The recent Israeli massacre on Gaza triggered a number of solidarity protests around the world; a significant number of these activities were organised in Latin America, home to thousands of Palestinian refugees. Mauricio Abu-Ghosh, a first generation Palestinian Chilean with ancestral roots in Beit Jala, who is also President of the Palestinian Federation of Chile, discusses the history of Palestinians in Chile and Latin America, the Chilean media's portrayal of the Israeli aggression on Gaza, as well as the Federation's struggle to highlight the Palestinian cause.
Can you narrate the origins of the Palestinian community in Chile?
There were three important migrations of Palestinians to Chile. The first registered migration occurred in 1880, although it is noted that those who arrived prior to this, in 1850, quickly returned to Palestine. The era was that of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which exercised its power over Arab nations and imposed higher taxes on the income of non-Turkish subjects of the empire, making life very difficult. With this migration, the doors of South America were open to Palestinians. Their preferred destinations in the region were Chile, Peru and Bolivia – notably because of the similarities in climate, landscape and the perceived opportunities offered by a developing country which had just celebrated its 100 years of independence. The migration intensified during the World Wars for reasons well understood. The Turks sent Arab youths, as young as fifteen, to the battle front. The parents, in an attempt to prevent probable death, sent their sons to ‘conquer the world' through travels, with the intention of joining their offspring and returning to a normal family life once they became established in another country. These families were mostly Christian families who suffered discrimination at the hands of the Empire. Migrants from Syria and Lebanon also faced the same problems.
The second migration occurred during the British Mandate for Palestine, which was contrary to the agreements between Palestinians and General Allenby who promised Palestinians their independence if they fought against the Turks. My grandfather was part of this migration to Chile in 1925. The mandate caused widespread discontent amongst Palestinians due to the entry of European Zionists; also British laws were harsh in relation to Palestinians.
The third migration happened after the Nakba Catastrophe in 1948. Palestinians were dominated by Jordanians and Israelis, making life extremely difficult especially for those with large families. My father's family completed their migration in 1951, returning only sporadically to Chile to visit relatives who stayed behind. There was a fourth migration, not as large as the previous, which took place in 1967 upon the total occupation of Palestine.
What role has the Federation of Palestine assumed in relation to the Palestinian cause?
The Palestinian Federation is a political representation of Palestinians in Chile. It plays a major role in organising the community and defending the rights of the Palestinian people. Political representation on behalf of the community is exerted against the Chancellor and the President of the Republic, as well as against political parties and social and cultural organisations through hearings, interviews, letters and statements. The organisation is based on local congresses of communities with Palestinian origin living in Santiago and other major cities throughout the country. Every two years, the agenda of these communities is reactivated to synchronise with the programme of the Federation which is defined in Congress every three years. The Federation's work with regard to the defence of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people is carried out in forums, university debates, films, documentaries, press releases, letters and statements in the press and in public, as well as exercising the right of reply in the same media disseminating hostile views – noting that in general our reply is usually the last to be published.
Are there any other Palestinian organizations in Latin America or worldwide who you collaborate with? Can you give any examples of such collaboration?
Yes, there are various Palestinian federations in South America, but none of them are as active as ours – something which even our brothers in South America (Peru, Argentina, Brasil, Colombia, Venezuela) are adamant about. With these federations we are planning a congress of Palestinian Federations which should take place next year, in order to coordinate our work at a continental level and promote the Palestinian cause in society, governments and public opinion. For example, we have actively participated, through Facebook, in spreading and garnering support for these activities. In February 2010, we were involved in the creation of the Palestine World Network, together with our brothers from Peru, Argentina and others from Central America. This week we will be taking part in the World Social Forum for a Free Palestine, to which we adhere and are participating in coordination with the Federation of Argentina.
What stance has the Federation taken with regard to the current offensive in Gaza? Has any official statement been issued?
We have unwaveringly defended the Palestinian people with all our strength and every possible means of communication available – radios, newspapers, TV, etc. We have also pressured the government through parliamentary members who support the Palestinian cause to issue a statement condemning the Israeli attacks on the population of the Gaza Strip so as to prevent additional deaths of innocent civilians. Our full statement may be found on our website.
What is the position of the Chilean government with regard to Gaza?
The statement issued by the Foreign Ministry calls for "a cessation of attacks from both sides and the deaths of civilians is deplorable." This statement seemed very weak, as it does not condemn the Israeli attack and puts the victim on the same level as the perpetrator, rather than focusing on the disproportionate Israeli attacks and the war machine unleashed upon civilians. Last Thursday after the march to the presidential palace, La Moneda, we delivered a letter of complaint about that official statement to the chancellor, despite our knowledge of Chile's support for Palestine's bid to be admitted to the UN as a non-state member.
What activities are being organised by the Federation in solidarity with Gaza?
We have supported two peaceful demonstrations – one outside the Israeli embassy and another in the centre of Santiago organised by Chilean political and social organisations. We have also organised a march from the Palestinian neighbourhood towards La Moneda in solidarity with Gaza, which brought together more than 300 people from all sides of the political spectrum as the Palestinian cause has universal support.
How is Chilean mainstream media portraying Gaza? Is there any media alternative which constructs the reality of Palestinians?
At first the news portrayed a conflict between equals, mirroring a dissemination of information offered by large news networks managed by Zionists and the US. With the passing of days and the deaths of more Palestinians, there was a realisation that both parties could not be put on the same level – with our help, the analysis started to change. The media started taking statements and interviews. It also participated in discussions with the Zionist community in Chile, making it clear that the victim in this aggression was the Palestinian population.
Chileans participating in social networking sites and blogs clearly condemn the Israeli aggression and the popular sentiment is that of sympathy and solidarity with the Palestinians. We are urging further collaboration in spreading awareness of our cause and the boycott of the State of Israel.
There are several alternative media outlets, notably El Cuidando, The Clinic and Rebellion. They are of a lesser number and do not have as much influence as we would wish in order challenge public opinion. However, many people express their opinions online through these media outlets, which allow us to observe a rapprochement with the Palestinian position.
With regard to our communication, apart from the declarations and statements which we send to all of our subscribers in the database, the Federation has its own website, www.oicpalestina.org – a news website through which we issue a bulletin of news and opinion articles from Monday to Friday. More than 15,000 people from Latin America subscribe to our services. We also do a program on Radio Universidad de Chile, which runs every Sunday at 7pm – an hour of analysis, news and interviews. As can be seen, the Federation is growing and we will continue spreading the just cause of the Palestinians.