A vigil in Colombia related to the Israel-Palestine conflict. (AP)


Explainer: Latin America's Relationship with Israel and Palestine

By Chase Harrison

Amid the conflict, learn about the region's ties with Israel and Palestine in terms of the diaspora, diplomacy, security, and more.

In recent weeks, four Latin American countries pulled their ambassadors from Israel over the country’s actions in its war with Hamas in Gaza. Worldwide, that’s just under half the countries that have taken the step of withdrawing their ambassadors from Israel. 

But reactions have not been uniform across the region, with responses to Hamas’ October 7 attacks ranging from complete condemnation to neutrality. Latin America’s actions toward the Israel-Hamas war are informed by decades of engagement with both Israel and Palestine. In this explainer, learn how Latin American countries have navigated the conflict in the past, what trade relations looks like, and how diasporas influence leaders’ choices.

This is not the first-time countries in the region severed diplomatic relations with Israel.

While Chile, Colombia, and Honduras just withdrew diplomats from Tel Aviv, Bolivia went a step further, severing its diplomatic ties with Israel, marking the second time the country has done so. In 2009, then-President Evo Morales broke ties during a prior Israel-Gaza conflict. Interim leader Jeanine Áñez restored relations in 2020. Now, Bolivia is one of three countries in the region that does not recognize Israel; Venezuela ended recognition in 2009 while Cuba severed ties in 1973. 

This isn’t the first time recognition of Israel hasn’t been unanimous, with differences dating back to the nation’s founding. In 1947, 12 Latin American countries were among the 33 UN member states that voted for Resolution 181, which recommended partitioning Mandatory Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Cuba was the only Latin American country among the 13 that voted against the resolution. Ten countries abstained, five of which are in Latin America: Argentina, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico. By 1949, all countries in the region recognized the state of Israel

Most of the region recognizes a Palestinian state, with two exceptions.

As of 2023, 17 Latin American countries had recognized a Palestinian state. A large number of those countries established recognition between 2009 to 2011. During those years, President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas made an effort to reach out to Latin American presidents after negotiations with Israel broke down. The most recent country in the region to recognize a Palestinian state was Colombia, which did so in 2018. 

Two countries, Mexico and Panama, do not recognize a Palestinian state. 

Three countries in the region provide monetary aid to Palestine through the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. In 2022, Mexico provided $750,000, while Brazil gave $75,000 and Chile gave $12,500. 

Some countries have moved their embassies to Jerusalem. Others operate consulates in Palestine.

One major diplomatic goal of the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been to convince countries to move embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Most countries have kept their embassies in the Tel Aviv since 1980, when the UN passed a resolution in response to Israel declaring Jerusalem its “indivisible and eternal capital.” But two Latin American countries, Guatemala and Honduras, have gone along with Israeli efforts to move embassies. Guatemala made the move in 2018, just weeks after the United States did so, while Honduras made the switch in 2021. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (2019–2022) spoke about moving the embassy, but he opened a trade office in Jerusalem instead. Latin American Evangelicals—a group growing in size and political power—have backed relocation efforts

Paraguay will soon join the two Central American countries in Jerusalem, as President Santiago Peña plans to relocate the embassy. If Peña follows through, this will be the second time Asunción was represented in Jerusalem. In May 2018, President Horacio Cartes (2013–2019) moved the embassy, but his successor, Mario Abdo Benítez (2018–2023), returned the diplomatic mission to Tel Aviv in September of the same year. Meanwhile, in Argentina, Javier Milei, one of the two candidates in the November 19 presidential runoff, has proposed moving his country’s embassy to Jerusalem as well. 

Many Latin American countries maintain consulates in Palestine, mostly in Ramallah, the de facto administrative capital. The list includes Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Venezuela. President Gabriel Boric has spoken of upgrading Chile’s consulate to an embassy

Latin American trade with Israel includes security equipment, like arms and surveillance software.

Trade between Israel and Latin America totaled $6 billion in 2022, bolstered by the country’s trade agreements with Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and the Mercosur trade bloc. 

One of Israel’s major exports to Latin America is security equipment, including arms. There’s a long history to this trade, as Israel provided weapons during the region’s civil wars in the 1960s and 1970s. 

In 2022, Israeli arms sales to Latin America were worth $381 million, up from $342 million the year before  but down from $473 in 2018. Brazil was the largest purchaser of Israeli arms in the region in 2022, at $60 million. Overall, about one-third of Israeli arms sales are through government-to-government deals. The rest are sold by private Israeli firms. 

Only about 6 percent of Israel’s defense exports are of cyber-intelligence products. However, they have received high levels of scrutiny for their use in Latin America. Mexico has paid an estimated $61 million since 2011 for Israeli surveillance software Pegasus, which has been used to spy on journalists. In El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, the software has also been used, though questions remain about who is using it in each country. While Pegasus’ producer is known to be NSO Group, other surveillance software is sold by Israeli intermediary firms in the region, making the exact source of the product unknown. 

After Colombian President Gustavo Petro spoke out against Israeli actions in Gaza, Israel suspended the export of defense products to the South American country and cut off security cooperation. Earlier this year, Colombia purchased $101 million in tanks from an Israeli firm. 

There are significant diasporas of both Palestinians and Jews in Latin America.

There are roughly 700,000 people of Palestinian descent in Latin America, per a 2020 estimate

The largest of those populations is in Chile, where there are around half a million Palestinian Chileans, making it the biggest Palestinian community outside of the Middle East. Chileans of Palestinian descent have been at the forefront of rallies in Santiago against Israel’s actions in Gaza. Latin America also has large populations of Arabs from Lebanon and Syria. Arab associations in the region have lobbied their governments to support Palestinian activism for decades. 

Also, Latin America is home to some of the world’s largest populations of people of Jewish descent. It is estimated there are 750,000 Jews in the region with large populations in Argentina (181,000) and Brazil (100,000). Jewish communities in these countries have been active in pushing their governments to support Israel. In Argentina, for example, several pro-Israel rallies have taken place. They’ve included demands to free the 21 Argentines held by Hamas

Brazil’s Jewish population was the target of a recent foiled plot by the Lebanese political party and militant group Hezbollah. Mossad, Israel’s security force, claimed that it had aided Brazil in overcovering the plot. Brazilian officials deny that Israel had directed them to take action against the plot.