Israeli citizen Elizaveta Tsurkov, who also has a Russian passport, was abducted in Iraq by militants of the Shiite paramilitary group Kataib Hezbollah. Tsurkov went missing back in March, but the Israeli authorities have only now reported it.
According to a statement by the Israeli Prime Minister's Office, published by the Russian-language Israeli newspaper Vesti, Tsurkov went to Iraq to conduct scientific research as she is writing her doctoral dissertation for Princeton University in the United States.
“Elizaveta Tsurkov is still alive, and we believe that the responsibility for her fate and safety lies with Iraq. <...> The relevant authorities of the state of Israel are dealing with the incident, the priority is the safety and well-being of Elizaveta Zurkov.”
Tsurkov entered Iraq on a Russian passport. Israel has no diplomatic relations with Iraq and forbids its citizens from visiting the country, even if they have a second citizenship. The Jerusalem Post writes , citing an unnamed senior diplomat, that Tsurkov probably also visited Lebanon and Syria. The interlocutor of the publication categorically denied rumors spread on social networks that the woman works for Israeli intelligence or traveled to Iraq on behalf of the authorities. At the same time, the source noted that the militants who kidnapped Tsurkov probably knew that she was an Israeli.
Journalists working in Iraq say that the Tsurkovs were kidnapped in the Baghdad region of Karada, which is under the control of Shiite armed groups. In this area last November, gunmen killed a US citizen. The deceased lived in Baghdad for two years and worked for an NGO that taught English to Iraqis.
37-year-old Elizaveta Tsurkov was born in St. Petersburg, at the age of five she moved with her family to Israel. She served in the Israeli army, received degrees from Israeli universities in two areas: Oriental Studies and International Relations. He also works as a research fellow at the New Lines Institute in Washington, DC, which specializes in US foreign policy in Islamic countries, and at the Israeli-Palestinian think tank Forum for Regional Thinking in Jerusalem.
“I am interested in documenting how civilians experience war and state violence and take an active part in conflict and peaceful civil movements. I am also interested in issues of communal identity, sectarianism and national identity in the Middle East and especially in multi-confessional countries such as Syria and Iraq.
My research is based on a wide network of contacts - ordinary citizens, activists, combatants, community, political and military leaders - that I have built since 2009 throughout the Middle East and especially in Syria, Iraq and Israel-Palestine. <...> At the heart of my research is the desire to understand and convey the perspectives and experiences of people in the Middle East and highlight the violence by powerful actors, whether they be dictatorial regimes, paramilitary groups or foreign states that have invaded the region.”
In the past, Tsurkov worked as an aide to Israeli politician Natan Sharansky , and also headed Gisha, a leftist Palestinian NGO. According to the woman herself, she has been engaged in volunteer activities and work in human rights organizations for more than 10 years, “fighting for the rights of Palestinians, refugees and migrants, victims of torture and human trafficking, ethnic and religious minorities.”
In the summer of 2019, Tsurkov traveled to Iraqi Mosul to visit a friend. Later, the scientist wrote an article about this trip for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot. Among other things, Tsurkov wrote that she was able to go to Iraq thanks to a Russian passport and connections in the administrations of the Kurdish regions. She said that on the way she had to pass many checkpoints set up by various groups of local militias.
The Ynet publication writes that Tsurkov traveled to Iraq many times for the sake of her scientific research, the trip during which the woman disappeared was the tenth. Tsurkov last contacted her on March 19: she told colleagues at the New Lines Institute that she had completed her planned work and was going to return to Princeton to complete her dissertation.
“A little over a week later, we learned from our sources that pro-Iranian militants kidnapped her in Baghdad <...> We have not heard from her since,” the New Lines Institute said in a statement . Colleagues of the Zurkovs wanted to publicize her disappearance, but did not do so at the request of the family. The Institute issued a public statement after the press learned about the abduction of the scientist and the Israeli government also acknowledged the incident.
“Liz's research is closely related to political science, her fieldwork in the Arab world does not pose a threat to anyone. However, she is an Israeli citizen, so in parts of the Middle East she is at risk because of her very identity. <...>
Ironically, Liz, who some claim was kidnapped as a 'Zionist enemy', is not a Zionist at all. In fact, she is a fierce critic of Israel's national security policy."
According to Ynet, the administration of the institute turned to the US authorities for help, but the State Department limited itself to a statement that they condemn the kidnapping of private individuals, and the Iraqi authorities should deal with the Tsurkov situation.
Meanwhile, Tsurkov's mother told Israeli Channel 13 that she knew nothing about her daughter's abduction and that no government official had contacted her before the incident became public. “Unfortunately, one day she just disappeared,” Haaretz is quoted as saying by the woman. The publication also writes that, according to sources in the Iraqi intelligence services, the abductors were dressed in the form of the Iraqi security service.
The last message on Twitter by Elizaveta Tsurkov was published on March 21.
Kataib Hezbollah is a Shiite group operating in Iraq and Syria. Funded by Iran, has about seven thousand members. During the Iraq War, Kataib Hezbollah militants fought against the United States, and have been fighting the Islamic State since 2014. In Syria, the group supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In 2009, the United States designated Kataib Hezbollah a terrorist organization.