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Published: Jan 13, 2009
In Remote Chile, Palestinians Pray For Cease-Fire
by Claudio Cerda

Taking a break from her new job as a beauty parlor assistant in Chile, half a world away from her homeland, Palestinian refugee Majida Al-Hamid is horrified by the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip and prays for a ceasefire.

Holding a candle at one of a series of protests in the Chilean capital against Israel's offensive in Gaza, she turns away as footage of scenes of bloodshed are projected onto a screen.

"The Jews are heartless, they are killing children and the defenseless," 39-year-old al-Hamid, her head covered with a traditional scarf, told Reuters in Arabic through a translator.

Al-Hamid arrived six months ago from a refugee camp in Iraq, joining an estimated 350,000 people of Palestinian descent in Chile, Latin America's largest such community.

Around 200 members of the community dumped hundreds of old shoes outside the Israeli embassy in Santiago last week, their protest inspired by an Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at U.S. President George W. Bush last month.

Most of Chile's Palestinians are descended from Christian Arabs who migrated to Latin America in the early to mid 20th century. Many landed by boat in neighboring Argentina and then crossed the Andes, some on the backs of mules.

Although armed opposition to Israel in the Gaza Strip is led by Hamas, a radical Islamist group, Chile's mainly Christian Palestinians still identify themselves with the plight of their fellow Arabs.

They want Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and other Latin American leaders to add to the pressure on Israel to stop its offensive.

Like many of a group of 117 Palestinian refugees who arrived in Chile last year as part of a United Nations program, al-Hamid has never lived in the occupied Palestinian territories. She was born in a refugee camp in Iraq, where her parents fled to from Haifa in 1948.

VIOLENCE

But she is frustrated by the violence. "I wish the world would lift its head and stop this, because we are all equal, we are all human beings."

Israeli forces tightened their grip on the city of Gaza on Tuesday, the 18th day of an offensive that medics say has killed more than 900 Palestinians and wounded thousands.

Hamas Islamists won a parliamentary election in 2006 and seized control of Gaza 18 months ago.

Israel launched its offensive on December 27 in a bid to halt mortar and rocket fire into Israel by Hamas militants inside Gaza, a 24-mile (40-km) coastal strip of land and home to 1.5 million people.

"The excuses Israel gives for the attacks on Gaza are not valid, because Israel was established as a state at the cost of massacres against the Palestinian people," said Mai al-Kaila, the Palestinian ambassador to Chile.

It is Israel's deadliest assault on Palestinian militants in decades. Israel says three Israeli civilians and 10 soldiers have been killed.

"It is the Israeli people that has been attacked for eight years in this area and in this military operation we are doing everything in our power to minimize civilian casualties," said David Cohen, Israel's ambassador to Chile.

"Rockets fall on our cities every day, but we don't go showing it like they do," he said in an interview. "They broadcast crude, unedited images, so no doubt our position in the media is much weaker."

(Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Kieran Murray)

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