Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank were united in grief on Thursday over the death of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, whose untiring support for their cause saw him make blistering attacks on Israel.
The 58-year-old Venezuelan president, who died on Tuesday after a nearly two-year struggle with cancer, was hugely popular with the Palestinians for his outspoken support for their plight.
“This is a great loss for us,” president Mahmud Abbas said during a condolence call to the Venezuelan representative’s office in Ramallah.
“The Palestinian people will remain faithful to Chavez whose memory will remain engraved in our consciousness in recognition of his courageous support for our right to an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital,” he said a day earlier.
The Palestinian love affair with the firebrand Latin American leader began in earnest in January 2009 when he accused Israel of “state terrorism” during its vast 22-day offensive on Gaza and severed all diplomatic ties over its “cruel persecution of the Palestinian people.”
Known for his staunch, vocal support for a Palestinian state, Chavez never made any attempt to disguise his contempt for Israel which he described as “genocidal” and a “killer state.”
In Gaza City, huge pictures of the stocky former paratrooper could be seen in the streets alongside the yellow, blue and red of the Venezuelan flag which could be seen fluttering outside souvenir shops.
Gaza’s Hamas rulers offered similar praise for the Venezuelan strongman who courted controversy with Washington over his close ties with anti-Western regimes in Syria and Iran.
Hailing him a “great leader,” the Islamist movement said Chavez had “dedicated his life to defending the dignity and liberty of his people, to refusing to submit to the US-Israeli hegemony and who supported the Palestinian people and their cause in the face of the Zionist aggression and occupation.”
“His last act of bravery was to allow the Palestinians to enter Venezuela without a visa, which many Arab leaders have yet to do,” it said.
Similar sentiment could be heard on the street.
“We will never forget his courageous position on the Palestinian question, in particular over the Israeli operation,” said 23-year-old student Bahaa Wahba, referring to the three-week offensive over New Year 2009.
“He really felt the suffering of the Palestinians,” agreed Hani al-Agha, 31.
Tributes were also flowing in Ramallah, where hundreds of people turned out to pay their respects at the Venezuelan representative’s office and where demonstrators had on Wednesday carried pictures of Chavez and Venezuelan flags at a rally in support of prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath hailed Chavez as someone who “endlessly worked… for all oppressed peoples, including Palestine.”
“Palestine says goodbye to a loyal friend who passionately defended our right to freedom and self-determination,” he said late on Tuesday.
“President Chavez expressed his solidarity with tangible political steps in order to advance Palestine’s rights,” Shaath said, hailing his strong stance during the Gaza war and his support of Palestinian attempts to seek full UN membership.
Several said Chavez had been more vocal in supporting the Palestinians than many Arab countries.
“Today there is no president in the world like President Chavez who loves the Palestinian people and champions their cause,” sighed Imad Mahmud.
“I extend my deepest condolences over his death which is a loss not only for the Venezuelan people but also for the Palestinians,” the 35-year-old told AFP.
Chavez was known as a revolutionary who supported the Palestinian cause, agreed Samir Abdelkarim, a 53-year-old factory worker.
“He took a clear position against the occupation, much more so than many of the Arab countries.”
For Murad al-Hurani, 32, Chavez was cut from the same cloth as Yasser Arafat, the veteran Palestinian leader who raised the Palestinian cause onto the international stage and who died in 2004.
“The death of President Chavez was unfortunate because he was like president Abu Ammar,” he told AFP, using the name by which Arafat was popularly known to Palestinians.
“He supported all the causes against the occupation and all the revolutions in the world, as well as people who were poor and needy.”