Israeli researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov, 37, who also holds Russian citizenship, was kidnapped at the end of March in Baghdad after returning home from a café in the Iraqi capital’s Karada neighborhood, the New York Times reported Wednesday night revealing new details about the incident that has been occupying senior officials in Israel for months and has now come to light.
Tsurkov, an Arabic speaker, was abducted by Kataib Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian Shiite militia that is not directly affiliated with the Lebanese organization after she arrived in Iraq for her doctoral dissertation on behalf of Princeton University.
The report, co-authored by Yedioth Ahronoth journalist Ronen Bergman, revealed that Tsurkov recently underwent emergency surgery on her back in Baghdad. The Karada neighborhood where she resided, according to the report, is known to be popular among Western visitors and is bustling with cafés, clothing stores, and markets. The neighborhood features both churches and mosques, with a diverse population.
Israeli officials assess that the case of Tsurkov will not be resolved in the near future. There is no expectation of her immediate release, and it is unlikely that Israel will engage in direct negotiations or payment for her release, as it has done in previous cases of Israeli abductions. Meanwhile, officials hold the Iraqi government responsible for her well-being.
However, Jerusalem has discreetly reached out through various channels, including the Kremlin, the White House and other parties, in an attempt to secure her release since the abduction came to light in Israel a few days after it occurred. Israeli officials have hinted that they have received a sign of life from and that she is well.
The official statement
An official statement by the Prime Minister’s Office read, “Elizabeth Tsurkov is an Israeli-Russian dual citizen who has been missing in Iraq for several months and is being held by the Shiite militia Kataib Hezbollah. Elizabeth Tsurkov is still alive and we hold Iraq responsible for her safety and well-being.
She is an academic who visited Iraq on her Russian passport, at her own initiative pursuant to work on her doctorate and academic research on behalf of Princeton University in the US. The matter is being handled by the relevant parties in the State of Israel out of concern for Elizabeth Tsurkov's security and well-being.”
A senior government official described her arrival in Iraq as a "serious mishap" but insisted that Israel is making every effort to address the situation, treating it like any citizen in distress. The official stressed that Tsurkov is not an Israeli agent.
Who is Elizabeth Tsurkov?
Tsurkov came to Israel at the age of 4 from St. Petersburg. Initially, she lived with her parents on a kibbutz, but they later moved to the settlement of Kfar Elad in the West Bank.
At the age of nine, Tsurkov joined other children from the settlement in a protest in Jerusalem against the peace process with the Palestinians, known as the Oslo Accords. The protest gained infamy due to the strong incitement directed towards then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
A month later, following Rabin's assassination, Tsurkov celebrated with the children and teachers in her local school. She is fluent in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English.
During her military service, Tsurkov started encountering diverse perspectives. Through social networks, she connected with Arab human rights activists, leading to a profound shift in her outlook.
After completing her service, she pursued a bachelor's degree in international relations and communications at the Hebrew University, followed by Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University, and eventually obtained a master's degree in political science from the University of Chicago.
In recent years, she has been a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at Princeton University and a researcher at the Regional Thinking Forum in Israel and the New Lines Institute in Washington. She resides in Tel Aviv, although her website indicates that she lives in Istanbul.
In response to a Ynet request for comment, the New Lines Institute said that "Elizabeth was in Iraq to complete field research for her doctoral dissertation at Princeton University. For details of her research, you would need to contact Princeton University.
"We cannot speak to whether Princeton University was aware of her physical presence in Iraq. We are not aware of any security measures in place to protect her during her time there. We have not had any contact with Elizabeth since her abduction and cannot speak to any progress toward her release."
The U.S. State Department said that "We are aware of this kidnapping and condemn the abduction of private citizens. We defer to Iraqi authorities for comment."
Following her military service, she worked as an assistant to Minister Nathan Sharansky from 2006 to 2008. He told Ynet: "I have known her for many years. It is clear that she is not a spy for America, Russia or Israel, and she has primarily engaged in academic research."
Months of censorship
In the past, her colleagues asked her if she was afraid to travel to enemy countries, to which Tsurkov replied, "I did risk management, and I am cautious about traveling to dangerous places." However, she has visited such places, like a camp in Syria where Islamic State women were held, whom she interviewed. Tsurkov has visited Iraq 10 times, the New York Times reported, citing Iraqi officials.
"She always said that she knows how to handle herself," said former Knesset member Ksenia Svetlova, who was acquainted with Tsurkov. "She always wanted to get to the truth through research and was disturbed by human rights violations. If something happens in the world, whether it's in Syria or in the Palestinian Authority, she would ask herself, 'What can I do?'
The researcher, who is usually active on social media, has not posted since March 21. American news site The Cradle reported that Tsurkov initially entered the Kurdish region of Iraq and was abducted from a home in the Karada neighborhood in Baghdad on March 26.
Israel tried to keep her abduction under wraps through censorship but eventually had to acknowledge the fact after it was published on foreign media. "Managing such an incident with public exposure is much more difficult in every aspect," a government source told Ynet.
According to the source, Tsurkov’s kidnappers did so "because she is a foreigner, Russian and Israeli. They knew in principle that she is Israeli. We have been in close contact with her family since the beginning of the events."
On behalf of the family, a statement was released echoing the official messages from Israel. Tsurkov's sister, Emma, told Ynet that she was in Baghdad for a few weeks until they lost contact with her. "I reached out to anyone I thought could help, but for now, most of what we know comes from the media." Tsurkov’s mother was unaware of her abduction until the statement of the Prime Minister's Office was released.
"She's definitely not a publicity seeker, it's hard to imagine what she's thinking," added her sister. "This wasn't for nothing, everything has a motive. She interviewed people with a notebook in hand, and then on top of it all, maybe she has an interview or two that she didn't have a chance to publish because of the abduction."
Is Iran involved?
According to the New York Times, the seizure of Tsurkov raised fears that she could be transferred to Iran, but there has been no indication that that has happened, according to the people familiar with the episode.
The report further stated that the kidnapping spotlighted a problem that Iraq’s leaders have been grappling with: Some military groups absorbed into Iraq’s security forces have stronger ties to Iran than to Iraq, and security officials say Kataib Hezbollah is the most prominent.
If Tsurkov's abduction is found to be closely linked to Iran, it would signify a significant escalation in the ongoing shadow war between Israel and Iran in the Middle East.
Kataib Hezbollah is not directly affiliated with the infamous organization in Lebanon, but it is closely connected to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States. It has even fired rockets at a base in Iraq that killed an American, which was one of the factors leading to the decision to eliminate Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian Quds Force commander, in 2020.
First published: 01:13, 07.06.23