With the recent seismic events occurring in that land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, otherwise known as Israel, or Palestine, or both, depending on who you talk to, Portugal once again demurely found itself in the limelight. Not so much Portugal itself, but Portugal’s own António Guterres when in his role as Secretary-General of the United Nations stated that the horrific October 7th Hamas attack on Israeli civilians “didn’t happen in a vacuum”, which spurred vociferous criticism from Israel, who demanded he be fired from his job as Secretary-General. Needless to say, Guterres wasn’t formally speaking as the de facto representative of the Portuguese government at the moment, but he just may as well had been, given the cautious relationship Portugal has had with Israel since the Jewish State was founded in 1948.

What Guterres was referring to is the dubious track record of Israel regarding its documented human rights violations and rather spurious regard for International Law, which have been described within many human advocacy groups, nations’ parliaments and international circles, including the EU, as ethnic-cleansing, apartheid, and even genocide. As supportive as Portugal as always been for Israel’s well being, it’s always had a difficult time coming to terms with Israel’s approach to the Palestinians. How Portugal has dealt with this can be seen in the diplomatic way it’s chosen to walk this difficult tightrope over the many years. To Israel’s disgruntlement, Portugal has more often than not provided a viable voice in support of the Palestinians.

Portugal only formally established diplomatic relations with Israel as late as 1977, and their relationship has been a subtly and quietly rocky one since that time and before. Most recently, the Portuguese parliament passed a resolution in July of this year to formally recognize the ‘Nakba” (Arabic for “catastrophe”), which happened in 1947 when far-right Jewish militias razed 530 Palestinian villages and killed nearly 15,000 men, women, and children in a bid to establish a nation. The stated reason by the Portuguese political parties (PCP, BE, and PS) who voted in favor of the resolution was, according to sources, in order to “illustrate solidarity and recognition of the Palestinian right to self-determination, as well as to condemn Israel’s settlement expansion in violation of International Law.” Some parties, like Lisbon’s Social Democrats and the far-right Chega Party, voted against the resolution. In December of 2014, Portugal joined other EU nations (France, Britain, Spain, and Sweden) in recognizing Palestine as independent and sovereign within pre-1967 borders. This recognition was filed jointly at the time by the center-right majority and the opposition Socialist Party. Israel briefly recalled its ambassador in response to the formal recognition of Palestine as a state.

Portugal’s diplomatic moves that have favored the plight of the Palestinians are accountably evident throughout the decades, from its UN General Assembly vote for a ceasefire in Gaza on October 27th of this year to granting embassy status to Palestine (2010), opening a representative office in Ramallah (1999), voting in favor of United Nations General Assembly Resolutions No. 77/XII, No. 3237 (1974), No. 3151 (1973), and No.1904 (1963), all of which spoke on behalf of the Palestinian struggle. The most controversial UN Resolution that Portugal voted in favor of (and that was overwhelmingly passed by the General Assembly in November of 1975) was No. 3379, which formally “determined that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” Notably, this determination was ultimately revoked in 1991 by UNGA Resolution No. 46/86, which Portugal also voted in favor of in order to ultimately rescind No. 3379.

Uneasy relationship

Portugal’s uneasy relationship with Israel and the Palestinians goes beyond merely its voting record within the UN General Assembly however. In 1979 and 1999, Portugal hosted none other than the PLO leader Yasser Arafat himself for the “World Conference of Solidarity with the Arab People and their Central Cause: Palestine” and bilateral discussions of financial aid agreements with the Palestinians respectively. The aforementioned UN General Secretary, António Guterres, was the Prime Minister of Portugal at the time of this international show of proactive Palestinian support and cooperation in 1999. On the very day Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli right-wing extremist on November 4, 1995, the first democratically elected civilian president of Portugal, Mário Soares, was in Gaza visiting Arafat. Only twelve years before, the sovereignty of Portugal’s soil was contravened on April 10th, 1983 when PLO Observer and advocate (and close associate of Arafat) Issam Sartawi was assassinated in Albufeira, with the evidence of the killing overwhelmingly pointing to Israel’s Mossad. Incidentally, Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, is serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison. Sartawi’s assassin escaped and was never found. Both used a pistol to successfully fire at close, point-blank range to ensure their intent.

In the past few weeks, Portugal and its people haven’t wavered in their attitude towards the Palestinians, and their position with regard to the current situation that has unfolded since October 7th has exemplified a profound sense of outrage for both the Hamas attack and Israel’s contentious collective punishment response on Gaza. As equitably measured as the Portuguese try to be in understanding both sides, there have been expressions for one side or the other that have evoked questionable viewpoints, like the recently published political cartoon in Sábado Magazine by the cartoonist Vasco Gargle called “Crematorium” that depicts a caricatured Netanyahu pushing a Palestinian flag-draped coffin into a cremation fire chamber with the words “Arbeit, Macht, Frei” overhead, comparing the Palestinians in Gaza with Holocaust victims at Auschwitz. Generally speaking however, the Portuguese, both within the government and on the streets, have been expressing themselves with a more tempered approach regarding how they feel about the ongoing events, particularly for those currently happening in Gaza. Foreign Minister Joāo Gomes Cravinho expressed support for Guterres’ remarks as General-Secretary, interestingly enough after Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, stated that Israel will refuse to issue visas to UN representatives in order to “teach them a lesson.” (What lesson that was to be taught remained unclear). Portugal is also seeing hundreds of its citizens showing up at active rallies and more subdued vigils in Lisbon, Porto, Aveiro, Coimbra, and Faro to demonstrate their support for the Palestinians under siege in Gaza.

The Portuguese experienced occupation for sixty years, almost as long as Israel has existed, during the late 16th and early 17th Centuries by the Spanish. They also know the burden of colonialism in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau during the Salazar years and the horrific policies that can be called upon in order to subdue a less than cooperative people. With this far-reaching experience of both sides of the coin in it’s history, Portugal has the ability to equitably understand the situation in that land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea better than many of the other countries that have a more biased agenda in mind with solutions for only one side or the other.