BY CHRIS ETCHINGHAM
“A win for Palestino is a joy for the suffering Palestinian people” so believes Maurice Khamis Massu president of Chilean football team Palestino, a club founded by the sizeable Chilean Palestinian community and are defined by the ties that they proudly share with their homeland. The club does not hold back when it comes to displaying its identity and is not afraid of a little controversy or diplomatic incidents when it comes to representing Palestinian people both at home and abroad.
Club Deportivo Palestino was found in August 1920 by Palestinian Arab Elias Deik Lamas, himself a tennis player, with the hope of giving the increasing Palestinian migrant community in Chile some kind of community figurehead and togetherness. This wasn’t unusual within Chilean football; Audax Club Sportivo Italiano was founded ten years earlier by Italian migrants and prior to that Club Union Espanola was established in 1897 by Spanish migrants. Palestino’s early years, however, were troubled as they came up against resistance from both opposition clubs and fans. They resigned their place in the Youth League of Honour based in Santiago, this despite never losing a game.
In the decades following Palestino’s humble beginnings, they attracted a reputation for producing tennis players rather than footballers; attracted to the high society which it offered rather than the rough and tumble of football. This has been seen as a reflection upon Chile’s wealthy Palestinian migrant community and helped ingratiate it within Chile’s elite as well as give Palestino the much sought after status of a professional club which it achieved in 1952 when it was granted a place in Chile’s Segunda Division and won the division at their first attempt.
The resentment from other clubs continued, however, and their financial resources seemed to be the root cause of such jealousies. There was controversy when Colo-Colo accused Palestino of trying to disrupt their transfer for George and Ted Robledo from Newcastle United and they gained the derogatory nickname “The Millionaires Club”
Only three years after Palestino gained professional status they won their first top flight title, beating the once mocking Colo-Colo into second place by nine points, scoring 91 goals and beating Ferrobadminton 9-3 along the way.
After winning the second division title again in 1972, Palestino had arguably their finest moment in 1978, when captained by Chilean defender and legend Elías Figueroa they won a domestic top flight league and cup double, setting a record for the number of games unbeaten. Throughout the 1980’s Palestino meandered around the top flight, the closest they came to another title was in 1986, when after finishing level on points with Colo-Colo, they lost a play-off 2-0 and only two years later they finished bottom of the league on 24 points and unthinkably, were relegated.
Manchester City’s Manuel Pellegrini managed Palestino in the early 1990’s at the start of his managerial career – “one day a small club named Palestino called me. I don’t want to reveal the salary, so let’s say I was earning ‘10’ working as an engineer and Palestino offered me ‘2’. I took the job anyway”
This century Palestino have regained their status in the Chilean top flight, though still with mixed results. 2006 saw them finish 18th and had to play off against Fernandez Vial to retain their position, but in 2008 they just missed out on a Copa Libertadores place following a two legged play off defeat to Colo-Colo (again!)
Perhaps Palestino’s most infamous moment came in January 2014, when in a redesign of their club jersey, it was decided to add to the clubs traditional red, green and black colours (also the colour on the Palestinian flag) with an alteration to the design of the numbers on the back of the shirts. The number 1 on the back of the jersey was shaped like the outline of Palestine in 1948 before the creation of Israel. Jewish groups both in Chile and elsewhere were outraged and saw the act as deliberate provocation, but it is maybe worth looking at the context of Palestino within Chile’s Palestinian community and the community as a whole before outright condemnation of their actions.
Palestinian migrants have been arriving in Chile since the 1850’s, though the majority arrived in the years between 1900 and 1930. The overwhelming majority are Christians and many of members of the community can trace their origins back to just four villages in Palestine: Belen, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and Beit Safafa.
Like many migrant communities the world over, Chilean Palestinians tried to integrate as much as possible in their adopted homeland whilst still retaining a fierce loyalty to and identity for where they came from. Gradually becoming more assimilated, Chilean Palestinians attained key positions within politics, sport and industry. Around 20% of seats in Chile’s senate and lower chamber are occupied by politicians of Palestinian extraction. Estimates vary but it is widely recognised that the modern day Palestinian community within Chile is the largest outside the Middle East and there are up to 500,000 people living in Chile of Palestinian descent.
Chile’s 17,000 strong Jewish community were greatly offended and worried by Palestino’s jersey and with good reason too. A large influx of migrants from Iran and Lebanon – according to Shai Agosin a prominent member of Chile’s Jewish community – into the Chilean coastal city of Iquique could bring in elements of Islamic extremism which could see Palestino’s shirt design as an anti-Semitic rallying call. Agosin believes that in 2011 authorities found an Iranian rocket within the city and that the CIA and Mossad are taking a keen interest in events within Iquique.
This isn’t just hyperbole and political points scoring either. In the early 1990’s there was an orchestrated bombing campaign against Jewish and Israeli targets in Buenos Aries. The Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este close to Argentina is alleged to be a major South American focal point for Islamic fundamentalist activity and the cell which carried out the campaign in Buenos Aries is said to have originated here. In a short space of time, many Lebanese Shi’ites moved to the area in the 1970’s and 80’s and there was a worry about radicalisation and people like Agosin can see history repeating itself in Chile.
In 2011, the Chilean government recognised Palestine as a separate state and urged a two state solution. The statement the government released was a delicate balance between recognising Israel’s right to exist and the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination whilst “co-existing in peace with the state of Israel”. The government had to draw a fine line in both an outward expression on a key point of foreign policy and maintaining harmony at home with its sizeable Jewish and Palestinian communities
The Chilean Jewish Community (CJC) was also outraged at Palestino’s shirt design calling it an act of “smugness” offending Chilean Jews. There was further anger by the CJC at the highlighting of a divisive issue from outside of Chile’s borders “we reject the import of the Middle East conflict in Chile” its President Gerardo Gorodischer tweeted.
Palestino’s shirts even came to the attention of the Israeli government stating that the kit amounted to “provocation…with the evident intention of denying Israel’s existence”. Director General of the Latin American section of the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry, Itzhak Shoham, met with representatives from the Chilean embassy. At the meeting, Shoham expressed Israel’s “surprise and concern” at the design and that where Israel was trying to positively advance towards a two state solution “it seems inappropriate to use sport for political ends” and hoped that local authorities within Chile could step in to resolve the issue.
The first formal complaint about the shirts was made by the Jewish owner of first division side Nublense, Patrick Kiblinsky. He believed that “we cannot accept the involvement of football with politics and religion”.
Palestino, evidently feeling pressure at the strength of anger towards them, made their defence via the club’s Facebook page – “Palestino and its symbols have existed in our country since 1920, 28 years before the establishment of a state of Israel in Palestine”. The statement went on to deplore what they viewed as the hypocrisy of Jews discussing disputed territory whilst “endorsing illegal settlements and the wall of segregation in Palestine”. Palestino concluded their Facebook post by reinforcing their beliefs that “for us, free Palestine will always be the historical Palestine, nothing less”.
Palestino believed that this was not a deliberate act of provocation by a migrant community nostalgic for its ancient homeland. Christine Legrand writing for The Guardian visited the Patronato quarter of Santiago where many of Chile’s Palestinians live and work. Whilst not the wealthiest of areas, it is close to the San Jorge, Chile’s oldest Orthodox Church built by Palestinian migrants in 1917. One local café owner Legrand spoke to described himself as a “third generation Chilean” and that many of the elder members of the community still converse in Arabic and that Patronato is known locally as the Arab quarter.
There are real links to the Palestinian homeland for the migrant community and as such Palestino’s shirts are representative of those people rather than anything more sinister aimed at either local Jews or Israel as a whole.
The Football Federation of Chile, maybe aware of Article 53 of FIFA’s Disciplinary Code which outlaws public incitement by a player or official encouraging violence in others, fined Palestino $1300 following Kiblinsky’s formal complaint. Despite protestations by Palestino that they had used the shirts in the previous season the fine stood. Palestino complied and paid the fine without appealing or taking the matter further, though according to Legrand some of the Palestino players tattooed the map of Palestine onto their forearms.
The club still maintains its proud Palestinian links, though the map has disappeared from the back of the shirt. There is a Palestinian flag on the club website as well as sponsorship deals with the Bank of Palestine and Palestino President Massu is a member of the Belen 2000 Foundation who award scholarships to children in Palestine and send doctors there to work. Whilst any future expressions of unity with Palestine may be a little more subtle, there is no doubt at all as to the passion the club and its fans hold towards Palestinians and their cause, both in Chile and abroad.