From Barcelona to Gaza: Catalonia's solidarity with Palestine

Analysis- Catalonia's solidarity with Palestine
7 min read
12 January, 2023
In-depth: In a new campaign, activists in Barcelona are urging their city to cut all ties with Israel, months after the region's parliament recognised Tel Aviv's 'crimes of apartheid', as Palestine solidarity grows in Catalonia and Spain.

After becoming the first European parliament to condemn Israel for its "crime of apartheid" against the Palestinian people in June 2022, Catalonia is close to achieving another precedent-setting initiative: ceasing diplomatic and economic ties between its capital, Barcelona, and the Israeli state.

Two months ago, a coalition of city associations under the name ‘Prou Complicitat’ – in Catalan, ‘Enough Complicity’ – put forward a petition to ask Barcelona’s Town Hall to cut its ties with the Israeli state and reinforce cooperation and support towards the Palestinian people.

By mid-December, the campaign had not only achieved the threshold number of 1,000 required signatures but had done so at record speed.

This show of support towards Palestine, however, is not a new phenomenon, but rather, as the organisers put it, part of a historic demand.

"A coalition of city associations under the name 'Prou Complicitat' – in Catalan, 'Enough Complicity' – have put forward a petition to ask Barcelona's Town Hall to cut its ties with the Israeli state"

Refusing to be accomplices

The city of Barcelona has had a long-standing cooperation agreement with the state of Israel since 1998. In the spirit of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the cooperation framework was supposed to bring peace to the region, but as the promises of Oslo faded away, so did any hopes for the Barcelona-Tel Aviv-Gaza accord.

Salah Jamal, the founder of the Palestinian Community of Catalonia, remembers having been present in the discussions that brought the agreement to life. His then approval, with the hope that Palestine could finally be free, now leaves a sour taste in his mouth.

“I remember very well that we had our doubts, as we knew the nature of the state of Israel. But, despite everything, we signed in the hope that this and Oslo would work. In the end, our doubts have unfortunately turned out to be true,” he told The New Arab.

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The agreement has not only failed to materialise peace projects – as one of the only programs developed under it, the Barcelona Peace Park in Gaza, was twice attacked by Israeli forces and reduced to rubble – but has actually helped reinforce the military occupation, activists say.

“Israel uses agreements like this one with cities as much loved as Barcelona to wash its image, to show itself as a progressive, open, multicultural and tolerant society. We do not want to be involved in this image-washing anymore,” Alys Samson, a member of the coalition handling the campaign, told The New Arab.

In terms of local politics, the campaign could not have arrived at a better time, with activists like Alys enthusiastic about the real possibility of seeing their demands met.

The decision of the Catalan parliament last June to position itself in solidarity with Palestine was particularly notable, but it is not the only thing that is giving Palestinian rights activists hope in Catalonia.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march during a demonstration on 17 July 2014 in Barcelona, Spain against Israel's assault on Gaza. [Getty]
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march during a demonstration on 17 July 2014 in Barcelona, Spain against Israel's assault on Gaza. [Getty]

In March 2021, Barcelona’s City Council for International Cooperation became the first institution to ask the city government to dismantle the twinning agreement and cut its ties with Israel in order to contribute to peace.

In mid-December 2022, Barcelona’s Ombudsman declared that cooperation with Israel violated Barcelona’s human rights charter and likewise asked the city government to revoke the agreement.

“The support we have is on an individual, organisational, and even institutional level. The only thing that is missing now is for the city council to take action,” said Alys, who hopes that in the next council meeting on 27 January, when the campaign’s demands will likely be debated and voted on, Barcelona will stop being an accomplice to apartheid.

"For activists in Barcelona and Catalonia, the hope is more vivid than ever before, as they see how a historic demand to cut ties with the Israeli state is close to being materialised, setting a precedent for other cities and states"

On Palestine, Spain is united

But Barcelona, and Catalonia altogether, are not alone in the fight. Although campaign organisers believe that Catalonian civil society’s politicisation due to its independence movement fosters a strong sense of solidarity with other oppressed peoples, the truth is that Palestinian solidarity is strong in much of the Spanish state.

In 2018, the capital city of Valencia, a region just beneath Catalonia, declared itself an ‘Apartheid Free Zone’ in reference to the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement (BDS) campaign. A few months later, Valencia’s regional parliament became the first in the world to approve this BDS demand.

In Navarra, as early as 2014, the regional parliament approved a declaration calling on Israel to fulfil its obligations under international law and end the occupation and colonisation of "Arab lands". In Sevilla, Andalucía, that same year the city council declared the Israeli ambassador to Spain a ‘persona non grata’.

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In the Basque Country, almost all trade unions – including the biggest ones – released a statement in solidarity with the Palestinian people in response to the 2021 Israeli assault on Gaza. And in the rest of the Spanish territory, at least 80 public institutions have declared themselves ‘Apartheid Free Zones’.

In addition, BDS activists in Spain claim that there is not a single pro-Israel social movement.

“In Spain the only thing that exists is ‘ACOM’ – Action and Communication of the Middle East –, which is not a social movement, but a lobby of extreme right-wing people with links to the Israeli embassy and no social roots,” explained one activist, who preferred to remain anonymous.

“They simply dedicate themselves to putting pressure on the elites and filing complaints against town councils and activists sympathising with the Palestinian cause.”

Protesters hold placards and Palestine flags during a demonstration in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Madrid to protest against the recent military offensive on the Gaza Strip by Israel, on12 August 2022. [Getty]
Protesters hold placards and Palestine flags during a demonstration in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Madrid to protest against the recent military offensive on the Gaza Strip by Israel, on 12 August 2022. [Getty]

Spain's Palestine support: From Al-Andalus to the civil war 

The reasons for Spain’s support for Palestine are multi-faceted, and according to an activist with the Valencian BDS movement, have a lot to do with Spain’s history.

Following the expulsion of Jews and Arabs in 1492, the Spanish nation was forged by Catholic elites upon a false narrative that denied the historic diversity of the land and its civilisation. This narrative was used by dictator Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War and is still used today by extreme right-wing parties.

Therefore, for the left, “it is clear that the right identifies itself with that Catholic narrative, and thus with Islamophobia and Judeophobia, since the Spanish Inquisition attacked both Muslim and Jewish people,” the activist explained to The New Arab. 

"Hope is never lost, for a simple reason: this is a just cause, and as long as it is a just cause, there will be hope"

With a strong progressive and leftist tradition in the country, he believes that the movement countering right-wing ideology easily translates into support towards the most vulnerable groups targeted by the right, especially Muslim and Jewish communities.

“Once again, we see how Zionism in Israel does not represent Judaism and Jews, as they are able to ally and build bridges with right-wing and extreme right-wing forces that in many cases have a terrible anti-Jewish past,” he added.

The fight is not easy, but hope is strong

Not everything is rosy for Spain’s Palestinian solidarity front. Groups associated with ACOM have filed complaints against almost all public institutions that have condemned the Israeli state, leading to the cancellation of their declarations in some instances.

In 2016, eight Spanish pro-Palestinian activists were accused of hate crimes and anti-Semitism for asking the local reggae festival Rototóm to be coherent with its values and not invite pro-Israeli singer Matisyahu.

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They faced between four to nine years in prison sentences, and although the case was finally closed in 2021, it sent a strong message to the Palestine solidarity movement in Spain that their actions could be criminalised. 

However, for activists in Barcelona and Catalonia, the hope is more vivid than ever before, as they see how a historic demand to cut ties with the Israeli state is close to being materialised, setting a precedent for other cities and states.

“Hope is never lost, for a simple reason: this is a just cause, and as long as it is a just cause, there will be hope,” said Jamal.

Alys knows the fight will be long, and warns that, “apartheid will not fall alone, but we have to bring it down”. From Spain to the world, she invites all to join the fight.

Bianca Carrera is a freelance writer and analyst specialising in Middle Eastern and North African politics, as well as environmental matters, at Sciences Po Paris. She has written for Al Jazeera, Oxfam, elDiario.es, and others.

Follow her on Twitter: @biancacarrera25