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4 FEBRUARY 2017
Speakers Call for Harnessing of Palestinian Diaspora Influence in Central America at United Nations Round Table in Nicaragua
MANAGUA, 4 February — The United Nations Round Table on the Question of Palestine concluded in Managua today with diaspora members from around Central America supporting a declaration that called on them to step up cooperation in efforts to end the occupation and wield their collective power to influence Governments in defence of Palestinian rights.
“Time is of the essence,” emphasized Dian Triansyah Djani (Indonesia), Vice-Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, in closing remarks. Describing 50 years of occupation as “50 years too many”, he said there was much work to do, noting that the Committee, alongside the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), would organize a conference on Jerusalem.
In a lively panel discussion on “Building Bridges with the Palestinian Diaspora in Central America to strengthen advocacy to end the occupation and rebuild Palestine”, participants offered suggestions on strengthening ties among Palestinian communities in Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Cuba and Nicaragua, as well as Chile.
Several supported the creation of a Palestinian Chamber of Commerce that would enhance the diaspora’s ability to invest in Palestine, in part by` allowing them to get around Israel’s demand for a visa that was “nearly impossible” to obtain. Other diaspora members outlined efforts to ship goods into the Gaza Strip, lobby regional Governments against trade agreements with Israel, build intergenerational bonds within their communities, and learn from their Jewish counterparts in the region about becoming a formidable political force.
It was important to explore “who are Palestinians”, said panellist Muhammad M. Amro, Ambassador of the State of Palestine to Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras, who pointed out that the global diaspora comprised an estimated 7 million people. While there were differences among them, “unity is our strength”, he said, encouraging efforts to build bridges, pursue justice and raise the profile of efforts for the creation of a Palestinian State. Anniversary conferences provided opportunities to condemn Israeli actions, he added.
Looking to the past, Sergio Iván Moya Mena, Professor at the National University of Costa Rica’s School of International Affairs, provided an overview of the Palestinian diaspora in Latin America throughout the twentieth century, saying it had successfully lobbied countries to support the Palestinian cause. Their unique case of economic success had led to a rediscovery of their identity.
Panellist Salwa Massis, former country representative of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation in Guatemala, said she represented a new generation of the Palestinian diaspora which must sort out its own feelings about the meaning of being Palestinian. She added that her generation reflected a mixed culture of two worlds — one Guatemalan and the other Palestinian. “We can learn to have our own links” to Palestine, she emphasized.
The afternoon panel discussion, titled “Building Bridges with the Palestinian Diaspora in Central America to strengthen advocacy to end the occupation and rebuild Palestine”, featured presentations by Muhammad M. Amro, Ambassador of the State of Palestine to Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras; Ismat Khatib of the Palestinian community in Nicaragua; Ghassan Salam of the Palestinian community in Panama; Sergio Iván Moya Mena, Professor, School of International Affairs, National University of Costa Rica and Coordinator of Centro de Estodios de Medio Oriente y Africa del Norte; and Salwa Massis, former country representative of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation in Guatemala.
Mr. AMRO recalled that the late Yasser Arafat had often spoken about a nexus of revolutionary movements around the world, underscoring particular links with those in El Salvador and Nicaragua, which he had visited in 1980. His Adviser on Latin America had helped to establish a study programme in Chile, thereby marking the beginning of the connection with the Palestinian diaspora. Since Palestinian territory had been reduced over the years, the struggle to restore it continued, he said, noting that Palestine enjoyed the support of 53 United Nations resolutions, recognition by more than 138 Member States and diplomatic relations over 90. Emphasizing the support that the diaspora could lend to those in Palestine, and to one another, he said it was important to explore “who are Palestinians”. There were 7 million people in the global diaspora, and while there were differences among them, and with the Palestinian Authority itself, “unity is our strength”, he said, stressing that only when united could the diaspora awaken the region’s consciousness. He encouraged efforts to build bridges and pursue justice, calling on round-table participants to raise the profile of initiatives focused on creating a Palestinian State; develop cultural, economic and other ties with Palestine; and convene anniversary conferences, which were also opportunities to condemn Israeli actions.
Mr. KHATIB proposed the creation of a Latin American association to address the question of Palestine, along similar lines to a chamber of commerce, that would help people invest in Palestine. “Investing in Palestine is profitable as a business,” he said. It would help everyone move forward in the cause of peace. After 50 years of occupation, Palestinians sought alternatives. Business people often grew tired of donating and “we need to have a business that helps to develop Palestine”. The Zionist lobby had done its job and Palestinians must do likewise, he said, underlining that, from Mexico to Argentina, there was not one Palestinian who did not wish to invest in their country, nor a single Arab unwilling to contribute to that effort.
Mr. AMRO added that Latin American ambassadors to Palestine had met in Cuba to discuss the idea of a Palestinian Chamber of Commerce as a way to get around the difficulties that diaspora members encountered in entering Palestine.
Mr. MOYA said the first Palestinians to arrive in Latin America had been economic immigrants who had grown into prosperous communities. Countries that had previously supported Israel had begun to reverse their positions thanks to intense lobbying by the first diaspora Palestinians, he said, adding that their numbers had grown in the twentieth century. Palestinians from Bethlehem and its surroundings had established themselves in El Salvador; between 150,000 and 200,000 inhabitants of Honduras had links to Palestine, the highest proportion of any county in Latin America; whereas the small size of Costa Rica’s community was due to a 1904 decree that had limited the entry of “Arabs, Syrians, Turks and gypsies”. He noted that, in Nicaragua, Palestinians from Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, Ramallah and Jerusalem were Christians. In Costa Rica, the Zionist perspective had been accepted without much scrutiny, he continued, saying “the idea that God was a real estate agent and the Bible a property deed would prevail for decades”.
He went on to point out that Israel had supplied arms to El Salvador and Nicaragua, while Honduras had transferred its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, violating United Nations resolutions and generating anger among Arab countries, which had broken diplomatic relations. The Palestinian struggle’s fusion with those of Latin American left-wing guerrillas had created links between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), and at the same time, Palestinian families in that country and Honduras had become an influential community, entering the finance, energy and media fields, including El Salvador’s La Prensa. Panama “was not in the picture” today, an issue that must be tackled, as must the growing influence of a new defender of Israel — Zionist protestants who had turned the issue into a political cause. In sum, Palestinian experience was a unique case of economic success that had led to the rediscovery of their identity, he said, encouraging diaspora members to take the diplomatic space away from Israel as a way to foster its global isolation.
Ms. MASSIS said she had been born to Palestinian parents in Guatemala, her father having left Palestine at age nine and her mother at age 24. Guatemala had one of the largest Palestinian communities, she said, adding that they were mainly from Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Ramallah. Describing the “Know Thy Heritage” programme that had allowed Palestinians to understand their homeland, she said “we can learn to have our own links” to Palestine. The first generation reflected a mixed culture of two worlds — one Guatemalan and the other Palestinian. She said she had travelled to Jordan in order to understand the Palestinian experience and recalled her efforts to cross the border into Palestine, which had taken eight hours. The trip had made it clear that Palestinian culture was broader than something simply lived out at home; it bound Palestinians around the world. She said that she had endless opportunities to work and study in Guatemala, unlike her counterparts in the homeland. Underlining the power of seeing the separation wall with her own eyes, she said that she represented a new generation of the Palestinian diaspora which must sort out its own feelings about what it meant to be Palestinian. She said her trip had made her aware that she was not simply someone living in Guatemala with parents who had an accent and a great cuisine, but rather, a Palestinian who wished to join the struggle for the homeland.
When the floor was opened for questions and comments, a Costa Rican civil society member described the efforts of religious and non-religious communities who believed that peace could only be achieved through mutual respect. “Costa Rica has a Zionist stripe a mile wide” and nothing to say about Israel’s treatment of Palestine, he said, asking Mr. Moya about the possibility of the round table opening the door to a clash within the Central American Integration System, which was already split between Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama on the one hand, and the rest of the membership.
Mr. MOYA replied that Costa Rica had been an expressly Zionist State until 2006, adding that he saw the possibility of Palestine losing its recognition there. Panama had not taken any steps in that regard, but while there had been mention of establishing relations with Palestine, no decision had been made.
Mr. AMRO noted that the League of Arab States had taken a number of initiatives to establish chambers of commerce in Europe, adding that the creation of a fund or chamber, as in Chile, could help to elevate Palestinian issues to the State level.
Ms. MASSIS added that Palestinians must also generate their own progress in order to achieve the desired results.
In a second round of comments and questions, one speaker reiterated that he would not stop fighting for a Palestinian State, the right of return and the release of Palestinian political prisoners.
Another participant described how the Palestinian community in Chile could work with others in Latin America, pointing out that there were an estimated 500,000 Palestinians in Chile. There were several political, financial and social institutions in Santiago, as well as foundations, women’s groups and four youth organizations, one of them founded by the late President Arafat. Chile also had 19 Arab members of Congress.
A participant from Cuba said the Palestinians diaspora in the island nation maintained deep and broad links with those in Chile. Regarding Panama, he said the Arab-American Federation would hold its next meeting in Panama City this July as a signal to the President that it did not agree with what he was doing.
VERA BABOUN, Mayor of Bethlehem said in that context that in the coming week, the Knesset would vote on the “adjustment law”, which would legalize 4,000 settlement units and confiscate 800 hectares of land. If passed, the Israeli civil law would be applied in the West Bank for the first time.
The Permanent Representative of Ecuador to the United Nations said he had never seen political activity as intense as Israel’s, which believed it would win the support of the new Administration in the United States. Noting that Ecuador’s Permanent Mission had been the subject of unprecedented attacks by Israeli representatives at the United Nations, he said the General Assembly had nevertheless adopted more than 20 resolutions during its last session, signalling Israel’s isolation. More than 180 States had condemned its practices, with the exception of the United States, Canada, Marshall Islands, Vanuatu and perhaps others, he said, emphasizing that while the Palestinian cause was entering the universal consciousness, many challenges required the diaspora to step up its efforts.
MARÍA RUBIALES DE CHAMORRO (Nicaragua) read out a draft declaration outlining the agreement of Palestinian communities in Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Chile, Cuba and Nicaragua to enhance cooperation among diaspora members and harmonize efforts to end the occupation. They decided to ensure the highest level of participation in the diaspora meeting to take place later in 2017. Further, they agreed to participate in civil society meetings during the New York event in June marking the anniversary of the Israeli occupation, pledging to strengthen efforts to work as a regional bloc to influence Governments, civil society and others in defence of Palestinian rights.
RIYAD MANSOUR, Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine, suggested adding to the declaration a reference to the two mayors present today. The round table would give strength to all Palestinians, he said, emphasizing his certainty that diaspora members would do their utmost in 2017 to lobby for Governments to implement resolution 2334 (2016).
Mr. DJANI (Indonesia), Committee Vice-Chairman, pledged to work continuously to restore freedom to Palestine. “Time is of the essence,” he said, emphasizing that 50 years of occupation was 50 years too many. There was much to do, he added, announcing that later in 2017, the Committee and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation would convene a conference on Jerusalem.