Rhetoric is not enough

Although Lula da Silva called Israel’s war against Palestinians a genocide, the Brazilian president is yet to follow that up with concrete action.

President Lula with President Isaac Herzog of Israel in Dubai, 2023. Image credit Ricardo Stuckert via Palácio do Planalto on Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0 Deed.

In February of this year, Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, took a public stance on Palestine, declaring: “What is happening in Israel is a genocide. Thousands of children are dead, thousands are missing. And it is not soldiers who are dying, but women and children inside the hospital. If this is not genocide, I do not know what genocide is.”

The president’s stance, following the partial ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), adds his voice to an international movement in solidarity with Palestine, with powerful leadership from South Africa. International talks are ongoing, but the conflict is far from over in any immediate sense, reflecting the West’s neocolonial interests in the Middle East.

In March, following the uproar caused by Lula’s statements, Israel blocked Brazil’s humanitarian aid in Rafah. Israeli military forces halted a shipment of 30 boxes of supplies, including water filters and freezers, which was part of a larger delivery of 400 packages, claiming that it was “incompatible with, and dangerous to, the security of the State of Israel.” The supplies were retained and sent to a Red Cross warehouse in Atish. Other humanitarian aid has also been blocked.

Adding their voice to the Brazilian Jewish community that opposes the Palestinian genocide, the Collective Jewish Voices for Liberation released a statement days after Lula’s speech on their social media, supporting the president and highlighting some important points mentioned in Lula’s meeting with Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi at the Arab League session in Cairo. These points include the confirmation of new humanitarian aid from Brazil to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA); the need for the creation of a Palestinian state that includes the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem; the urgent call for a ceasefire, along with the release of hostages and the end of forced displacements of the Palestinian people.

Lula also voiced support for Palestine in an interview that took place in Ethiopia, where he stated that the conditions of the Palestinians were comparable to those of the Jews under Nazism. In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Lula had crossed a “red line” and would be summoned for a “harsh reprimand,” as his words were “shameful and serious.” Additionally, Israel’s foreign minister, Israel Katz, declared Lula persona non grata. This legal term is often used in international relations to indicate that an official representative of another country is not welcome.

Lula’s statements have caused tension internationally, including across Latin America’s left-wing alliances. Now, the Brazilian pro-Palestine movement would like to see Lula put forward concrete action. This sentiment is reflected in a petition sent to the government—still open for new signatures—signed by left-wing political groups such as the Feminist Caucus, public figures and artists like singer Emicida, unions, social movements, and Palestinian solidarity groups like the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) and the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB).

Among the demands in this national initiative are the immediate suspension of all commercial import and export agreements, the end of military relations and the purchase of war equipment, as well as the prosecution, trial, and accountability of all Brazilians involved in international crimes related to genocide. Given that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the president himself have declared support for South Africa in its case against Israel at the ICJ, Brazil has an obligation to carry out concrete and urgent action.

Beyond public statements, there are various actions the Brazilian government needs to take to sever ties with and cause economic and diplomatic damage to Israel. One of the central issues is that Brazil is one of the main purchasers of Israeli military equipment, especially in the context of mega-events. A number of mega-events were the stage for an increase in police brutality, on the pretext of providing security (or insecurity); these include the Pan American Games (2007), World Youth Day (2013), the World Cup (2014), and the Olympics (2016). The technology used at these events was tested first against Palestinians and entered the country through negotiations with the International Security & Defence System, which supplies war equipment and supervises its use in the region.

These major events took place in Rio de Janeiro—the “Marvelous City,” to tourists—the same place where an ongoing genocide is unfolding against the city’s black population through the brutality of the military police, which was created during the era of slavery and invades the favelas daily. The realities and contingencies of each situation (Brazilian and Palestinian) are unique, but important points of similarity include the use of Israeli military equipment and racial violence, against the black population in Brazil and against the Arab population in Palestine.

The connections between the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the struggle for freedom in Palestine are discussed in the book published by the Federal University of São Paulo Press titled At the Margins of the City and the State: Palestinian Camps in Lebanon and Carioca Favelas(2021). Anthropologist Amanda Dias researched the interactions of these populations with the state and society, as well as the effect of these interactions on their identity. Her focus is on survival strategies and mutual-aid networks, highlighting the importance of “intellectuals of the margins” to understand life in these communities.

Despite facing similar conditions of violence and marginality, a significant evangelical population living in favelas buys into the far-right discourse represented by ex-President Jair Bolsonaro. By aligning the Brazilian flag with Israel’s, Bolsonaro constructed a narrative that Israelis have the right to a sacred land. Many evangelicals support this narrative and view Palestinians as terrorists, completely overlooking the political and economic reasons behind the conflict.

It is worth highlighting some pertinent historical milestones in the diplomatic relations between Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Palestine. This legacy dates to 1975, when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a national liberation movement, was authorized to appoint a representative in Brasília. In 1993, Brazil ensured the opening of a special Palestinian delegation in Brasília. This move reinforced Palestine’s diplomatic presence in the country, and in 1998, this delegation was officially elevated to the status of an embassy.

It was only in December 2010 that Brazil formally recognized the State of Palestine, with pre-1967 borders. This significant gesture of support for Palestinian self-determination has been fundamental for articulations in the Global South in support of the cause.

In the field of humanitarian cooperation, since 2007, Brazil has allocated more than $23 million for various initiatives aimed at Palestine. These contributions included donations of resources, medicine, and food, mainly channeled to the Palestinian Authority, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), and the UN World Food Program (WFP). This support demonstrates Brazil’s ongoing commitment to helping mitigate the hardships faced by Palestinians, especially refugees.

Beyond the federal and academic spheres, there are also self-organized activities in Brazil as part of popular support for the Palestinian cause, which consolidate on various fronts in political and cultural movements. Examples include the presence of Palestinian flags at Carnival; academic events such as the Afro-Asian History Conferences at the Federal University of São Paulo in Guarulhos; the Al Janiah Cultural Center; and social media pages such as Desoriente-se and Juventude Sanaúd. Additionally, there is support for diplomatic and commercial boycotts of Israeli companies and products, promoted by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Along with these and other actions, there is a strong solidarity network in the country that has been taking action and holding frequent street demonstrations since October 2023.

More than a genocide, the situation in Palestinian is understood by many to be a process of ethnic cleansing, as indicated by Brazilian historian Débora Frias. This classification is made because, in addition to the violence, expulsions, and massacres carried out by Israel, there is an intention to silence Palestinian voices, “erase [Palestinians] from official memory and history,” and “de-Arabize” the territory. We cannot deny that Brazil’s history and Lula’s statements in favor of a ceasefire resonate globally. However, to stop the genocide and reverse the process of ethnic cleansing, it is necessary to move beyond public statements and forward with concrete measures, such as those called for by the Collective Jewish Voices for Liberation in the petition that was sent to the presidential office.

Further Reading

Free Palestine

The horrific violence against civilians, both Palestinian and Israeli, are overwhelmingly the product of Israel’s occupation and siege. But we can and must condemn all of it, while steadfastly opposing Israeli apartheid.