In June, a conference aimed at bringing together leading technology companies from Israel and entrepreneurs and business experts from the Caribbean was held in Bridgetown, Barbados; it was met with small but very vocal opposition. Such opposition to Israel is generally unheard of in the Caribbean, but with the coming into being of CAAP (Caribbean Against Apartheid in Palestine) a few years ago, a concerted campaign to highlight the issues of the Palestinian people has been gaining momentum.
Israel has developed strong ties with several Caribbean governments over the years and agreements have been signed, especially in the areas of cooperation in agriculture and security. The Israeli government has a longstanding policy of engagement with its Caribbean counterparts to get their support. Barbados is an example of this; diplomatic ties go back as far as 1966 when Barbados became an independent nation. Over the past 50 years Barbados has received some benefits from Israel, especially in the area of educational scholarships, assistance in agriculture development and in security. Other countries in the Caribbean region however taken a different approach and furthered the Palestinian cause with more vigour and declining Israel's largesse.
In the past decade, as the issue of Palestinian statehood came to the United Nations, a more robust engagement of Caribbean governments has taken place by both the Israelis and, significantly, the Palestinians. In 2011, ahead of the UN vote on recognition of Palestine and against a backdrop of the US saying it will use its veto to block Palestinian's bid for statehood within the 1967 borders, intense lobbying was taking place and Caribbean governments were being cajoled into action.
It was reported then that the Israeli Foreign Ministry had been promising Caribbean states security and intelligence assistance in return for their UN General Assembly votes against recognition of Palestine's sovereignty. Israel's strategy was to have 60 members of the General Assembly vote against the Palestine resolution, abstain or be absent from the Assembly and not vote. Sixty votes would have denied Palestine the required two-thirds majority. For that reason, Israel was concentrating its efforts on the 38 members of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS).
Interestingly, Caribbean governments were also being warned of "severe implications" for the region if they did not support Palestine's application for statehood at the UN. The warning was issued by the then General Secretary of the Caribbean Congress of Labour (CCL), Senator Chester Humphrey.
"It has serious implications for governments who are straddled with serious constraints in terms of falling revenues, growing social demands and poverty and large unemployment," Humphrey told a trade union conference. "This is why we need a very robust foreign policy." It's the right and just thing to do, he added. "The Palestinians need a state and the occupation of their country must come to an end."
Humphrey stressed that Bible-based ideologies should not be confused with political realities. The Senator said that governments should not be worried about any backlash from the US, one of Israel's strongest allies, since, according to him, it has tightened its immigration policy over the years, and has not been pumping considerable funds into the region.
The visit by the Foreign Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Riyad Al-Maliki to Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St Kitts-Nevis and Trinidad and Tobago seeking support for an independent Palestine was also noteworthy. Al-Maliki said that he was confident of the region's support in his country's bid for nationhood. "All responses were very encouraging to us and this really raises our expectations that things would move in the right directions," he said, without indicating the Caribbean countries likely to support the diplomatic initiative. "There are countries that have said that they would contemplate that issue; others said that they would look positively, favourably, into this matter; others said we would go forward with recognising the state of Palestine. Others said we would like to seek a collective decision by CARICOM. But all in all, all responses and actions and messages were very encouraging."
Prior to the 2012 UN vote, Guyana, Suriname, Belize, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda had formally recognised Palestine. In fact, Guyana has been in the forefront of recognition of the Palestinian state. Since the seventies, it has been vocal on the world stage promoting the Palestinian aspirations. Since 1975, indeed, Guyana has been a member of the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, and in the 1970s severed diplomat ties with Israel.
Furthermore, at the 14th Meeting of the Council for Foreign and Community Relations (COFCOR) in St. Kitts, Caribbean Foreign Ministers stressed their longstanding and unwavering solidarity with, and commitment to, the just and legitimate aspirations of the people of Palestine for the exercise of their right to self-determination and to achieve a homeland of their own, independent, free, prosperous and at peace. "The Council further reiterated its support for a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the people of Israel and Palestine living side by side in their free and independent countries in peace, prosperity and harmony and within secure and internationally recognised borders," the closing communiqué stated.
The position adopted by Caribbean governments did not go unnoticed by the Israelis. It is reported that the Israel Project, a major right-wing, pro-Israel lobby group based in Washington, sent "a delegation of 18 Washington-based ambassadors from four continents" to Israel and the West Bank. This was apparently aimed at heading off the Palestinian statehood initiative at the UN.
The envoys, most of whom had never been to Israel before, were scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the then President Shimon Peres, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, Vice Prime Minister and Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe Yaalon and opposition leader Tzipi Livni during their five-day mission. Those reportedly taking part in the mission included ambassadors from Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Haiti, St. Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago.
The UN vote on 29 November, 2012 saw all CARICOM countries supporting the motion to recognise Palestine, with only Barbados and Bahamas abstaining. Barbados' abstention was strange, as in September 2011, only a year earlier, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart spoke to the UN General Assembly and stated the following: "The State of Israel has a right to exist and the people of Israel have a right to live in security and to do so with the full and undisputed recognition of the rest of the world. On the other hand, the Palestinians are entitled also to enjoy the fruits of prosperity within their own sovereign state. Much else in this conflict may be negotiable. Surely, those two postulates are not. The Holy Land has for centuries been the locus of humanity's hopes. It is high time that it now becomes a symbol, not of humanity's divisions, but of humanity's unity. This state of affairs will ensue only when the disgracefully long wait of the Palestinians for a homeland is brought to an end."
At the grassroots level, the Palestinian cause has had varying degrees of support from Caribbean people. Palestinian refugees have made homes and businesses in several Caribbean countries, and Muslims in the region have been vocal on issues related to and in support of Palestine. Persons and groups outside the Muslim community have also voiced their support. However, several individuals and groups have also voiced their support of the state of Israel, including some Evangelical churches. They have even brought in speakers in defence of Israel. A panel discussion by the Olive Tree group in Barbados some years ago, which featured Walid Shoebat, highlighted the strong support that Israel has among some Christian organisations.
The comments made by CAAP's secretary Lalu Hanuman during that anti-Israel protest in June were carried in the mass media. He charged that modern Israel is a "racist, oppressive, nefarious entity" and participation by Caribbean people in the conference is tantamount to a betrayal of the Palestinian people. Hanuman holds the strong opinion that Israel is an apartheid state, which he claimed is no different to the one-time apartheid state of South Africa. "We had great solidarity, and rightfully so, with the struggles of the people of South Africa against apartheid," he explained. "The Palestinians are enduring the same level of oppression as the indigenous people of South Africa."
Hanuman's comments did provoke a response from the Israelis and from the Barbados Government. Israel's Ambassador to Barbados and other CARICOM States, Mordehai Amihai-Bivas, told the media that the protest action did not take place at the right time, explaining that "we come here in peace". While the Barbados Minister of Tourism and International Transport Richard Sealy said: "Barbados has said at the United Nations that it supports a two-state solution. We believe in the state of Israel and we believe in the state of Palestine."
The varying positions taken by Caribbean governments on the issue of Palestine are representative of the differences that exist among the states in the region relating to their foreign policy decisions. Some countries exercise extreme caution about going against US and British interests, while others are bolder in their exercise of their sovereign rights, including the right to free association.
The two-state solution has seemingly found favour among most of the region's governments and even at the level of CARICOM (Caribbean grouping). Moving from voicing acceptance to outright support of Palestine and condemnation of Israel's continued aggression against the Palestinian people seems a little harder for some Caribbean states to do, though. Greater awareness of the issues among the people and the governments across the Caribbean, as well as a better understanding of the suffering endured by the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israelis, will lead to more robust policy initiatives in support of Palestine.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.