Santiago, Chile – In Santiago’s Patronato neighbourhood, the green, red, white and black of the Palestinian flag can be found on almost every corner. The words “Free Palestine” are etched on restaurants selling falafel and shawarma. The heady aroma of cardamom coffee drifts from corner bakeries serving baklava and the best pitta and rugag bread in town.
Chile is home to the largest – and one of the oldest – Palestinian immigrant communities outside of the Arab world. An estimated 350,000 immigrants and their descendants live here.
This Palestinian community is not the only one in Latin America. Last weekend, 14 diaspora delegations from around the region met in Chile’s capital Santiago in an attempt to strengthen relations, set up networks and work together to push for peace in Palestine, establishing a lobby group of influential community leaders charged with getting Palestine “back on the map”.
Maurice Khamis, president of the Chilean-Palestinian community, told Al Jazeera that Palestinians have lived in Chile for some five generations, arriving in the late 19th century in search of better economic opportunities when the territories in the Middle East were still under Ottoman rule.
Nearly a century and a half has passed since. “Obviously we have a problem, we are stateless, we don’t have a country, it is currently occupied by Israel, our territory is occupied, dominated and oppressed,” he says.
Khamis is convinced that the Palestinian-Latin American diaspora has a role to play in the future of a Palestinian state and government.
“We want to create an international independent diaspora with a stake in the future of Palestine. As Palestinian descendants, we can play a big role in putting Palestine back on the map and making it a sovereign state,” Khamis says.
“The only thing Israel does is to effectively make Palestine invisible by taking us off the map; even Google removed us from the map. Our main goal is to put Palestine back on the map in a year of special significance for us,” he says, pointing out that 2017 marks 100 years since the Balfour declaration, 70 years since the Partition Plan for Palestine, 50 years of Israeli occupation and 10 years of the blockade of the Gaza Strip.
All of this comes shortly after the United Nations urged Israel to end settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, in a resolution the United States did not veto, for the first time in history.
The Chilean Palestinian community is not only large in size. It represents an educated, wealthy elite, with influence in much of Chilean society including politics, law, education, business and sport. It even has its own football team, Club Deportivo Palestino, which recently visited Palestine and was declared a “second national team” by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Immigrants, not refugees
“The Palestinian community in Chile has a very long history, and the local community in Santiago is especially well established, so these elements alone mean that Palestinian Chileans stand out, not only in Chile, but also internationally,” explains Siri Schwabe, an anthropologist from Stockholm University studying the Palestinian diaspora in Santiago.
“For example, having a football team called “Palestino” that pledges to represent Palestine is quite special,” says Schwabe, who recently completed a doctoral thesis entitled: “Promised Lands: Memory, Politics and Palestinianness in Santiago de Chile”.
Schwabe also highlights the fact that the community is largely descended from people who were, unlike those who left in 1947, economic migrants rather than refugees.
“That provides a different kind of involvement in the Palestinian cause. The fact that the Palestinian community includes people in certain positions of power in Chilean society means there is a different kind of potential in their engagement with the Palestinian struggle,” she said.
In late November, a lawsuit was filed in Santiago against three Israeli Supreme Court justices for authorising the construction of the separation wall in the West Bank. The lawsuit was rejected but is being appealed.
“The Palestinian cause is still the most important rallying point for Palestinians and their descendants in Santiago,” Schwabe says.
Khamis told Al Jazeera that the group is currently lobbying the Chilean government in advance of the Middle East Peace talks taking place in Paris later this month. They are pushing for Palestine to become a full member of the United Nations General Assembly (currently it only has observer status) in September.
Khamis thinks this is a realistic goal. Together with Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador, Chile was among the first countries to recognise Palestine as an independent, free and sovereign state in 2011.
The first step is to unify the Latin American diaspora, so the 14 delegations that met in Santiago, including Chile, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and Bolivia, are preparing for a convention scheduled to take place in Chile in November this year – the first of its kind.
“I think that what we still lack is defined leadership that brings together the community in every country,” says Omar Chehade, leader of the Palestinian Peruvian community and former vice-president of Peru, to Al Jazeera.
“We lack unification, and that is unfortunately what has brought forward the Jewish community all over the world in the last 50 years, their unified diaspora created something that was unthinkable, a fictitious state. Israel lobbied hard in a recently born post-second world war United Nations in 1947,” Chehade says.
“In my view, it is important to set up not only a unified diaspora, but also a diaspora of intellectuals, decision-making politicians, scientists, professionals and artists who will ensure that the avant-garde of their communities and populations globally push a way out for Palestine.”
The Diaspora Convention in November has ambitious goals, from setting up academic and cultural networks, to focusing on what unifies diaspora Palestinians in order to pave the way for a deeper political involvement.
This work will have even more significance looking at the challenges ahead.
“We have to work together more than ever before now that the US administration is going to change and harden on Palestine issues, as President-elect Donald Trump has anticipated,” remarks Chehade.
“The adversary is going to be harder and bigger, Trump has already said as much and this is not something we have to imagine, we have the experience of Republicans who are much harder for Palestinians than Democrats. Trump is going to fight not only with Palestinians but also with Latin Americans in the US and we have to redouble our efforts. We are going to have much more work with Trump,” Chehade says.
“Developing international leaders is going to help us to achieve things, but it won’t happen overnight.”