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US has ‘moral obligation’ to free Israeli held by Iran-backed militia in Iraq

"Iraq is a strong U.S. ally and receives hundreds of millions of dollars every year from Washington. There should be more accountability,” says Emma Tsurkov, whose sister Elizabeth was abducted by Kata'ib Hezbollah in 2023.

Dual Israeli-Russian citizen Elizabeth Tsurkov is being held hostage in Iraq by Iran-backed Shi’ite militia Kata'ib Hezbollah, which the U.S. State Department designates a foreign terror organization. Source: Twitter.
Dual Israeli-Russian citizen Elizabeth Tsurkov is being held hostage in Iraq by Iran-backed Shi’ite militia Kata'ib Hezbollah, which the U.S. State Department designates a foreign terror organization. Source: Twitter.

The sister of captive Israeli-Russian Elizabeth Tsurkov is pressuring the U.S. government to secure her release, claiming that Washington has a “moral obligation” to do so.

“The Israeli government isn’t really in a position to do much here. Israel doesn’t have formal ties with Iraq and the Iraqi parliament passed an anti-normalization law which imposes prison sentences for any Iraqi who engages with Israelis or promotes normalization. The relationship is very much nonexistent,” Emma Tsurkov told JNS.

“The United States has way more leverage. The United States has a moral obligation to get her out. Iraq is a strong U.S. ally and receives hundreds of millions of dollars every year from Washington. There should be more accountability,” she added.

In July 2023, Arab sources reported that Princeton University researcher Tsurkov had been abducted after initiating a meeting with members of Kata’ib Hezbollah (“The Battalions of the Party of God”). Washington has designated the group (a separate and distinct organization from the Lebanese Hezbollah) as a terrorist organization.

Tsurkov met with Ahmed Alewani, who gave her access to his son, David Muhammad Alewani—a senior Kata’ib Hezbollah official. During their second meeting, the Alewanis discovered that she was Israeli and decided to kidnap her.

The sources said that there had been at least one attempt to move Tsurkov to Iran, but that it was not clear whether this attempt was successful.

“The last time I spoke directly to her was on the day she was kidnapped,” Tsurkov told JNS.

“The only proof of life I received was on Nov. 13. Her captors produced a hostage video in which we see that she is alive and somewhat functioning, but looks terrified,” she added. 

Elizabeth Tsurkov
Kidnapped Israeli-Russian academic Elizabeth Tsurkov in a video released by Kata’ib Hezbollah, Nov. 13, 2023. Source: Screenshot.

 While Elizabeth speaks Hebrew in the video, it is evident that her statement was made under duress. 

“It was heartbreaking to watch. It’s clear that they tortured her into confessing to supposedly being both a CIA and Mossad agent, as if being both is even a thing,” said her sister.

“At least I saw that she is alive and that her spirit isn’t completely broken. She still has some of her internal strength, although I don’t know how much of it is left,” she added.

Last month, Emma Tsurkov and her siblings traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of congress and State Department officials in the hope that they would press the visiting Iraqi premier to address their sister’s plight. 

“After that visit, we started encouraging members of Congress to put a temporary hold on the arm sales to Iraq, that was announced thereafter,” explained Tsurkov. “We’re currently focusing on having lawmakers hold a hearing that would look into whether U.S. military aid could get into the hands of the terrorists that hold my sister.”

Tsurkov noted that Kata’ib Hezbollah terrorists are federal employees in Iraq. “They are on the Iraqi government payroll. It seems like a much more direct access of influence than somehow going through Iran,” she added.

While in September Tsurkov said that the level of U.S. pressure was unsatisfactory, she now believes Washington’s engagement on the issue is extremely high. 

“The most senior person in the U.S. government is President Joe Biden, and he raised the issue during a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister [Mohammed Shia’] al Sudani,” she told JNS. “The engagement level is very high. It still doesn’t mean that it’s bringing results, and this is part of my frustration. The Iraqi government plays dumb,” she added.

“Each time they are asked, they provide the same scripted answer. They say that they are doing their best, that they’ve formed a task force right after her kidnapping and that they have since been working to find out who has her,” she added.

Regarding the Russian government, Tsurkov said that “currently they don’t seem particularly interested in helping my sister.”

The impact on her life of her sister’s kidnapping can’t even be described, she told JNS.

“It doesn’t even feel like it’s the same life. I look at myself before her kidnapping; I wasn’t even the same person,” she said. “It’s been very distressing, and it’s the uncertainty of it that is terrifying, the constant feeling of being on edge,” she added.

“Before my sister was kidnapped, I was already quite busy with an infant, a full-time job and a dissertation to write. Suddenly, nothing feels as important as trying to save her life. It drags on. It’s hard to stay focused and find balance,” she added. 

Speaking to JNS during Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom, Tsurkov described the hardships of celebrating without her sibling. 

“I hope it’s the last seder I will spend without her. Last year I couldn’t imagine that there would be another one, but here we are, and that’s two seders without her now. Nothing feels the same without her,” she said. 

“In terms of a message to her, if she somehow sees it: I love you, I miss you, hang in there, I will do everything I can, everything possible and more to get you back.” 

Hostage Photos Dizengoff Square
Israelis walk past candles and photos of the victims killed and held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza since the Oct. 7 massacre, on Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv on April 8, 2024. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.

In the aftermath of Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault on southern Israel, during which it kidnapped 253 people, 129 of whom remain in captivity in Gaza more than six months later, Tsurkov told JNS of her sorrow that so many more people now share her pain.

“Up until Oct. 7, I was one of very few to live through this horrible experience of having a loved one held hostage by a terror organization. On Oct. 7, hundreds of people joined me,” she said.

“My heart breaks for every single family. It’s all terrible, brutal and heartbreaking, every way you look at it.” 

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