Venezuelan flags and portraits of President Hugo Chavez have been flying high during protests in the West Bank against Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip.
The Venezuelan president’s decision on Jan. 6 to expel Israel’s ambassador from Caracas — the only country apart from Mauritania to take such a step — has made the left-wing South American leader a hero to Palestinians.
Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza, has welcomed Chavez’s “courageous decision,” while Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah urged Arab states to follow the Venezuelan president’s example.
Chavez on Saturday accused Israel of being the “murder arm” of the US and said the solution to the Gaza crisis was in the hands of US president-elect Barack Obama when he becomes US president later this month.
Mohammed al-Lahham, a member of parliament for the Fatah party of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, said Chavez was “a symbol of the struggle for liberty, like Che Guevara. This distinguishes him from the world’s other presidents.”
His opposition to Washington, Israel’s loyal ally, over the invasion of Iraq and to the Israeli offensive against Lebanon in 2006 have made Chavez a symbol for all peoples who “are resisting and fighting against occupation,” he said.
Venezuelan flags and portraits of Chavez could be seen lofted by demonstrators in the West Bank towns of Bethlehem, Ramallah and Hebron during rallies last week.
Al-Jazeera television ran an interview with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro in which he slammed “the criminals who govern Israel” and who have “carried out a holocaust against Palestinians for 60 years.”
“I would like to be able to give Chavez a Palestinian passport so he could become a Palestinian citizen. Then we would elect him and he would become our president,” said Mahmud Zwahreh, mayor of Al-Masar, a community near Bethlehem where 8,000 people live in poverty.
“This is the right reaction” to US domination, said the mayor, who is printing out as many portraits as he can of the Venezuelan president to hand out to protesters.
“Everyone here knows about him. More and more people are coming to ask me for photos to carry during the demonstrations,” Zwahreh said.
Mohammed Brijeh, who heads an action group in the Bethlehem area against the security wall between Israel and the West Bank, said: “Chavez’s response is worth more than the UN’s.”
The UN “only does what Israel wants,” he said.
“If only we had leaders as strong as Hugo Chavez,” Brijeh said, while Zwahreh said: “We have no leader with a clear strategy and mission.”
Abbas and his moderate Fatah movement have been weakened by rivalry with Hamas and by the ever-present memory of his predecessor Yasser Arafat, whose portraits still adorn many public buildings and homes.
Iyad, who runs a shop near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, has no doubt: “Chavez is the best president. He always supports the Palestinians.”
“He is better than Arab leaders. Jordan and Egypt should have also expelled their ambassadors [from Israel]. It is a real shame that we have no leaders like him,” said Assem, another shopkeeper.