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South American leaders are confronting Israel over its offensive in Gaza

Palestinians conduct a search and rescue operation after the second bombardment by the Israeli army in the last 24 hours at Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza City, Gaza, on Wednesday.
Ali Jadallah/Anadolu via Getty Images
Palestinians conduct a search and rescue operation after the second bombardment by the Israeli army in the last 24 hours at Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza City, Gaza, on Wednesday.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — This week, Bolivia severed diplomatic relations with Israel, Chile and Colombia recalled their ambassadors from Tel Aviv, and Brazil pleaded for an immediate halt to the killing of children in the Gaza Strip.

The criticism coming from South America's left-wing governments has intensified in recent days as thousands of Palestinians have been killed in Israeli airstrikes and shelling, according to health officials in Gaza.

On Tuesday, Bolivia's deputy foreign minister, Freddy Mamani Machaca, said his government was cutting ties with Israel over its "aggressive and disproportionate military offensive" in Gaza, which he called "a threat to international peace and security."

Bolivia's interim foreign minister, María Nela Prada, demanded an end to Israeli attacks that she said have caused "thousands of civilian fatalities and forced displacement of Palestinians," and implored an end to blocking humanitarian aid and work by international organizations in Gaza.

In response, Israel's Foreign Ministry accused Bolivia of "aligning itself with the Hamas terrorist organization" that killed 1,400 people in Israel and took 240 hostages on Oct. 7.

"Israel condemns Bolivia's support of terrorism and its submission to the Iranian regime, which attest to the values the government of Bolivia represents," the ministry said.

Israel says its offensive in the Gaza Strip is to crush Hamas, which has ruled the territory since 2007.

Meanwhile, other South American countries recalled their ambassadors from Israel, including Chile. Chilean President Gabriel Boric tweeted that Israel was violating international humanitarian law and its airstrikes amounted to "collective punishment" in Gaza.

Colombia also summoned its ambassador from Israel, with Colombian President Gustavo Petro calling Israel's actions "a massacre of the Palestinian people." He posted a photo to X, formerly Twitter, showing dozens of bodies wrapped in white sheets, and wrote "the head of the state who carries out this genocide is a criminal against humanity."

Relations between Israel and several leftist governments in South America have been strained for years. In Bolivia, former President Evo Morales severed ties with Israel in 2009 following the country's military actions in Gaza. A conservative administration that replaced Morales restored relations with Israel a decade later.

Morales, who still yields support in Bolivia, has called Israel a "terrorist state" and urged that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be tried for war crimes in an international tribunal.

Benjamin Gedan, director of the Latin America Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., said many of the South American leaders' critiques of Israel's response to the Hamas massacre are principled. But, "in many cases, criticism of Israel is a proxy for a worldview that reflexively regards the United States and its allies as bad actors. For U.S. antagonists such as Evo Morales of Bolivia, sympathy for Hamas is the ultimate expression of an 'enemy of my enemy is my friend' foreign policy," he told NPR.

But Israel is losing the battle of narratives across Latin America, says Oliver Stuenkel, an associate professor of international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, a university in São Paulo, Brazil. "In the same way that it is losing the battle in the Global South, perhaps with the exception of India," he added. India's government has spoken out in support of Israel and condemned Hamas' attacks against the country.

Brazil had hoped the United Nations Security Council would pass a resolution calling for a "humanitarian pause" in the fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas militants. Brazil is a non-permanent member of the Security Council and assumed the body's rotating chair last month. Brazilian Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira slammed its inability to pass a resolution and condemned what he called a "persistent use of the council for personal interests rather than prioritizing the protection of civilians."

The United States voted against Brazil's draft, and later put forward a resolution that included support for Israel's right to defend itself, while calling for the release of hostages and for humanitarian aid for Gaza — which Russia and China vetoed.

In a tweet Tuesday night, Brazil's left-wing president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, lamented the deaths of children in Gaza, which the U.N. says has surpassed 3,500.

Lula finished off the message with a rebuke of the United Nations and a plea to end the hostilities, saying, "Stop! For the love of God, stop!"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.