Latin America’s “forgotten” Palestinians

he Palestine Center and the Institute for Palestine Studies hosted in Washington, DC last week a fascinating presentation on Palestinians in Latin America by Dr. Cecilia Baeza, postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of International Relations of the University of Brasilia.

Latin America is home to the largest Palestinian population outside the Arab world, numbering more than half a million, but very little has been written about Palestinian communities there. Dr. Baeza’s presentation gives an overview of this history, starting with the waves of immigration by Palestinian Christian merchants at the end of the Ottoman empire, peaking between 1900-1930, before the ethnic cleansing and dispossession of Palestine in 1948.

“Palestinians in Latin America do not easily fit into the national narrative shaped by the refugee experience,” Dr. Baeza explains. “In fact, Palestinian historiography has long seemed uninterested in this diaspora which doesn’t meet the criteria of Palestinian-ness as defined by the political necessities of a national discourse centered on the state of dispossession, denial and statelessness of the refugees.”


The movement of immigration of Palestinians to Latin America was a result of new European tourism to the Holy Land. Local artisans who made religious souvenirs emerged as a new class of Christian merchants, some of whom traveled to the US to attend international fairs and then went southward.

Ottoman citizens such as these Palestinian migrants were labeled as “Turcos” because of their Ottoman passports, and this term became a synonym for their trade as peddlers.

“Turcos” suffered from ethnic discrimination but their work was lucrative. Immigrants who accumulated wealth and returned to their hometowns in Palestine encouraged others to follow in their footsteps. Conflict and the deteriorating economic situation after the First World War also caused some families to send their sons abroad.

Palestinian immigrant merchants with capital, as opposed to land owners, would become among the new partners of Latin American state development, founding textile factories and investment banks.

Meanwhile, the dispossession of Palestine in 1948 reinforced the idea of non-return to the homeland.

Palestinian figures in Latin America would play prominent roles in politics, on both the left and the right during the tumultuous 1970s and ’80s.


Dr. Baeza also discusses how Palestinians in Latin America have self-identified, as well as their relationship with Palestine.

The first immigrants from Palestinian cities identified with their hometown, greater Syria, their religion and their Arab-ness.

More overt nationalist identity emerged with the British mandate of Palestine, whose policies made it harder for migrants to come from and go to the homeland, prompting them to organize to protest restrictions on their entry to Palestine.

“At the end of the ’30s we have a population who increasingly claimed its belonging to the Palestinian nation while they were more than ever intended to settle in their host countries,” Dr. Baeza explained.

Over time, the Palestinian population in Latin America did lose its capacity to read and write in Arabic, and the ethnic press covering developments in Palestine was published in Spanish.

Palestine Liberation Organization

The United Nations’ recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1974 allowed it to open up Palestine information offices across South America and politicized some in the diaspora, while some Palestinian elites there believed the PLO to be subversive.

Another turning point was the 1982 massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, causing Palestinians in Chile to organize in solidarity with their brethren in Lebanon.

The Palestinian movement has become professionalized in more recent years, with business associations’ publications and broadcast channels serving as the main outlets for dissemination of news on Palestine.

Young Latin Americans of Palestinian descent still feel connected to Palestine, and many travel there even though they have no known relatives there. However, this is made difficult as the Israeli authorities discriminate against travelers with Palestinian ancestry.

There is additional rich information given by Dr. Baeza during the question and answer session after her presentation, and she touches on the relationship between Israel and repressive regimes in South America.

Israel’s Ill-Treatment of Detained Palestinian Children “Widespread”

Zein Abu-Mariya (17) with his parents after nine months in Israeli custody. Credit: Pierre Klochendler/IPS.

They pressured my son to confess

“Three interrogators questioned me for three hours. I was handcuffed. They beat me, slapped me, kicked me, boxed me, accused me of throwing stones; played a video of a demonstration. I denied I was there. So again, they beat me up,” recounts Zein Abu-Mariya, 17, seated on a sofa next to dad.

“They pressured my son to confess,” Hisham chimes in. “‘If you don’t sign, you’ll be treated like an animal,’ they threatened.” Zein acquiesces.

In March 2012, in the dead of night, he was arrested by Israeli soldiers. Thirty-six hours later, he was brought before a judge. He stood at 35 court hearings, spent nine months in the HaSharon jail minors section; yet was never convicted.

In January, his father finally managed to bail him out. Back home, waiting for an impending court hearing, Zein strikes a defiant pose: “I don’t want to go back to jail, but I’m not afraid; I got used to it.”

He’s gone back to school, but he was held back one year. “My friends ask me what jail is like – just in case.”

Zein’s testimony – like that of many other minors – reveals one of the most painfully enduring experiences of life under occupation.

“Put yourself in their shoes,” U.S. President Barack Obama recently told young Israelis. The issue of Palestinian children in Israeli military detention provides a dramatic example of just how far the U.S. president’s plea is from being fulfilled.

In February, 236 Palestinian minors were incarcerated – 39 aged 12 to 15 – reports rights group Defence of Children International.

Each year for the past ten years, 700 children aged 12 to 17, most of them boys, are arrested by Israel – an average of two per day– estimates the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in a report also published in February.

UNICEF concludes that ill-treatment of imprisoned children “appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalised” throughout the process, from arrest to interrogation, prosecution, eventual conviction and condemnation.

Its report points to practices that “amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention against Torture” ratified by Israel.

Parents aren’t always notified of their child’s arrest. Most arrests occur at night. During questioning, minors are denied access to a lawyer, or the presence of a relative. Most are accused of throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and vehicles.

“These stones can cause death,” maintains Israeli Foreign Ministry deputy spokesperson Ilana Stein. “But putting children in jail isn’t something we like.”

The report’s 38 recommendations for bettering the rightful protection of Palestinian children are assigned dutiful consideration. “We actually worked on the report with UNICEF because we want to improve the treatment of detained Palestinian children,” Stein says.

“Such Israeli reaction is good,” welcomes ‘Adli Da’ana, education officer with UNICEF in Hebron. “But on March 20, they grabbed 27 kids in the Old City of Hebron, just like that, in one fell swoop. So is this what they call re-considering their policy?”

Military laws are particularly harsh on children.

The alternative Israeli website recently brought up the imaginary case study of two 12-year-olds – one Israeli settler, one Palestinian – getting into a fight, and compared the judicial consequences.

An Israeli minor sees a judge within 12 hours; for a Palestinian child, it could take up to four days. Before seeing a lawyer, an Israeli child can be held for two days, a Palestinian child for 90 days. An Israeli child can be held 40 days without charge; a Palestinian child, 60 days.

A 12-year-old Israeli can’t be held during trial; a 12-year-old Palestinian can be held up to 18 months before trial.

Chances of bail before trial stand at 80 percent for Israeli children, at 13 percent for Palestinian children. And while there is no custodial sentencing in Israeli civilian law for a minor under 14, a 12 year-old Palestinian can be incarcerated under Israeli military law.

“The most urgent change is to ensure children spend the least possible time in jail,” urges Na’ama Baumgarten-Sharon, researcher at B’tselem, the Israeli human right organisation. “Children must be brought before a judge in much less time.”

Implemented starting Apr. 2, a military order supposed to reduce the length of pre-trial detention stipulates that Palestinian children under 14 should be brought before a judge within 24 hours of arrest and children aged 14 to 18 within 48 hours.

“Even when there’s realisation that things need to change, it’s a slow process,” notes Baumgarten-Sharon. “The only form of punishment is jail. There’s no other alternative.”

Smain Najjar lives in the Jewish-controlled part of Hebron. Only 17, he’s already been arrested four times on suspicion of stone throwing.

“The first time, it was while playing soccer with friends. I was nine. They locked me in a cold-storage box for six hours; then let me go.

“The second time – I was 11 – they held me for three hours at a nearby checkpoint because I got into an argument with a settler my age.

“The third time, they took me to the nearby settlement’s police station; I was 14.

“The fourth time – last November, during Israel’s military operation on Gaza – I spent four days at the Ofer detention centre. I’d been arrested on my way home from an evening shift at a coffee shop.”

Anxious, his mother Suad kept calling his cellphone. After a while, a voice answered, and ordered, “Stop calling this number, we’ve arrested your child.”

Smain has dropped out of school. “Maybe I’ll become a sports coach,” he says.

“We help these kids find their future, rebuild their personality. Unfortunately, sometimes we fail. Once arrested, it’s a cycle of arrests,” says psycho-social counsellor Ala’ Abu-Ayyash.

Smain likes to take refuge in his dovecote. He says the doves provide an escape from the darkness of life. The doves circle in disarray till one is caught.

This article was originally published at IPS News.

After Gaza War, Palestinian Unity Gets a Big Boost

Hamas Pardons All Political Prisoners From Fatah

With the war over and the ceasefire in the Gaza Strip holding, Palestinian unity talks seem to be getting a big shot in the arm. Negotiations with Hamas, long stalled because of Israeli objections, seem more practical for Fatah, while Hamas is looking at major confidence-building measures.

The biggest of these came today, with Hamas announcing a blanket pardon for all Fatah detainees captured as political prisoners since the two sides violently split in 2006. The Gaza Interior Ministry says 22 detainees will be released because of the move.

The two sides split after Hamas won a landslide victory in the 2006 elections, and at the behest of Israel and the Bush Administration Fatah chose to ignore the elections and keep its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, in power. Eventually the split turned violent and left Hamas in control of Gaza with Fatah in the West Bank.

Israeli officials have long cited the split as a deal-breaker for negotiating a permanent peace deal and Palestinian statehood, but at the same time condemned the idea of Palestinian unity and insisting they could never negotiate if Hamas was part of the equation.

With the negotiated ceasefire in place, Israel is going to struggle to insist Hamas can’t be negotiated with, and the faction’s control of the strip, having survived another Israeli war, is even less in question than ever. Beyond that Fatah’s poor showing in its latest elections, which Hamas wasn’t even allowed to take part in, has put them in a precarious position and forced them to turn to their old rivals to try to reestablish a credible role in Palestinian leadership.

by Jason Ditz

Teacher, Children Among Slain as Gaza Toll Rises

The death toll of the Israeli war against the Gaza Strip continues to rise today, with Israeli officials promising a protracted offensive and patting themselves on the back for doing so. And while the war started with the assassination of a Hamas military leader, the more recent deaths suggest the strikes are having a big impact on Gaza’s civilian population.

Israeli violence has left 24 dead and 200 wounded in Gaza. A total of three Israelis have died from rocket-fire coming out of Gaza.

Marwan Abu El Qumsan, a teacher at a UN school, is among the victims, and the UN has had to close its schools because of the growing attacks. Children were also the victims of Israeli attacks, including the 11-month-old son of BBC editor Jihad Misharawi.

The exact split between fighters and civilians in the death toll is unclear, but it seems apparent that civilians are dying at a higher rate, and the massive numbers of wounded in attacks on residential areas seem dramatically skewed toward civilian bystanders.

Egypt’s prime minister, Hesham Kandil, visited Gaza to see the destruction and draw attention to the suffering on the Palestinian side, which is unfortunately underreported.

“No one can remain still and watch this tragedy unfold in this fashion,” Kandil said. “This is impossible. The whole world must intervene, and Israel must abide by the agreements and stop the aggression.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shrugged off complaints about the civilian toll, insisting there was no “moral symmetry” between Israeli air strikes killing civilians and Gaza rocket attacks doing so. Netanyahu added that he saw a photo of a bleeding Israeli baby and this proved there was no comparison. It was unclear if he saw the pictures of Misharawi’s slain infant son.

No End in Sight as Civilians Feel Impact of War

by Jason Ditz

Israeli Cabinet Talks ‘Punishment’ Over Palestinian UN Recognition

With Sure Victory for Observer State, Israel Looks for Revenge

Palestine’s upgrade to UN “non-member observer state” status is virtually a foregone conclusion, with an overwhelming majority of the UN General Assembly expected to vote in favor and only a handful, led by the US and Israel, in opposition.

The question then is what Israel’s reaction will be, and the nation’s cabinet met today to discuss possible “punitive” measures to punish the Palestinians for getting the enhanced level of recognition on the international stage.

Exactly what the move will be remains unclear, and with Israel already not negotiating with the Palestinians and already expanding settlements, the number of options that will actually feel like “punishment” instead of just business as usual is limited.

The most likely proposal on that front is for Israel to freeze all Palestinian tax dollars, though Israel does this too on a semi-regular basis to express displeasure, and with the West Bank’s economy already on the brink of collapse a prolonged move to cut off funds to PA employees could be diplomatically difficult for Israel as well.

In the end the most likely new moves will also be the least impactful, imposing harsh new restrictions on Palestinian detainees who by and large aren’t involved in the PA to begin with and who have no say over their recognition anyhow. This has been a go-to activity for Israel’s government several times in the past, forcing Palestinians in prison to go to court to get access to things like paper and pencils.

by Jason Ditz

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