Chile's Palestinian community urges Boric to prioritise their struggle

Analysis - Chile Boric & Palestine
6 min read
14 June, 2022
In-depth: Despite President Gabriel Boric's history of support for the Palestinian cause, his administration has focused on other domestic political concerns.

In March, Chile’s Palestinian community eagerly watched on as Gabriel Boric took office as the country’s new president.

There was reason to be hopeful for members of the largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Arab world. Boric, a young, leftist lawyer, has long been a vocal defender of the Palestinian cause and a strong critic of Israel.

“As a member of the Palestinian community, I felt glad when Boric won the election, as I felt that - in some way - Chile could do its bit in the fight for Palestine. It was something positive for Palestine as we know we can count on his support,” José Nabzo, a Chilean with Palestinian roots, tells The New Arab.

Chile is home to between 300,000 and half a million people of Palestinian origin. Such is the weight of the local community that there is a saying claiming that ‘in every Chilean town there is a priest, a policeman, and a Palestinian’.

"With Boric's election, the local Palestinian community hoped to see their new president defend their cause on the national and global political stage"

The community is among the most organised and politically engaged in the diaspora and maintains close ties with its ancestral home.

“Palestinians in Chile are really interested in supporting the Palestinian cause, they have a political commitment to the Palestinian struggle since the moment they arrived in Chile and this commitment has been maintained until today,” Nadia Silhi-Chahin, a Chilean-Palestinian academic focusing on Chile’s Palestinian community, tells The New Arab

A new hope

With Boric’s election, the local Palestinian community hoped to see their new president defend their cause on the national and global political stage.

Shortly after taking office, Boric urged the international community to show the same level of solidarity towards Palestine as had been expressed towards Ukraine.

"Palestine has been occupied for a long time, and we do not know much about what is happening there," the Chilean president said on the talk show Las Caras de la Moneda.

"We sympathise with the Ukrainian people because of the war. However, there are a lot of other regions that witness other scourges – Palestine, for example. Nonetheless, we see little solidarity."

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While on the presidential campaign, Boric met with representatives of Chile’s Palestinian community to reaffirm his commitment and support for the Palestinian cause.

The meeting resulted in Boric signing a letter in which he asserted that Chile’s “future government must assume a more explicit position condemning human rights abuses, international rights abuses, and humanitarian rights in Palestine”.

Earlier, in June 2021, he supported a bill in the Chilean Congress which sought to boycott goods, products, and services from settlements in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights as well as West and East Jerusalem.

The young president has also branded Israel a “murderous state” in the past, a position he stood by in a recent interview with local press. 

"All countries that are violating international treaties [...] have to comply with international regulations, no matter how much power that country has," Boric stated.

In 2019, the Jewish Community in Chile sent Boric a jar of honey to celebrate the Rosh Hashanah holiday, to which he responded by tweeting: "I appreciate the gesture but they could start by asking Israel to return the illegally occupied Palestinian territory".

Palestinian Chileans urge Boric to prioritise their struggle
A Palestinian flag is seen next to a woman wearing a Keffiyeh during a protest in Santiago in May 2021. [Getty]

Failed expectations

Nonetheless, after just three months in power, much of the hope the Palestinian community had instilled in Boric has dwindled.

“I hope to be mistaken, but I don't think this is a huge change for Palestine now that we have Boric,” Silhi-Chahin says.

Much of this is down to the fact that Boric’s government has channelled its energy into domestic issues - predominantly the drafting of a new constitution - as well as being hit with an early slump in approval ratings.

“Boric has abandoned the Middle East, he doesn’t seem to be interested or seem to care in terms of political diplomacy. He has domestic issues that keep him very busy, he has plenty of fires to put out and has too much on his agenda to make room for another problem,” says the Chilean academic Jorge Araneda, an expert in Latin America and Middle Eastern relations.

This is an observation echoed by Nabzo and Silhi-Chahin. The latter also points out that despite Boric’s public support of the Palestinian cause, she believes it to be predominantly rooted in a human rights stance as opposed to a puritan belief in the Palestinian struggle and a personal need to defend it.

“I would not think of Boric as a person that was super pro-Palestinian and because he became president now he needs to moderate himself. I wouldn't depict him as that,” she adds.

"Chile is home to between 300,000 and half a million people of Palestinian origin"

Israeli relations

Araneda acknowledges that Boric’s presence in power will provide greater “visibility” to the Palestinian cause, though adds that Chile’s limited strength on the global stage will limit the impact it can have on relations with Israel and Palestine.

“How much can a medium-size country [like Chile] do in international diplomacy? Very little, if anything. In the next few years under Boric’s government we’ll see a cooling of relations with Israel, but not a freeze,” he adds.

Boric’s election also raised contrasting concerns among Chile’s Jewish community of roughly 18,000.

“Given the openly anti-Semitic and racist comments President Boric has made in the past, my expectations are low. The president runs the risk of further polarising Chilean society by importing a conflict that is completely foreign,” Oscar Kleinkopf, President of the Israeli Chilean Council, tells The New Arab.

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A political and diplomatic defence of the Palestinian cause would also bring with it collateral implications for Chile’s relations with prominent powers such as the United States, according to  Yousef Aljamal, an academic and co-author of 'Palestinian Diaspora Communities in Latin America and Palestinian Statehood'.

“Latin American governments tend not to be critical of Israel because of their relationship with the US. There are also strong Israeli trade ties and political ties to Latin America, so it's not easy. Governments try to balance the presence of Palestinians and their influence with their relationship with Israel,” he tells The New Arab.

Nonetheless, considering the factors at play, Aljamal believes the Palestinian community in Chile will continue to urge its latest leader to defend their cause.

“We will see more pressure by the Palestinian community who will use its influence and political, economic, and cultural weight to translate their demands into concrete solidarity by the government with the Palestinian people,” Aljamal says.

Inigo Alexander is a freelance journalist whose work focuses on Spain, Latin America, and social justice. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Local, and NACLA, among others

Follow him on Twitter: @Inigo_Alexander