part of her dissertation.
Promoting military intervention
Speaking to the Israeli press last week, Emma Tsurkov said she had known about her sister Elizabeth’s disappearance “from the moment it happened.”
She even said she brought it to the attention of the Israeli government. Emma claimed it was the family’s choice to keep news of her sister’s disappearance secret in hopes that the matter could be resolved quickly and quietly.
Echoing Netanyahu’s office, Emma Tsurkov emphasized in her interview that her sister “was in Iraq purely for academic reasons.”
For more than 15 years, Tsurkov has been an active presence on Twitter, and outspoken in her support of wars and interventions against countries the US and Israel consider their enemies, especially Syria.
In 2011, Tsurkov was an enthusiastic and apparently completely credulous promoter of Amina Arraf, an online presence purporting to be a Syrian American lesbian blogger helping to organize protests against the government.
Amina became the focus of international concern when it was reported that she was arrested in Damascus by Syrian security police.
But as The Electronic Intifada was the first to reveal, Amina, the so-called Gay Girl in Damascus, was actually a hoax perpetrated by Tom MacMaster, an American man living in Scotland.
Tsurkov has at times been highly critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, even working for several years at Gisha, an Israeli group that documents Israel’s violations against Palestinians in Gaza.
That willingness to criticize Israel has perhaps distracted some observers from her past and present positions and actions that raise troubling questions and serve Israel’s wider regional agenda.
Tsurkov has herself used her criticism of Israel to deflect questions about her views and activities.
Tsurkov became popular especially among other advocates of the regime-change war in Syria, and many admirers have leapt to her defense, including by repeating the story that her Princeton studies took her to Iraq.
What do we know about Elizabeth Tsurkov?
She was born in 1986 in Leningrad – now Saint Petersburg – in the Soviet Union.
When she was 4 years old, she emigrated from Russia with her parents to an illegal Jewish-only settlement in the occupied West Bank.
Her parents had been imprisoned by Soviet authorities after working with pro-Israel activist Anatoly Sharansky, The New York Times reported.
Sharansky – who first renamed himself Natan Sharon and later Natan Sharansky upon moving to Israel in 1986 – went on to become a prominent right-wing Israeli politician, with Tsurkov working as his assistant for some time.
Tsurkov was raised in a far-right, Zionist household and environment, surrounded by staunch anti-Palestinian racism and Israeli propaganda.
As a child, she participated in a demonstration opposing the Oslo accords signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1990s. She also celebrated the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who signed the accords.
“She danced with the children and teachers at the local school,” a 2021 interview with Tsurkov in Haaretz reads, “in a burst of joy.”
In the course of that war, Israel dropped some 7,000 bombs and missiles, including cluster bombs, and bombarded Lebanon by land and naval artillery as well. More than 1,100 people were killed and some 4,400 injured, the vast majority civilians.
In a 2009 tweet, Tsurkov described herself as having been “in intelligence” while serving in the Israeli army.
This leaves no ambiguity about the fact that Tsurkov was at least at that time an intelligence officer for the Israeli army.
A Zionist non-Zionist
After her time in the army, Tsurkov claims to have had a change of heart “from a zealous settler to a human rights seeker” who was interested in her “Arab neighbors,” as Haaretz put it.
This incoherent position is akin to someone claiming that they are not racist, but refusing to describe themselves as anti-racist.
Tsurkov has long held the Zionist view that Palestinians expelled from their homes in 1948 and after should not be allowed to come home. Israel bars the return of Palestinian refugees in violation of international law, just because they are not Jewish.
But even after she started describing herself as not-a-Zionist, Tsurkov has repeatedly avoided responding to questions about whether she still rejects Palestinians’ internationally recognized right of return to their homeland.
There appears to be no record of her ever supporting this right, as any genuine human rights advocate would do.
Following her army service, Tsurkov studied for a bachelor’s degree in international relations and communications at Hebrew University.
She went on to Middle East studies at Tel Aviv University and then moved to the University of Chicago with what she called a “generous scholarship” from the institution. She studied there for a Master’s degree in political science.
Tsurkov is currently working towards a PhD at Princeton University where she is researching “sectarianism in the Middle East and particularly in Syria and Iraq,” in her own words.
She is also a “non-resident fellow” at the New Lines Institute, a Washington think tank that serves as the intellectual home for many supporters of the US-backed effort to overthrow the government of Syria.
Prior to her disappearance in Iraq, Tsurkov had been living in Istanbul.
‘Me no understand Arabic’
Tsurkov is fluent in Arabic and her ability to discuss complex topics in a language she claims never to have learned until adulthood is remarkable.
The following year Tsurkov stated, “my Arabic is so bad I can barely read,” but in June 2013 she revealed that she had “begun studying Arabic recently, and despite its incredible similarity to Hebrew, I’m really struggling.”
Another year later, she expressed her frustration that “I think I’m not good with languages. I’ve been studying Arabic for a while now and barely understand it.”
In August 2014 she recalled, “I used to tell [my] Arabic teacher that Arabs made their language so hard to confuse their enemies.”
To achieve her current fluency is certainly possible, although it would likely take intensive immersion. In her copious tweets, Tsurkov reveals little about where and how she studied Arabic, especially while engaging in so many other studies and activities.
Apparently responding to praise for her Arabic in 2019, she commented, “it is true that most Israelis who learn Arabic are either doing this for spying or a small radical leftist minority (which by Israeli standards, I’m a part of, by the standards of a normal country, I’m a liberal).”
An Israeli in Iraq
Tsurkov reported as early as February 2019 that she visited northern Iraq’s Kurdish region, which maintains autonomy from the Baghdad government.
But it is her more recent forays to Baghdad and other parts of the country that have attracted attention and apparently resulted in her capture.
Iraq and Israel are still in a state of war. On this pretext, Israel bars its own citizens from marrying Iraqis or Palestinians, as well as citizens of several other “enemy states,” and living with them in Israel.
Israel prohibits its own citizens from even traveling to “enemy” countries including Iraq, without a special permit from the Israeli interior ministry.
Last May, the Iraqi parliament passed a law increasing the punishments for any contacts with Israel, including business ties. Potential penalties include life imprisonment and even death.
Israelis are completely prohibited from entering Iraq.
Israel has a long history of covertly targeting Iraq: from a secret bombing campaign against Iraqi Jews widely attributed to Mossad to scare them into leaving their homeland for Israel in the 1950s, to efforts to subvert Iraq’s nuclear research decades later.
Last year Iran claimed it attacked a Mossad base in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, but the Baghdad government said it found no evidence that the Israeli spy agency was operating in the city.
Against this backdrop, the presence of any Israeli in Iraq – especially one with Tsurkov’s resumé – is bound to raise suspicions. This is particularly so since Tsurkov’s professed interest and focus has been the movement led by Shia cleric and political figure Muqtada al-Sadr, one of the fiercest opponents of Israel in Iraq.
Tsurkov’s very presence in the country would be dangerous to any Iraqi she came into contact with – something she knew but chose to ignore despite her pretensions of being a human rights advocate.
Princeton ban on research in Iraq
Despite the widely repeated claim – including by Netanyahu – that Tsurkov was in Iraq to conduct research for her doctoral studies at Princeton, the clearly published policies of the Ivy League university rule this out as a credible explanation for her presence there.
Princeton last week issued a short statement of concern for Tsurkov’s safety, calling her a “valued member” of the university community and expressing eagerness for her to “rejoin her family and resume her studies.”
The university has not publicly addressed whether it approved her trips or whether her adviser was even aware of them, nor has it commented on what she was doing in Iraq.
Her PhD adviser Amaney Jamal did not answer requests for comment by phone and email.
However it is all but impossible that the university could have endorsed her travel to Iraq.
Any fieldwork plan Tsurkov developed would have had to pass through a mandatory human subjects review to assess the risks and ethical concerns for those involved.
It is inconceivable that any thorough review would have accepted the risks inherent in an Israeli with a military intelligence background traveling to Iraq to interview supporters and leaders of a movement that considers Israel a mortal enemy.
The first insurmountable obstacle is that Iraq is among about 20 so-called Category X countries which Princeton strictly prohibits its students from traveling to for any university business – a policy that was in place before and after Tsurkov traveled there.
All members of the Princeton University community must moreover register any domestic or international university-related travel with the university to ensure it conforms with requirements.
Individuals can take personal trips to Category X countries, for example to visit friends or family, but Princeton’s policy is unambiguous: “You cannot travel to a Category X country on a personal trip and then engage in activities that are university-related while you are there.”
Princeton defines university-related travel to include any travel that is undertaken by “an enrolled undergraduate or graduate student and results in work that will be considered for academic credit or is otherwise related to a student’s program of study” – regardless of how this travel is funded.
At Princeton, doctoral students are graduate students so there is no question she was covered by this policy.
There is reason to think that Princeton would be particularly vigilant: In 2021, a doctoral student filed a lawsuit against the university alleging it was negligent for allowing and encouraging him to conduct research in Iran, where he was arrested and imprisoned for three years as an accused American spy.
‘Lives at risk’
The publication Amwaj.media citing unnamed sources reported that Tsurkov first visited Baghdad in early 2022.
She traveled to multiple Iraqi cities, including Basra, Maysan and Najaf, and lived with a local woman in the Karrada neighborhood in Baghdad where she frequented a local gym, according to the report.
It is unknown exactly when she returned to Iraq, but it was on 21 March that she was detained in Baghdad according to Amwaj.media.
She posted a photo from Iraq on her Instagram account as early as 10 February.
In the days before her disappearance, Tsurkov had secured an interview with a top commander of the Sadrist movement, Amwaj.media reported.
New Lines Magazine, where she was a fellow, said they last heard from Tsurkov on 19 March when she told them she was going to do “no more fieldwork.”
In August 2021, Tsurkov accused an Israeli journalist of “unethical” behavior for interviewing a member of Afghanistan’s Taliban government without disclosing that he was Israeli.
Tsurkov asserted that withholding such information could “put people’s lives at risk” and that “interviewees have the right to be fully informed and withhold engagement with others due to fear or political preferences.”
Yet it appears that Tsurkov did not follow her own advice.
A video posted online in March 2022 shows Tsurkov being interviewed in Baghdad’s Sadr City district. She is dressed in khimar – a modest black dress and head covering many Iraqi Muslim women wear.
Speaking in fluent Arabic, Tsurkov responds to a reporter’s question about what she thinks of Muqtada al-Sadr, the influential Iraqi Shia political leader.
“It is clear that he is a patriotic figure who rejects intervention from any country whether in the West or the East,” Tsurkov responds. “In my opinion this should be the position of every Iraqi political leader.”
Her high praise for Al-Sadr is particularly ironic since the May 2022 law severely increasing the penalties for contacts with Israelis was his initiative.
The interviewer asks Tsurkov if she is Muslim – to which she replies that she is not, without elaborating further – strongly suggesting the Iraqi journalist was unaware that he was speaking to an Israeli army intelligence veteran.
It is also notable that the opening credits of the interview video contain clips of Iraqis chanting against the United States and Israel – hardly indicating that it is a channel that would knowingly give any hearing to an Israeli.
In the same interview, Tsurkov panders to the Iraqi journalist by describing the United States as an “oppressor” against Iraq. This is an extraordinary deception given her fervent support for US military intervention in Syria and exaltation of US military power.
She even gloated over the killing of an Iraqi Shia fighter in a US airstrike in 2021.
“He died doing what he loves,” she wrote of the man who she claimed was a member of Kataib Hizballah, “occupying Syrian land in the name of spreading the doctrine of Shia clerical rule.”
In a 2015 Facebook post, Tsurkov published a picture of herself standing at a podium in a Pentagon briefing room.
“I hereby declare a no-fly zone over Syria,” she captioned the picture, imagining herself to be announcing the US military intervention she desired.
In comments under the post, Tsurkov explains her presence in an off-limits area of the US defense department by saying she is “on a special mission accompanied by the State Department.”
Facebook postings from around the same time as her TV interview in Sadr City, seen by The Electronic Intifada, describe Tsurkov as a “Russian researcher” and show her posing with local residents in Iraq.
At least five Iraqis acquainted with her have told the publication Jadeh Iran that Tsurkov misled them and they had no idea she was Israeli.
Sometimes Tsurkov reportedly identified herself as Liza Arkady, substituting her father’s first name for her last name, a move that suggests she did not want her interlocutors to know who she really was.
She claimed to be Russian without any mention of her Israeli identity.
Using the pseudonym Rami, one Iraqi man told Jadeh Iran that he and Tsurkov had become close.
Rami said he met with Tsurkov “more than six times with warm greetings and kisses on the cheek.”
She contacted him through a mutual friend and requested to interview him for her research project.
“I asked her for her ID, and she showed me a card from an American university. We spoke in English, and she asked me about the Sadrist movement, and I told her about it,” Rami said.
“But I refused to connect her with leaders from the movement when she asked for that, because I am no longer a Sadrist,” Rami asserted.
In another interview with Tsurkov on the Iraqi channel al-Rusafa Media, she is again identified as Liza Arkady, a Russian expert on Iraq.
Tsurkov appears in the video again dressed in black like an Iraqi Muslim woman.
While she greets the interviewer in Russian at the beginning of the interview, she is asked questions in Arabic and answers them in English and occasionally a few words of Arabic.
Concealment and deception
No less significantly, Tsurkov has allegedly traveled to Lebanon, a country that not only prohibits Israelis from entering, but also bans visits by any person who has even been to Israel.
Any Israeli traveling around Lebanon – let alone one with a military intelligence background – would be seen as a grave threat to the country.
Although less is known about her purported activities in Lebanon at this point, Amwaj.media reported that “people with knowledge of her experiences” said she concealed her identity while there.
In 2016, Tsurkov conducted an interview with a spokesperson for Jaysh al-Islam, one of the armed Islamist groups fighting the Syrian government. This caused an uproar, forcing the spokesperson, Islam Aloush, to quit when it emerged he had given an interview to an Israeli.
“I’ve been researching Syria for years and have been in contact with hundreds of Syrians all over the country, as well as refugees,” Tsurkov said in her own defense. “I’ve never hidden my Israeli identity.”
She said Aloush “demonstrated bravery” by allowing her to use his real name.
“Over the years I’ve interviewed activists, fighters, civic leaders and politicians – almost always on condition of anonymity,” she explained. “This is out of their fear that they would be viewed as ‘collaborators’ with Israel.”
Tsurkov added that she has “a lot of close Syrian friends” but that “only a small portion of them are prepared to be open (about our friendship) out of fear that they will be suspected of being spies.”
This demonstrates that she understood clearly that traveling to Lebanon, Iraq or Syria and engaging with people there as an Israeli could put them in grave danger – not to mention the risk she was taking for herself.
Whatever her motive and despite the danger she knowingly imposed on others, Tsurkov has displayed an inflated sense of what her contacts with people across the region have achieved, including with figures in the al-Qaida-linked Syrian jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
“I’ve been able to affect their worldview, to some extent,” she has claimed. “The mere fact they kept talking to me (an Israeli) testifies to that.”
Tsurkov has even bragged that jihadist fighters in Syria “reach out” to her to process their trauma about carrying out atrocities.
Tsurkov was apparently more concerned for their psychological well-being than for the victims of their horrific acts.
“The worst thing for me about doing research on the invasion of [northeastern] Syria is not watching field executions or looking at photos of mutilated children,” Tsurkov wrote.
“It is talking to the Syrians fighting on Turkey’s behalf, trying to justify doing something truly unjustifiable.”
Prisoner exchange ?
Contradictory reports have appeared about efforts to free Tsurkov. Some media claim that since June, Iran and Israel have been negotiating a prisoner exchange including Tsurkov, through Russian mediation.
There are also reports that the Iraqi government is undertaking a high-level effort to locate Tsurkov as the US embassy in Baghdad has taken a close interest in her disappearance.
But Russia’s ambassador in Baghdad has denied any involvement in her case.
In a February 2021 tweet, Tsurkov pronounced that she was “generally against” prisoner exchange deals, even if she were to be captured during her next visit to Syria or Iraq.
As with other principles she has firmly stated, we can expect she will be flexible about this one as well – and understandably so.
It may be some time, however, before we fully understand why Tsurkov was in Iraq and exactly what she was up to.
Ali Abunimah is executive director, and Tamara Nassar and Asa Winstanley are associate editors of The Electronic Intifada