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‘Our hearts bleed for them’: Palestinian envoy mourns Filipino victims in Gaza
November 6, 2023, 6 minute read
Edd K. Usman / Exclusive to BusinessMirror
MANILA—As the Philippine government brings Filipinos back home from the ruins of and the devastation that is the Gaza Strip, including those who lost their lives in Israel, Palestinian Ambassador Saleh A.F. Mohammad sent his sympathies and condolences to families of the victims.
“Our hearts bleed for them,” he told the BusinessMirror in an exclusive interview at the Embassy of the State of Palestine in the Philippines on Friday, November 3. Seated behind his office table, his voice seemed to crack as he cited how Filipinos have been endeared to Palestinians. “My sincere condolences to the families of those who lost their lives amid these crises.”
He said for the Filipinos who live in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), “we don’t consider them foreigners, we consider them Palestinians. They are members of the Palestinian family.”
“I know how difficult it is for families to lose their breadwinner, somewhere very far from home. They are coming back now to the Philippines this Christmas time to be with their families, instead they have this bad news.”
News reports quoting the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) showed four Filipinos died during the October 7 unprecedented attack by Hamas militants through land, sea, and air in Israel, killing over 1,400 Israeli civilians and soldiers.
“I pray for their souls to rest in peace, and I hope that they will accept our sympathies and condolences. Again, our hearts bleed for them and pray for them for the repose of their souls in Paradise,” said ambassador Mohammad.
The Israeli death toll from the horrendous Hamas atrocities is small compared to that in the Gaza Strip, the enclave Hamas rules and is the Ground Zero for the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) relentless bombings, leveling to the ground hundreds—if not thousands—of buildings and homes. Even some international leaders described it as “disproportionate” to the Hamas attack.
Netizens and other observers have dubbed Gaza Strip the world’s biggest “open-air prison” for being blockaded by the Israeli military for decades on end from land, sea, and air.
“As we speak now, there are around 10,000 Palestinians killed…majority of them women and children” said the ambassador who, like hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians, is a refugee. Along with over 700,000 Palestinians, he and his family were forced to abandon their homes in Palestine after the 1967 war.
“As far as I know,” he said, when asked how many Filipinos are in the Gaza Strip presently being pulverized with unrelenting bombings campaign by the Netanyahu regime, “there are around 136 Filipinas who are married to Palestinians.”
He added, “For us, we always welcome everybody, consider them as part of the family, their children. They [Filipinos] live with their sisters and brothers in Gaza. They have the same fates…living under the same threats of the Israeli bombardment.”
He noted that many Palestinian families have a member married to a non-Palestinian.
A former journalist who covered the Iran-Iraq War, then an analyst, among others, before he became a diplomat, Mohammad represents the State of Palestine covering West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, which Yasser Arafat, the late chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), proclaimed in 1988.
He thanked the Philippines as he recalled it was among the countries that gave recognition to the Palestinian state in its infancy.
Established in 1994, the Palestinian Authority (PA) now headed by President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah Party rules and governs the West Bank while Hamas runs the government of Gaza Strip. Amid the din of discordant voices, it’s easy to forget that Hamas is a government, a political organization with ideology and with an armed wing.
Both enclaves since the Arab-Israeli war in 1967 have been under Israeli military occupation, largely seen as the recurring catalyst for Palestinian resistance, including the two waves of Intifada—where young men used Molotov cocktails and slingshots.
Some say the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is like a “David and Goliath”, with Israel as “Goliath” (mighty giant) in terms of military arsenal. And Palestinians are the little “Davids” in the two Intifadas—1987-1993 and 2000-2005—with their slingshots.
The Palestinian diplomat said he learns every day of Palestinian expats in the Philippines married to Filipino women and are now settled in the country.
“Let me take this opportunity to express our gratitude to the government of the Philippines [for accepting Palestinians], either as refugees, or opening the doors for them to come work here,” the journalist-turned-diplomat said.
He emphasized that “every country is important to us, regardless of the location, whether it’s a big country or a small country…whether it’s in Latin America, Asia, North America [and other locations]. It’s important to us.”
The Philippines, he noted, is an Asian country. “We are also Asian people, so this is common with us.” He pointed out the Philippines is in Southeast Asia, “we are in the extreme western part of Asia, but we are still Asians.”
So, he added, “we have a lot of things in common, first of all. And we have to be here because the nature of things is that we should be here.
“The Philippines is a very important country, over 110 million people, a giant country. The location is very important…member of many international organizations. And also, we have many things in common.”
The envoy noted underlying cultural and religious commonalities between the Philippines and Palestine, saying both have Muslim and Christian people.
Another commonality: the Philippines was also under occupation in the past. He was apparently referring to the centuries of Spanish and American occupation. Today, he said, the Palestinian territories are still under Israeli occupation.
Being under occupation as Filipinos had experienced, like Palestinians now, is a dire situation—being killed, oppressed, and deprived of liberty and freedom, the Arab diplomat said. “No people will welcome their oppressors.”
He pointed out: “You know that Palestine is the cradle of Christianity and the cradle of Islam. Our country is the birthplace of Jesus Christ [peace be upon him], and also our country was the first Muslim Qiblah in the Masjid Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem.”
(“Qiblah” is the direction every Muslim faces in their prayers; now it is Makkah’s Masjidil Haram.)
Palestine, he said, has the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in East Jerusalem, where Christians all over the world, including from the Philippines, travel on pilgrimage.
The Philippines being the third largest Catholic country after Brazil and Mexico also renders its importance, he said.
“We highly appreciate the Philippines as a nation. Filipinos are very hardworking people; wherever country you go there are Filipinos. They are very disciplined, soft-spoken, they are not aggressive. We can explain ourselves in a better way.”
To be absent in the Philippines is not in the Palestinians’ interest, he pointed out.
“So, we requested for the opening of an embassy here. Luckily, our voice was heard by the previous administration. Our dream, our expectation, our wish from the bilateral relationship with the Philippines [would] be on different levels,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mohammad also wants what he described as a “misunderstanding” cleared on the status of Palestinians, saying “we have to be part of the international political agenda of the Philippines and the votes of the Philippines in the international arena. And as I was assured, the Philippines is supporting Palestine in accordance with international legitimacy, and Security Council resolutions.”
The relationship between Palestine and the Philippines is “OK, so far,” he noted. “But we dream, we have an expectation from the friendly people and the government of the Philippines, that this support will, at least, be more clear, more tangible, like sometimes when it comes to criticism on a very clear issue, like the one we are having now.”
He added, “We expect that we should have a better understanding on our status, to our situation, positions in certain issues.”
One example the ambassador provided is on the “just cause” of the Palestinians as some segments of the Western media regarded them as “terrorists.”
The Arab diplomat pointed out that on the two countries’ bilateral relations, the Palestinian people are similar to other nations, very vibrant and they can contribute to the Philippines, like exchanging trade, education.
“We can sign MOU [memorandum of understanding] in many fields. So, it is quite open, step by step. We are in no hurry. We believe that the relationship is moving slowly but surely. We on our side we will make sure that this growing relationship will be handled, will be taken care of by us with love, with care, with hope that in the future it will develop for the welfare of the two sides.” (/)