SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chile’s Palestinian community, the largest outside the Middle East, is a powerful force in the Andean nation and is involved in local politics, culture and football. Now it is making Chile one of the loudest regional voices criticizing Israel over its military action in Gaza.
Chilean President Gabriel Boric, a moderate on the Latin American left, recalled the country’s ambassador in Tel Aviv last week and said Israel was not abiding by international law.
In a post on He raised the issue with President Joe Biden at a bilateral meeting last Thursday in Washington.
“We can say without a doubt that the response was disproportionate and violates international humanitarian law,” Boric told reporters after the meeting at the White House.
The Israeli embassy in Santiago said it would not comment on its relations with the Boric government.
The roots of the Palestinian community lie deep in Chile. Immigration began in the late 19th century when Christians fled the weakening Ottoman Empire.
It is estimated that there are now more than half a million Palestinians living in Chile, many of them third, fourth or even fifth generations, a sizeable minority in a country of fewer than 20 million people.
The community was galvanized, holding rallies in front of the presidential palace, organizing benefit concerts, calling for a ceasefire and urging boycotts. Members of the community met with the foreign minister to lobby the government for a ceasefire from Israel.
“The Palestinian community here is as diverse as any other community, we live in every city and territory in Chile,” said Claudia Yarur, who says her great-grandparents carried passports from the Ottoman Empire when they immigrated to Chile.
Yarur supports a boycott of Israel and wants the Chilean government to break off diplomatic relations with the country.
“We want the persecution of the Palestinian people to end,” Yarur said. “We must focus on putting pressure on Israel to stop these crimes of persecution, and the Chilean government bears this responsibility, as do all governments around the world.”
An affluent area of Santiago is home to a lively Palestinian social club with state-of-the-art facilities, a Chilean-Palestinian group in Congress and a century-old first division soccer team, Palestino FC.
“Our community lives peacefully here,” said Georges Abed, the Syrian-born priest of the San Jorge Cathedral in the Patronato neighborhood of central Santiago, the Palestinians’ original landing zone in Chile.
“They are present in the right, the left, the government, the universities, industry, commerce, the banks, the army and the carabineros (police forces).”
At a recent mass, Abed invited members of Chile’s Muslim community and the Palestinian ambassador; Keffiyehs, hijabs and Palestinian flags were scattered in the pews.
“Even though we are completely separated geographically, you can feel their presence, their connection to the land,” said Vera Baboun, Palestinian ambassador to Chile and former mayor of Bethlehem, who attended Abed’s mass.
On October 7, Hamas militants in Gaza breached the barrier with Israel, killing civilians at a music festival and in surrounding communities and bringing hostages back to Gaza. Israel said Hamas killed 1,400 people and captured more than 240. Israel responded by bombing the Gaza Strip, ostensibly to wipe out Hamas, which the US and EU classify as a terrorist movement.
According to Palestinian health authorities in Gaza, more than 10,000 people were killed. Israel accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shields and rejects growing international pressure for a ceasefire. The hostages should first be released.
Although much smaller, Chile’s Jewish community numbers about 16,000 and is the third largest in South America after Argentina and Brazil. In a press release, the Jewish community said it rejected Boric’s decision to recall the ambassador, saying the Chilean government’s actions “ultimately confirm the actions of the terrorist group Hamas.”
Despite widespread support, many members of the Palestinian community and business owners did not want to speak to Reuters for fear of reprisals or not being allowed to return to the West Bank or Gaza Strip.
Many said they did not condone the October Hamas attack, which was captured in grisly detail in videos on social media, but said it was important to see the larger context.
The importance of the Palestinian community has generated strong support from other groups in Chile. Rafael Torres, a member of Chile’s indigenous Mapuche community, is an avid Palestino FC fan who recently attended a rally in support of Gaza.
“I am proud of this jersey and glad that it is in Chile and not in any other country,” said Torres, who said the club’s very existence had become a political statement. “These are powerful symbols that, even without meaning to, make Palestino a political club on a global level.”
Felipe Barria says his grandparents came from Bethlehem and he has several family members there. His aunt, a dentist, often travels there to help children in the West Bank.
“There are many family ties, even though many years have passed,” Barria said at a recent pro-Palestinian rally. “The Palestinian community (here) always takes action when there is aggression.”
Since the military offensive began in October, the community has organized protests, a benefit concert and fundraising events to raise awareness and provide funds to send humanitarian supplies to Gaza.
The state of Israel was founded in 1948 after the Nazi Holocaust with the support of major world powers, but Arab states refused to accept the expulsion of some 700,000 Palestinians – an event that Palestinians lament as the Nakba, or catastrophe.
Father Abed said Gaza has suffered injustice for almost a century and the October 7 attack must be seen in that context.
“If you want to ask me about Gaza and the (Hamas) massacre, the blood, the killings, it’s like looking at a painting from a few centimeters away,” Abed said.
“You have to look at it from further back to see the bigger picture. We are talking about a problem that is more than 75 years old.”
Countries across Latin America have increasingly condemned Israel’s attack on Gaza, with Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Argentina and Colombia strongly criticizing the attacks. Bolivia took the most dramatic step and broke off diplomatic relations with Israel.
Chile is one of at least 138 countries that recognize a Palestinian state.
(Reporting by Alexander Villegas; Editing by Claudia Parsons)
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