On May 16, 2018, Guatemala followed the U.S.’s contentious example by moving its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, thereby recognizing the city as Israel’s capital to almost unanimous criticism from the international community. Guatemala’s long-standing alliance with Israel was widely mentioned at the time, but little attention was given to the reaction of its own large Palestinian population.
In a bid to overturn the embassy move Guatemalans of Palestinian origin have brought a case to Guatemala’s constitutional court. (A similar and unrelated lawsuit was filed in the same court in January by a lawyer seeking to overturn the embassy move and was rejected by the judges in March.)
Nidal Hanna Alhadweh, head of the group who filed the petition, the Asociación Palestina Guatemalteca, explained that online campaigning and debates are, “changing the Guatemalan mentality, which is largely unaware of the Palestinian cause and supports the state of Israel for religious reasons. …That is why we continue to work with great effort and dedication.”
Unlike most of the international community, Guatemala sided with the the US by voting against a resolution denouncing the change of embassy move at the UN in December.
“As Guatemalans,” Alhadweh wrote days later to his UN representative, “we lament that Guatemala cannot decide on its own international politics and that we have to cede before the pressure of certain countries to which we owe ‘debts.'” Such debts might include, for example, the U.S.’s annual aid of almost $300 million to Guatemala.
Salwa Massis, a prominent Guatemalan of Palestinian descent, told Mondoweiss in a phone interview from Guatemala, the embassy move exacerbated a sense of being overlooked.
“It’s something that disturbed us because it’s as if we’ve just been hiding and, you know, we don’t exist,” she said, adding, “I don’t like the fact that we have been ignored.”
Massis previously was a country representative for the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, a charity which works to reconnect the diaspora with Palestine. Through this organization she visited the occupied Palestinian territory for the first time in 2013 on a heritage program.
“It doesn’t matter if my name is Palestinian…I don’t get to be there for more than three months…Our fathers, mothers, grandparents left the country thinking that one day they would have the chance to return,” she lamented.
Her father immigrated to Guatemala at the age of 9 and her mother at 24.
The Palestinians in Guatemala are approximately 200,000 strong, making them the third largest Palestinian population in Latin America behind Chile and Honduras (with communities of 500,000 and 250,000 respectively).
Although it is difficult to ascertain exactly when the first Palestinian reached Guatemala, the Guatemalan Arab Association (Asociación Arabe Guatemalteca) believes that the first wave of Palestinian emigrants arrived towards the end of the 19th century. However, it was not until 1927 that the first significant migration took place. Numbers increased further in the aftermath of the 1967 war, as Palestinians were forced to leave their homeland and seek refuge elsewhere.
Their presence in the country predates Guatemala’s pro-Israeli policy, which began in October 1947 when the Guatemalan Ambassador to the UN, Jorge Garcia Granados, delivered a fiercely anti-Palestinian address. In this speech, he was emphatically clear about his country’s support for Israel:
“In 25 years, the Jewish people had left upon Palestine the indelible mark of an outstanding culture, which characterised the country even more than the Arab culture: Palestine was no more Arab than certain Spanish countries of Latin America were Indian.”
Over the years, the Palestinian diaspora in Guatemala has seen the damaging effects of the close relationship its state has with Israel. The opening of the new embassy in Jerusalem by President Morales, they say is the latest injustice caused by this alliance but is by no means the first.
When Guatemala stopped receiving arms from the U.S. in the late 1970s, its relationship with Israel strengthened. Israel stepped into the void as Guatemala’s biggest arms supplier and military advisor, with their weapons and training methods aiding the massacres that were perpetrated at this stage of the Guatemalan civil war (which lasted from 1960 to 1996). By the 1980s, roughly 300 Israeli military advisers were working in the country to bolster their ally’s army.
In 1981, Guatemalan Army Chief-of-Staff General Benedicto Lucas Garcia, the man responsible for the “scorched earth” policies which razed 440 villages to the ground, famously remarked that the “Israeli soldier is the model for our soldiers.”
During these years, the Mayans, Guatemala’s indigenous community, suffered enormously: tens of thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced. Similarities between the treatment of the Mayans in the second half of the 20th century and the Palestinians in 1948 is no coincidence; some of Guatemala’s top generals spoke openly, whilst receiving help from Israel, about the “Palestiniani-zation” of the nation’s Mayan population during the war.
Yet despite the decades of shared military support between Israel and Guatemala, Massis said most people still know very little about Palestinians.
“‘Interesting that it’s [Guatemala] full of places that sell shwarma and falafel, and they [Guatemalans] love hummus…but they don’t know where they come from,” she said.