Chile: A home for Palestinians


This country in the south-east extremes of America is home to around 400,000 Palestinians. I Love Chile reports on the history of Palestinian emigration to Chile, the role this community plays in contemporary society, and the government stance on what is happening in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Club Deportivo Palestino‘s shirt was banned early this year. The club was founded in Chile back in 1920. At the beginning of 2014, they replaced all number 1’s on their shirts with a map of Palestine as it existed before the creation of Israel, and whilst the Chilean Football Federation did fine the team CL$800,000 for using the shirt, the publicity stunt highlighted the large support base Palestine has in Chile.

The Palestinian population use their liberty as citizens of Chile to call for the same freedoms to be extended to those still living in Gaza and the West Bank.

While it is a great accomplishment that there is a prosperous football team here in Chile, their hope is that one day something as normal as a Palestinian team can be successful on its own territory, without the constraints that are placed upon training and playing by the occupation.

History of Palestinian Emigration to Chile

The first wave of Palestinian immigrants came to Chile in the early 1900s, fleeing from the Ottoman Turks (many to escape enrollment into the Ottoman military). Most are Christian, having migrated from the four key, predominantly Christian towns of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and Beit Safafa.

They were the children of artisans and peasants, and had a high level of culture and enough wealth to let them survive the displacement. The majority of migrants had a decent education and some knowledge of languages, and they began by selling imported goods in factories.

By 1920 you could find an Arab or Palestinian club in every town or city in Chile. Until the 1950’s, most Palestinian migrants lived in the Recoleta neighborhood of Chile, but today they live in many different places in Santiago and cities across Chile.

The Palestinians rapidly found their place in Chilean society, holding government positions since the 1940’s and making up 10 percent of government positions in 2012.

As recent as five years ago Palestinians have continued to migrate to Chile, with a wave arriving from Syria and living now in Llay Llay near La Calera, in Región de Valparaíso.

As to the question–“why did Palestinians come to Chile over any other nation?”–there is no resolute answer. Head of the Arab Studies Center at Universidad de Chile reasons: “people arriving to Chile seems to have been basically by chance. You have waves of immigration of people who come because another family member has come. That’s quite common in patriarchal societies with very close families.”

Palestinians in Contemporary Chilean Society

Today Chile is home to around 400,000 people of Palestinian origin, the highest figure for any country outside of the Middle East. Many Palestinians in Chile today are the fourth generation here, and the vast majority of them are professionals or important business people. There are Palestinian academics, MP’s, business people and ministers of state.

I Love Chile went into the streets of Santiago to see what the public think of the Palestinian influence in Chile.

While many who identify as Palestinian-Chileans have never set foot on the Palestinian territories, there are some who still remember a life before Chile to which they can never return.

Engineer Christaki Masad expressed his experiences in HispanTV‘s documentary Pequeña Palestina, which focuses on Palestinians living in Chile. “In my house, for which I hold the legal documents of ownership today, there lives Jewish people from across the world. From Russia, Poland, Africa, India… I don’t know. However, I cannot return to my house. Just having the Jewish religion gives you license to be a citizen, and obviously live in my house.”

One of the greatest successes of the Palestinian population in Chile is that it largely avoids accusations of anti-semitism, often working together with the Jewish community here in Chile (currently standing at about 25,000) to call for an end to Israel’s occupation.

Chile holds fresh in its own memory the experience of living in an oppressive society. Up until 1990, Augusto Pinochet headed a brutal dictatorship in Chile, and the scars left by his regime are still imprinted upon the nation. Many Chileans still remember the trauma caused when a loved one was disappeared in the middle of the night, when family members were arrested for political activity without explanation.

At the end of the dictatorship Chileans had to decide whether they would condemn all members of society who had partaken in Pinochet’s oppressive regime –a large proportion–or move forwards for the sake of restoring democracy and a stable society. Chile chose the second option, and in this respect could serve as a model for a future one-state solution.

The Palestinians have similarly found companions in the indigenous Mapuche population of Chile, who have for years defended their right to ancestral lands which have gradually been overtaken by state and private businesses.

At a Mapuche march in Santiago this October, a spokesperson made a special welcome to their “Palestinian brothers/sisters” in the crowd who went on to make a speech.

“We know, as Palestinians, what it is to live under colonization, we know as Palestinians what it is like when they take your land, what it is to violate your human rights, and what it means to resist. We say no to occupation, no to colonization. We are proud of the Mapuche’s determination and we will help them as Palestinians. Viva Palestina libre, Vive Mapu libre, Marrichiweu.”

The Government’s Position

Chile officially recognised Palestine as a “full, free and sovereign” state at the start of 2011, following in the wake of other South American countries Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador the month before.

As recent as July of this year, when Operation Brother’s Keeper was bombarding Gaza, Chile was amongst the countries who voiced opposition to the Israeli assault. In the early stages of Operation Brother’s Keeper Bachelet condemned the Israeli aggression and pledged US$150,000 in aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Chile also suspended free trade negotiations with Israel in response to the offensive in Gaza.

In August, over 10,000 people took to the streets of Santiago to demand an end to the Gaza massacre, and called on Bachelet to expel the Israeli ambassador in Chile. While Bachelet did not expel the ambassador, she did recall Chile’s ambassador in Tel Aviv.

I Love Chile spoke to the Advisor of the Undersecretary of Defense, Luis Palma Castillo, about a need for a solution to the conflict:

“The Palestinian problem has lasted for decades and I believe it will continue on for many years in this situation. Israel does not have the political will to negotiate a real solution which would satisfy the Palestinians. What is needed is the creation of a Palestinian state and a shared capital of Jerusalem, and an end to the construction of settlements in the occupied territories. The international community is complicit in what happens in the West Bank and what happened in Gaza, we have seen –impassively– how Israel demolished parts of the city and killed more than 2,100 Palestinians in the fifty days of the last war.”

Palestinians living in Chile have therefore found a home in Chile. Perhaps one day, Palestinians will be able to achieve similar prosperity in their place of birth without the need to migrate to another continent.


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