From El Bireh to Belize

Though war, conquest and intifada aren't part of the lexicon of the dispute between Belize and its neighbor, Guatemala, some leaders in the small Caribbean country are well acquainted with these concepts.

Nathan Guttman
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Nathan Guttman

WASHINGTON - The father of the prime minister of Belize was born in El Bireh, while the father of Belize's ambassador to London, and the grandfather of the country's ambassador to Washington, was born in Beit Hanina.

We're not talking about a Palestinian government-in-exile. These are some of the highest-ranking officials in the government of Belize, a 9,000 square-mile Central American country with only two paved roads and a tiny population of 200,000 (60 percent are Catholic). Though they are but a small demographic presence in the Caribbean country, members of the Palestinian diaspora have secured dominant positions in its parliamentary democracy.

Belize's Arab population numbers a little bit more than 10,000 immigrants. Only six families in this Arab cluster are Palestinian. Yet these Palestinians have become well-entrenched in their new home, joining the political elite.

The father of Belize Prime Minister Said Musa, Hamid Musa, left his home in El Bireh, near Ramallah, in 1930. Economic hardship caused him to wander around the world, looking for a place to start a new life. Equipped with a British Mandatory passport, Hamid Musa made it to Central America, and put down roots in another colony attached to the British empire: British Honduras, which was to become Belize.

For emigrants from the British Empire in this pre-war period, the Caribbean colony was relatively attractive. Its economy, based on sugar cane cultivation and mahogany export, was stable, and provided a measure of opportunity to workers of various socio-ethnic backgrounds. In Belize's ethnic landscape, an immigrant from the Middle East could find a niche, alongside descendants of the Mayans, immigrants from various South American countries, and subjects of the British Empire.

Hamid Musa settled in the country, married a native-born woman, and established himself. The couple had eight children. While he continued to speak Arabic with Arab friends, Palestinian and Lebanese immigrants, his children grew up in a new, different culture.

"Unfortunately, in my home we didn't speak Arabic; it was a mixed culture," Prime Minister Said Musa recalled in a telephone interview. "My mother played a dominant role in our educational upbringing, and we grew up as part and parcel of Belize's culture."

Musa says that only one aspect of Arab culture remains as an important part of his childhood memories: He loved Arab food - tehina, kubbe and labaneh.

Journey into the pastAs a student in Britain in 1964, Said Musa decided to search for his roots. Together with a Belize friend of Palestinian descent and a few English friends, he set out on a trip to the Middle East. After several long days of hitchhiking in the region, they arrived in Israel; they headed for the West Bank.

"For me, it was an amazing experience," he recalls. "I saw where my father came from. I was given a royal welcome in El Bireh - they even slaughtered a sheep in my honor."

After Israel took control over the West Bank in 1967, Musa remained in touch for a while with relatives he had discovered during this emotional, eye-opening journey. Yet, at some point in the 1970s, the connection faded.

Musa, today 57, returned as a qualified lawyer to Belize after completing studies abroad. He began to work in Belize's government service. Two years later, he joined forces with two other lawyers, and set up a private firm.

One of his law partners, Assad Shoman, also hails from Belize's small Palestinian diaspora community. Shoman's and Musa's families were very close and thus could be considered virtual Palestinian landsleit: The distance between El Bireh and Beit Hanina, where Shoman's father was born, is not so great.

As working partners, Musa and Shoman did not handle only legal matters. In fact, their office became a hotbed of political activity: The two established the Popular Action Council (PAC). As time passed, Shoman continued to work as a lawyer, but Musa left law to take up politics full time. He joined the PUP (Popular Union Party), becoming a senator in Belize's parliament in 1974. During his career, he has served as the country's attorney general, education minister and economic development minister.

Musa was one of the writers of Belize's Declaration of Independence. After Belize gained independence from Britain in 1981, he was appointed foreign minister. Three years ago, he led the PUP to victory in national elections, and became prime minister.

Meanwhile, Assad Shoman remained a close friend. After Musa became prime minister, he appointed Shoman ambassador to Britain. Since Belize remains a member of the British Commonwealth, Shoman's position is formally designated "High Commissioner in the United Kingdom," the premier post in Belize's small diplomatic corps.

How have six Palestinian families risen in Belize, and secured top posts in the small Caribbean country? Prime Minister Musa denies that the ethnic background is a political factor. "Nobody voted for me on account of my origins," he says. "People voted for me because of what I am and what I stand for. In any event, the Arab community here is so small that [my] ethnic origins can't have any electoral impact."

Tourism potential

Perched on the sea, Belize is a crossing point between the Caribbean and Central America. It borders Mexico in the north, and Guatemala in the south and west. Relations with Guatemala are often tense, as Guatemala has territorial claims that stretch into Belize's borders.

Belize's population is diverse: a combination of native Mayans whose roots stretch back thousands of years, descendants of African slaves brought to the area in the 18th century, and offspring of immigrants (both from the British colonial period and also more recent years). Many immigrants arrived as indigent refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The country's official language is English, but citizens also speak Creole, Spanish, Maya and Garifuna.

A British colony through the beginning of the 1980s, Belize was one of the last countries in Central America to gain independence. Its parliamentary democracy today is fashioned after the British model, on a smaller scale (the elected house of representatives has 29 members, and the senate has eight). The prime minister has executive authority, while the Queen of England is the symbolic, official head of state. Two political parties dominate the political arena, and each has constituents from all parts of the country's heterogeneous population.

Belize is currently struggling with a major economic overhaul. Dependent upon old economic staples (sugar cane, agriculture and timber), Belize's economy has been stagnant, out of step with world economic trends. Looking around the Caribbean, Belize's leadership observed how neighboring countries have turned tourism into a cash crop, raking in millions of dollars from Americans who come to enjoy the region's enchanting coasts and forests.

Belize also has tourist attractions: It offers some of the best diving in the world, dramatic Mayan ruins in the jungle, and restaurants famed for fried chinchilla - yet, compared to its neighbors, it has yet to make the grade in tourism.

Belize has recently taken steps to re-build its economy by featuring what its officials call "ecological tourism." Thus far, the success of the campaign has been limited. Though attractions in Belize can be more easily found today in travel brochures, the publicity hasn't jump-started the economy. Per capita GNP is $2,300, and the country suffers from chronically high inflation.

Belize is not home to any Arab or Muslim cultural facility. The country's first mosque was built just a few years ago - and Arab immigrants weren't responsible for its construction. The mosque was built by native Belize citizens, many of them blacks, who spent some years in the United States, converted to Islam, and then returned to their home country.

Firmly rooted in BelizeIt was Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat who put Belize on the map of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. In a meeting with Israeli journalists five months ago in Ramallah, Arafat brought up the right of return issue, and alluded to Assad Shoman as an example of a person who has Palestinian roots, yet who is hardly likely to ask to redeem a right of return.

Using the Belize example, Arafat didn't get all of the facts straight. He called Shoman the prime minister of Belize, and described him as a wealthy magnate. Yet the PA chairman was right about the main point: Shoman does not intend to cash in on a right of return.

Shoman, 58, shrugs off the inaccuracies in Arafat's reference with a sense of humor. He has a soft spot in his heart for the Palestinian cause; he has even met with Arafat a number of times, coming away with a strong, positive impression regarding the Palestinian leader's skills and personality. Shoman supports Palestinian demands for an independent state, and a recognized right of return for refugees.

Yet, despite Shoman's sympathy for the Palestinian struggle, Arafat has reason not to view the Belize ambassador as a model Palestinian refugee. Cutting a striking, colorful figure - half Latin American and half Oxford English - the trained lawyer-cum-diplomat does his utmost not to be identified as a Palestinian.

"I come from there," Shoman says, referring to the Palestinian territories. "But I was born in Belize, to a Palestinian father and a mother with Mayan roots." Speaking about his childhood, Shoman suggests that he was most strongly influenced by his mother's Mayan heritage, not by his father's Palestinian culture. He doesn't know how his father wandered to Central America; nor does he know anything about the circumstances in which his father left his native home.

"Unfortunately, I didn't know anything about my father's origins until I became an adult," Belize's High Commissioner in the United Kingdom explains. "My father died more than 30 years ago without saying much about his past in Palestine."

Beyond his premier diplomatic role in Belize, Shoman is also the country's foremost historian, having written the most important record of its past. In his history of Belize, Shoman analyzes the factors which influenced the development of the young state: British colonialism, slavery, worker disputes and the territorial conflict with Guatemala. Though he regards immigration as a key factor in Belize's growth, Shoman does not ascribe much importance to the Palestinian immigrants, who were never more than a tiny fraction of the pool of newcomers to the state.

Though he never knew much about his father's own background, Shoman displayed interest in Palestinian issues early in his public career. In 1964 he traveled by ship with family members to Haifa. The aim of the visit was to visit Christian holy sites, but he also wanted to see where his father grew up.

When he visited Beit Hanina, Shoman discovered that many local residents had vivid memories about parts of his family history which were unknown to him. Residents explained that his father came from one of Beit Hanina's leading families; they showed Shoman the house where his father had lived. They were also eager to hear about the Shoman family's adventures and achievements in Central America.

Shoman promised his Beit Hanina hosts that he would return, but the follow-up trip was delayed until 1973. "The situation changed after the [1967] conquest," he explains. "People in the village lived under harsh conditions - the conquest was far from a pleasant experience."

Pro-Palestinian sentimentShoman has formulated a clear stance on the Palestinian refugee return issue: "The principle is that every person has a right to return to the home from which he was expelled," he says.

But when it comes to himself and his family, Shoman emphasizes: "I don't dream about returning there. I am a Belizean, not a Palestinian. I am a Palestinian only in terms of my origins."

Thus, the man chosen by Arafat as an exemplification of a Palestinian exile who is successfully settled abroad, sums up his self-perception with disavowal of an active identification with the Palestinian nation. In any case, it bears mention that a recognized right of return would, in all likelihood, not be applicable to Shoman, since he himself was not forced to depart the territories.

Shoman says he does not understand why a right of return should provoke fears. "Belize is paradise for immigrants," he says. "We adopt a policy marked by care and equality, and immigrants become full citizens who contribute to the country."

Some 40,000 immigrants have settled in Belize over the past 20 years, in a country whose population barely exceeds 200,000.

Shoman's views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are echoed by other members of Belize's ruling elite who have Palestinian origins. Articulating support for Palestinian statehood demands, these Caribbean officials do not make the Palestinian struggle the paramount issue in their public activities. In UN votes and in other international forums, Belize adopts a consistent, pro-Palestinian position; yet its diplomats do not walk the extra mile to assist the Palestinian Authority, or to sponsor international initiatives on behalf of the Palestinian people.

Though the country has a prime minister with Palestinian roots, and also has a significant community of immigrants from Lebanon, the Palestinian issue is not on the public agenda. It isn't a hot item in the print media, nor does it play a major role in Belize's foreign policy.

Prime Minister Musa emphasizes that "Friendship with Israel is important to us. Though we back the Palestinian people's right to an independent state, and believe that the refugees ought to be returned to their homes, we definitely support Israel's right to survive with security."

A familiar political pattern in immigrant societies accounts partly for the Belize prime minister's formally sympathetic, yet detached, attitude on the Palestinian question. As in other immigrant countries, politicians in Belize prefer to highlight their local roots, and keep some distance from the foreign ties left by their parents. In conversations, both Shoman and Musa repeatedly emphasize that they are Belizeans. True, their fathers lived in Palestine and were forced to leave; but this fact, they say, doesn't alter their identities.

Shoman insists that "The conflict in the Middle East can be solved via negotiations, because a settlement is in the interest of both sides." He himself is engaged in a diplomatic negotiation process, one that is also protracted though rather less acrimonious than the Middle East dispute: Shoman heads Belize's team in negotiations with Guatemala that are designed to resolve the border dispute between the two countries.

These negotiations are conducted under the auspices of the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS). The dignified OAS building, located in the heart of the U.S. capital, projects a sense of respectable Old World diplomacy. Negotiators smoke, saunter endlessly up and down the corridors, and break off talks in the afternoon for a mandatory two hour siesta. But, despite this calm, reputable veneer, the Belize-Guatemala dispute is a contentious topic. Guatemala has never recognized Belize's borders, and before Belize attained independence, Guatemala even threatened to invade its territory.

The dispute flared again after several incidents in which Guatemalan residents crossed the border, and settled in relatively lucrative regions of Belize. To phrase the issue in idiom borrowed from the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Guatemala's aspiration is to annex these settlements in Belize. For its part, Belize demands that the internationally recognized border with its neighbor be honored.

Lisa Shoman, Assad Shoman's niece, also participates in OAS talks about the Guatemala-Belize dispute, as a member of Belize's negotiation team. Belize's ambassador to the U.S., Lisa Shoman is younger than her uncle, and her connection with the Palestinians is even more tenuous. One of her grandfathers (Assad Shoman's father) came from Beit Hanina, but she has never visited the territories. Yet Shoman makes a point of saying that she follows developments in the Palestinian struggle, and supports Palestinian statehood. She notes that she has not yet had an opportunity to work on Palestinian issues in the diplomatic arena; when the matter comes up, she repeats, she'll support the Palestinian right to a state.

Both Prime Minister Musa and diplomat-historian Assad Shoman view the Middle East from a distance, through Caribbean-tinted lenses. They believe that the handling of the Belize-Guatemala dispute can be a model for negotiators in the Middle East. As they see it, hostility between Belize and Guatemala has not abated; there are some historic grudges (Belize officials charge that Guatemala's refusal to recognize its borders delayed attainment of independence from Britain for years), and there is no shortage of local clashes which harbor a potential for violent explosion.

However, Musa and Shoman explain, the dispute has never produced a major conflagration, and for dozens of years, it has been placably mediated in appropriate international forums. War, conquest and intifada are, thus, not part of the lexicon of the Caribbean dispute.

"We believe in dialogue, and can continue with it for years without resorting to weapons, hoping that a peaceful solution can be found in the future," Musa declares.

He adds that though he would be pleased to propose the Guatemala-Belize formula as an antidote for Israeli-Palestinian woes, he has no plans for a trip to the Middle East in the near future.

"Chairman Arafat has invited me several times to visit him in Ramallah, and to see El Bireh again. But from what I read in the newspapers, this isn't exactly a good time to go to those places," the prime minister says, speaking in an apologetic tone.