The Palestinians loved Hugo Chavez because he loved them. They loved him for providing them with political support and for outwardly opposing US and Israeli policy. The geographical distance between Palestine and Venezuela has limited the Palestinians’ knowledge of their great benefactor’s home country to only what they have seen on television, but their admiration for him is genuine nonetheless.
Despite the many political and personal rifts dividing them, Palestinians of all backgrounds were united in their sorrow over the Venezuelan leader’s death. They considered his passing a great loss for the Palestinian cause, which has never had a supporter that matched Chavez.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas expressed his sincere grief over Chavez’s passing in a statement issued by his office, stating, “With the passing of our friend Chavez, the Palestinian people and their national movement lost a mainstay of support in the struggle for justice, freedom and independence. . . The Palestinian people will be forever grateful to Chavez. His courageous support for our right to establish our own independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital will always remain etched in our people’s collective memory.”
Hamas sent its condolences to Venezuela, whose government it described as a friend to Gaza and its people, and also sent its condolences to the friends and family of the late president. The Islamist organization praised Chavez’s positions on the Palestinian issue, saying, “During his life he was a freedom fighter and supporter of the Palestinian cause, a defender of the Palestinian people and their freedom, standing up to Israeli aggression toward the Gaza Strip.”
Salah Bardawil, a leading figure in Hamas, offered, “The death of Chavez has left a void in the leadership that says no to America and Israel and champions principles we believe in: dignity and pride in the face of US-Israeli hegemony.”
For its part, the secularist Fatah movement said in a statement, “Chavez was known for his solid support for the Palestinian people and their just cause. He was also known for standing up to the Israeli occupation and for refusing to bow to American hegemony. . . . The Palestinian people have lost a freedom-fighter known for his drive to liberate any people faced with injustice and tyranny, at home and abroad.”
Abbas Zaki, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, sent his condolences to interim Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, saying, “We as Palestinians lost a man of principle, whose voice rang out in defense of the legitimate rights of the people of Palestine, and who called for the agonies caused by the Israeli occupation to end. His name stood for clear and definite positions, a name which many Palestinian children carry and which future generations will regard as a mark of a crowning national pride and of a revolutionary spirit that yearns to aid all the oppressed peoples on this planet in their struggle to overcome injustice.”
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which pursues the type of leftist policies that Chavez championed, expressed its sorrow over his death and the loss of a global leader who upheld “truth and good” in the face of “oppression and darkness.”
Kayed al-Ghul, an official from the Popular Front in the Gaza Strip, said, “Chavez’s death is a loss for the Palestinian people foremost, because he took a firm stance when faced by his enemies. He supported Palestine in both word and deed, evidenced by when he expelled the Israeli ambassador during the 2008–2009 Israeli offensive against Gaza.”
Nafez Azzam, a member of Islamic Jihad’s political bureau, expressed his organization’s extreme sadness over Chavez’s death and its gratitude for his courageous and supportive positions toward the Palestinians and their cause.
Chavez was known for leading a socialist, democratic government that called for the political and economic integration of Latin America. He frequently voiced anti-imperialist sentiments and sharply criticized proponents of liberal globalization and US-led foreign policy the world over.
In response to Israel’s Operation Cast Lead against the Gaza Strip in 2008, Chavez expelled the Israeli ambassador from Venezuela and withdrew the Venezuelan ambassador from Tel Aviv. He declared that he would reduce diplomatic ties with Israel to their lowest possible level, saying at the time, “There is no point in dealing with Israel.”
In private gatherings, Palestinians exchange stories extolling the late president and compare him with Arab leaders in terms of his intimate attachment to the people and his modesty. They also talk about his political stances and support regarding the Palestinian cause and express their admiration for him and their grief over the loss.
Dozens of activists organized a moment of silence in front of the Venezuelan consulate in Ramallah and downtown in Manara Square, holding images of Chavez and Venezuelan flags and taking part in marches and vigils.
Palestinian writer Mustafa Ibrahim said, “Chavez took bold, strong, and unprecedented positions relating to the Palestinian cause, most noticeably during the 2008–2009 war. His death has caused many Palestinians to grieve over the loss and bemoan the fact that no Arab leader compares to Chavez when it comes to supporting their cause.”
Human rights activist Salah Abdul Ati, who visited Venezuela and met with Chavez, said, “Chavez was a leader and a person who loved the Palestinian cause and some members of his staff were of Arab origin. He always stood by the side of the Palestinian people, championed their cause, and cut ties with Israel.”
According to Ghul, Chavez’s constant activism over the years and the values that he instilled into Venezuelan society will be the basis for continued support, saying it is not easy to erase the example set by a beloved leader. He added, however, “The world of politics is open, and we cannot claim with certainty that change will not happen.”
Venezuela was the first country in the world to allow Palestinians to enter without obtaining a visa beforehand. Venezuelan universities also grant Palestinian students scholarships that allow them to study free of charge to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians living under occupation.
One of Chavez’s famous sayings, which warmed Palestinian hearts and which no other leader and supporter of the Palestinian cause has dared to match, goes, “If this world had any conscience, the Israeli president would be dragged to an international court and with him the U.S. president. They say the Israeli president is a noble person who defends his people! What is this absurd world we are living in?”
Hazem Balousha is a Palestinian journalist based in Gaza City. He has worked as news producer for BBC World Service and has contributed to The Guardian (UK),Deutsche Welle (Germany), Al-Raya (Qatar) and many other news organizations.