As the people of Brazil headed to the polls on 2 October to vote for the president, it marked a historical juncture. Two-time former president Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, known universally as Lula, amassed 48.4% of the vote, coming tantalisingly close to the 50% needed to secure a first-round victory.
Having fallen marginally short of that threshold, Lula will now face the right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsanaro in a run-off on 30 October (and is expected to win it).
Yet if the first round of the election exposed Brazilians’ surprising fondness for the former army captain – whose reign has been defined by an assault on the economy, the environment and public health, and who has effectively made Brazil a pariah state – it also exposed the surprising extent of the Brazilian-Palestinian solidarity.
Of the 716 votes cast at the Brazilian Consulate in Ramallah, 592 were for Lula; Bolsonaro garnered 52. To those familiar with the historic relationship between Brazil and Palestine, this did not come as a surprise. Dr Ahmed Shehada, head of the Brazil-Palestine Institute, asserted that every vote for Lula “is a vote for the Palestinian case”.
During a visit to the West Bank in March 2010, then-president Lula talked of his dream to see “an independent and free Palestine”. Later that year, one of Lula’s last acts in office was to recognise Palestine as an independent state within its 1967 borders (those that existed before the war in which Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Crucially, Lula was not striking out on his own in his support for Palestine, but rather reflecting Brazilian public opinion.
The Brazilian historian Arlene Clemesha has written that the country’s political establishment historically pursued a policy of eqüidistáncia between Israel and Palestine, keeping equal distance from the demands of both. This logic was rooted in the fact Brazil was geographically distant from the Middle East, did not have significant trade interests in the region and contained a substantial number of members of the Palestinian and Israeli diasporas whom it had no desire to antagonise.
A notable example of this refusal to pick a side came in the 1960s when Israel tried to convince Brazil to move its diplomatic mission from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; the move was blocked by the Brazilian foreign ministry for standing in contrast with its conventional approach. Yet Brazilian civil society had become increasingly supportive of Palestine over the years.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Palestinian socialist organization founded in 1967 and a member of the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), was instrumental in this. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the PFLP pushed for the unification of the continent’s Palestinian communities and for the strengthening of Palestinian-Latin American relations at the grassroots level.
The PFLP’s efforts paid off. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, massacring thousands of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, tens of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets under the slogan “PLO, we are with you”; a similar mobilisation happened when the second intifada broke out in 2000. This burgeoning solidarity, coupled with the left’s rise to power in the region, proved advantageous to the Palestinians: in 2003, Chile became the first Latin American country to open a representative office of in Ramallah; Brazil followed suit a year later.
Jair Bolsonaro, who assumed the presidency in 2018, charted an entirely different path. Much like Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House, his policy agenda was engineered with the Christian evangelical electoral base in mind. It is therefore unsurprising that his premiership was characterised by unconditional support for Israel: Bolsonaro’s government opposed the International Criminal Court’s investigation into Israeli war crimes in the occupied territories; addressing his supporters at a rally in May 2020, Bolsonaro stood next to US and Israeli flags. In 2018, then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli leader to ever visit Brazil, celebrating what he called a “great alliance”. Yet even Bolsonaro could not extinguish Palestinian solidarity from the hearts of the Brazilian people.
On Nakba day 2014, a mass protest took place in the city of Porto Alegre after reports emerged that the government had contracted Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest arms manufacturer, to build a military microsatellite. Members of the Cut, one of the largest trade unions in Brazil, the World March of Women and the local Palestinian community gathered in front of the offices of Elbit subsidiary AEL Sistemas, blocking employees from entering the compound for two hours. Israel’s onslaught on Gaza in May last year was met with a wave of protests in the Brazilian cities of Sao Paulo, Manaus and Recife among others. In March last year, the Association of Professors of the University of Brasilia voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion against collaborating with Israeli companies complicit in Israel’s “regime of military occupation and apartheid”.
Analysts have suggested that one reason for Brazilians’ enduring loyalty to Palestine is the deep-seated anti-imperialist sentiment within the region, which has often borne the brunt of military coups and foreign intervention. Another factor may be the diligent organising of the Palestinian diaspora.
There are between 60,000 and 70,000 Palestinians living in Brazil. Many were expelled from their homes in the 1948 war that led to Israel’s establishment. More joined them following the 1967 war, when Israel consolidated its occupation of Palestinian territories. These Palestinian refugees now play an important role within Brazil in shedding light on their people’s struggle. At the heart of the community’s mobilisation is the Federation of Palestinian Arabs in Brazil (FEPAL). The organisation has been at the forefront of Palestinian diaspora organising for decades, particularly in fostering relationships with the Brazilian Workers party and Communist party.
As well as cultivating solidarity at the grassroots, FEPAL has also applied pressure from the top down. Alongside organisations like the Campanha pelo Estado da Palestina Já (Campaign for the State of Palestine Now), FEPAL was instrumental in the Brazilian government’s decision in 2016 to refuse the appointment of former settler leader Danny Dayan as ambassador.
Earlier this year, FEPAL met with Lula, delivering him a letter containing its proposals to enhance relations between Brazil and Palestine. In that meeting, Lula donned the keffiyeh – the symbolic black-and-white scarf that has become a symbol of resistance – and insisted Palestinians “deserve all our attention and solidarity”.
Bolsonaro’s presidency marked a failed attempt to undermine the cause of Palestinian liberation that had become so popular in Brazil. Now a lifelong Palestinian ally is on the brink of recapturing the presidency. With a population of over 200 million, Brazil is one of the largest democracies in the world. To have not only its people but its state stand unapologetically with Palestine will undoubtedly have significant ramifications in the quest for Palestinian freedom.
Hamza Ali Shah is a British Palestinian political researcher and writer based in London.