Israel's Gaza invasion provokes protests throughout Latin America

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 7, 2009 

CARACAS, Venezuela — Opposition to Israel's invasion of the Gaza Strip is heating up throughout Latin America.

Venezuela has expelled Israel's ambassador. Guatemala and Colombia have called on Israel to stop fighting and begin immediate peace talks. Demonstrators in Argentina, El Salvador and Bolivia have condemned the invasion. Brazil is sending aid to victims.

"There is a tradition in Latin America of rejecting violence to solve any international conflict," said Adrian Bonilla, the director of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Ecuador. "There is also a tradition of supporting the weakest country in a conflict since most Latin American countries have been part of the Third World network. Another factor is that Israel is a close ally of the United States."

Not surprisingly, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has taken the harshest stance. On Tuesday, he kicked out Israel's ambassador and diplomatic staff. The Palestinian militant Islamist group Hamas applauded the move on Wednesday as a "courageous step."

Chavez on Wednesday showed the photograph of a Palestinian child killed by Israeli bombs and said Israeli leaders should be tried for killing innocent men, women and children.

"Behind Israel is the American empire," Chavez said.

Chavez questioned why President-elect Barack Obama "until now hasn't said anything" about Israel's aggression.

Abraham Levy, the president of the Confederation of Israeli Associations in Venezuela, said Wednesday that he found Chavez's comments "worrisome." He noted that Israel and Venezuela had warm relations until Chavez began seeking close ties with Iran and denounced Israel's 2006 invasion of Lebanon.

Some 15,000 Jews live in Venezuela.

The biggest protest in Latin America has taken place in Argentina, where some 20,000 people marched Tuesday from the Obelisk in downtown Buenos Aires to the Israeli Embassy. Arab and student groups organized the march, along with the Argentine Communist Party and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights organization.

The protesters carried Palestinian, Iraqi and Lebanese flags and signs saying "Israel: Leave Gaza now" and "We are all Palestinians." The march was peaceful, but some of the protesters threw paint and shoes against the embassy.

"The fifth largest army of the world is fighting against a helpless society," Alejandro Salomon, the president of the Confederation of Argentina Arab Entities, said in an interview Wednesday. "We are protesting against the small effort made by the international community to stop this manslaughter."

Jews are planning a pro-Israel countermarch in Buenos Aires on Thursday, ending at a building destroyed by Arab terrorists in a 1994 car bombing that killed nearly 100 people. With an estimated 240,000 Jews, Buenos Aires is said to be the second biggest home of Jews in the Americas after New York City.

A spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Argentina, Iftaf Curiel, told the Jewish News Agency that Argentinians should support the "moderate elements of the (Middle Eastern) region — Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan — that are confronting the extreme elements of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas."

Israeli officials have said they launched the Gaza invasion on Dec. 27 as a defensive measure to halt rocket fire from Hamas militants.

Televised images of the carnage have been shown throughout Latin America, especially on Telesur, the region-wide television network financed by the Venezuelan government. The attacks have killed some 600 Palestinians, including children.

The invasion seems to be winning Israel few friends in Latin America.

Colombia's foreign minister, Jaime Bermudez, called on Israel to end "all types of military aggression" and to undertake dialogue with Palestinians.

Guatemala demanded an immediate end to the invasion in Gaza and said Israel needs to begin respecting international law and allowing greater humanitarian aid to victims.

Lawmakers in Ecuador condemned Israel's action and called for an international investigation of "crimes against humanity."

About 100 people in San Salvador, mostly dressed in white, held a peaceful protest in front of the Israeli Embassy on Wednesday. Dozens more protested in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

In Bolivia, which became a way station for Jews escaping the Nazis during World War II, about 100 Palestinians and Arabs marched on Tuesday to protest the violence.

Meanwhile, the Brazilian government announced on Wednesday that it would send 14 tons of food and medicine for victims in Gaza.

Despite the harsh verbal attacks by some governments and protesters, Jews say they face little anti-Semitism in Latin America on a daily basis.

"My experience has been generally very positive," said David Handel, an American Jew based in La Paz, Bolivia, who has conducted orchestras throughout Latin America.

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