Often evoked by Lula da Silva — Brazil’s incumbent president, who also served two terms between 2003 and 2010 — Palestinians and allies have long been aware of the cause’s transnational appeal.
Fans enthusiastically flying Palestinian flags at the FIFA World Cup 2022 was just one example of the national consciousness and unity that the struggle awakens. Palestinian efforts in synchrony with the Brazilian left and their integration as a community today are critical for understanding how and why the struggle for Palestine has gained a foothold in Latin America’s largest and richest country.
The genesis of the Palestinian diaspora in Brazil
Brazil’s Palestinians trace their origins over a century ago, to when Brazil’s last monarch — Emperor Don Pedro II — began to integrate Brazil as a melting pot and encouraged Arab immigration to the country at the end of the 19th century.
Most early Palestinian immigrants settled in the Northeast of Brazil, in Salvador and Pernambuco. At a time when Brazil was very sparsely populated, the emperor sought to create a new identity for Brazil by welcoming a number of immigrant communities. He even met with Christian clergy in Bethlehem and encouraged them to send envoys to Brazil to fundraise for their churches in Palestine.
Palestinian immigration to Brazil continued at the turn of the 20th century as the economic conditions under the Ottoman Empire deteriorated. Sweeping British control over Palestine and Zionist ambitions materially hurt Palestinians, causing many — mostly from central Palestine — to seek economic opportunities in Brazil.
The Nakba of 1948 and the Naksa of 1967 created hundreds of thousands of Palestinian exiles. Waves of refugees from Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem looked to Brazil for resettlement, given the success of many Arabs who had immigrated to Latin America to engage in trade and commerce.
Political mobilization and transnational reach
The Palestinian presence in Brazil has greatly contributed to the positive reception of the Palestinian cause in wider Latin America. Palestinian involvement in politics and civil society in the region directly contributed to the left’s adoption of the cause, especially in Brazil.
In detailing the reason behind Brasileiro-Palestinian political convergence, Rasem Bisharat explains that the “Palestinian people were considered a living example of imperialist aggression against humanity… the Palestinian cause was a spearheading the face of that aggression.”
Echoing this notion today, vice president of the Brazil-Palestine Institute (Ibraspal) – Sayid Marcos Tenório – says that Brazil “has become a strong ally to Palestine in its struggle for liberation, (...) at [the] United Nations and the international forums.”
Suhail Sayegh (far left) with Yasser Arafat (Fawzi El-Mashni personal archive via this source)
According to Bisharat, Suhail Sayegh — the first head of Federação Palestina do Brasil (FEPAL) — and other Arabs’ election to the municipal council in São Paulo in 1982 was a watershed moment for the Palestinian political presence in Brazil. Palestinian and Arab groups in Brazil fostered long-lasting ties with the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Worker’s Party—PT), the current ruling party. Sayegh and Arab leaders met with Lula during his candidacy for São Paulo state government.
FEPAL fostered relations between the Lula-led PT and various Brazilian-Palestinian civil society groups in the following decades. These alliances “defended each other’s causes” — for instance, Brazilian social movements on the left mobilized in droves to condemn Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the subsequent ethnic cleansing in Sabra and Shatila. These groups witnessed and understood the imperialist nature of conflicts afflicting the Middle East; they knew that the Palestinian struggle was one for justice.
The Palestinian community’s relationship with the Brazilian left consolidated in the 1980s, a period also known as Latin America’s “lost decade” when the region faced economic decline. With the proliferation of socialist and Marxist ideas across the continent in previous years, Palestinian revolutionary groups – such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – intensified their grassroots base as worker-led movements flourished in Brazil.
It was in 1981 that — according to Ali Khatib, second in command of the PLO office in Brasília at the time — the political relationship between Palestinian and Brazilian civil society was officially established. Particularly in his meeting with the PT in São Bernardo do Campo in São Paulo — then the PT’s stronghold. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June of the following year and the subsequent demise of Brazil’s military dictatorship (1965-85) transformed the relationship into a fruitful partnership.
The Palestinian community in Brazil effectively began to lead the diaspora on the continent with its founding of the Confederação Palestina Latino Americana e do Caribe (COPLAC) in 1984. In fact, Brazil’s largest labor union — and fifth-largest in the world, founded in 1983 by a group of union organizers (including Lula da Silva) — the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT) met with the PLO in 1986. CUT considered this meeting “evidence of the links between Brazilian workers and Palestinian workers in exile and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
As the most influential and largest country on the continent, both in terms of geography and population, Brazil has most notably led Latin America’s left since the PT founded the São Paulo Forum in the early 1990s. Brazil’s left effectively provided Palestinians — who were leading community centers, federations, and associations — with leverage.
In a first-ever visit by a Brazilian head of state to Palestine, Brazilian proponents of the Palestinian cause heavily backed President Lula da Silva’s visit to the West Bank in 2010. After Lula’s visit, Brazil became the first country on the continent to recognize a Palestinian state along pre-1967 borders, which includes East Jerusalem, on December 1, 2010. This decision had a diplomatic domino effect, with many South American countries following suit. In a five-year period between 2008 and 2013, every Latin American country — excluding Colombia, Panama, and Mexico — recognized Palestine as a sovereign state.
Palestinians in Brazil also succeeded in pushing boycotts against the Israeli regime. In one major boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) effort, grassroots Palestinian protests pressured the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul to cancel a major collaboration deal with Elbit Systems Aerospace and Defense. CUT trade unionists, women and student groups, and political parties all blocked the deal. Tarson Nuñéz – the international relations coordinator of Rio Grande do Sul — described the state government as one that “considers the demands of the social movements an important voice that needs to be heard.”
Brasileiro-Palestinian life today
Today, there are over 70,000 people of Palestinian origin across the 26 states of Brazil. They make up about 14% of Latin America’s almost half-million population of Palestinian descent. The Palestinians in Latin America make up the largest diaspora outside the Arab world.
Eman Abu Sidu — Middle East Monitor’s Gaza-born correspondent in Brazil — writes that Palestinians in Brazil are an example of a group that has “integrated successfully into the host culture.” She notes that despite it having many Arabic words, Arabs and newly-arrived Palestinian refugees struggle to learn Portuguese, but she writes that “the acceptance of difference, tolerance and respect for others over and above distinctions of race or creed are fundamental Brazilian values, which have enabled Palestinians to blend into the wider society.” She notes that it is “becoming harder to identify Brazilian citizens of Palestinian descent” in Brazil’s contemporary melting pot.
An example of sumood — or steadfastness — Brazil’s Palestinians are a vibrant community, consistently seeking to balance integrating into Brazilian life while maintaining a connection to their language, culture, and land back home in Palestine.