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Hugo Chávez calls Israel's Gaza war 'genocide'

The Venezuelan leader's comments, made during a visit to Syria, coincided with the release of an Israeli human rights group's report on Gaza casualties.

By Matthew ClarkAmericas editor / September 9, 2009

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez speaks during a press conference at al-Shaab presidential palace in Damascus, Syria, on September 3.

Bassem Tellawi/AP/FILE

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Well, he wouldn't be Hugo Chávez without controversy.

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This time Venezuela's leftist leader dropped the G-word.

"The question is not whether the Israelis want to exterminate the Palestinians. They're doing it openly," Mr. Chávez said in an interview, published on Wednesday, with the French daily Le Figaro.

"What was it if not genocide?" he asked, referring to Israel's 22-day war against the Hamas militant group in Gaza in January. "The Israelis were looking for an excuse to exterminate the Palestinians."

It's actually the second time this week that he's pulled that particular hatchet out of his verbal tool box.

While stopping off in Syria as part of what he called his 11-day "evil axis" tour to countries that have frosty relations with the US, he called upon Israelis to disobey their "genocidal" government.

Oh, but he said it with such panache.

"The state of Israel has become a murderous lackey at the service of imperialism," Chavez said. "It's a genocidal government. I condemn that Zionist government that persecutes the heroic Palestinian people."

It's statements like this that make him the Arabs' favorite world leader.

Israel's Foreign Ministry responded to his comments with a shrug.

"Mr. Hugo Chavez's unrestrained expressions no longer surprise anyone in Israel or the free world, and harm Venezuela and its good name first and foremost," it said in a statement.

Few international authorities agree with Chávez that Israel's Gaza war meets the UN's legal definition genocide or even Merriam-Webster's definition: "the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group."

But Chavez's comments coincide with a new report from the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem stating that Israeli troops killed many more Palestinian civilians in the Gaza offensive than the army admits.

B'Tselem said 1,387 Palestinians died, more than half of them civilians and 252 of them children. An Israeli army report states that fewer than 300 civilians died.

The army had no immediate comment, but has repeatedly denied violating any international humanitarian laws and reiterated that the goal of the offensive was to "target the Hamas terror organization and not citizens of the Gaza Strip."

As for Chavez, he wraps up his foreign tour this week in Russia, where he is expected to discuss energy and weapons deals with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday.

Talks may include participation in a fledgling OPEC-like gas cartel that Chavez has been touting as a means to counter Western political and economic clout.

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