Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Contingency plans are in place to quickly evacuate thousands of Filipinos if Israel is attacked, assured the country’s chief envoy to Israel Generoso Calonge.

He gave the assurance in the face of mounting tension in the region as the United States and key European allies ready potentially crippling sanctions to pressure Iran to abandon its alleged development of nuclear weapons.

Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, passage for 20 percent of the world's oil; and one of Iran's top nuclear scientists was assassinated earlier this month, prompting the US and Israel to postpone a missile exercise.

Calonge, who was Consul General in Washington DC until 2002 but still has ties to the region, was appointed Philippine Ambassador to Israel last year. He submitted his credentials on Oct. 6.

His last posting was senior special assistant for the Foreign Affairs Undersecretary on Political Affairs in Manila . His last foreign assignment was Consul General in Dubai . Israel is his first ambassadorial appointment.

Calonge revealed there are 41,000 Filipinos in Israel although some sectors say the actual number could be as high as 100,000 because many are undocumented. He said about 80 to 90 percent of Filipinos there work as caregivers.

Israel is considered a critical assignment for any diplomat. A large number of Filipinos live in the big cities like Tel Aviv, Haifa and Ashkelon that are under constant threat of rocket attacks and terror bombings. The country also shares a border with Syria , on the verge of civil war, and could be a possible evacuation route for the estimated 10,000 Filipinos working there. Iran ’s nuclear ambitions also appear to be directed primarily against the Jewish state.

“The vortex of the peace process is right there, all tied to the resolution of the Palestinian conflict and Israeli-Palestinian relations,” Calonge explained.

“There are many challenges,” he stressed.

They have launched a mapping initiative to register Filipinos and establish a link that is the cornerstone of the government’s contingency plan. Calonge said the mapping project is voluntary and about 1,000 have already done it. “I hope they will all register,” he declared.

Ambassador Genoroso Calonge with former colleague and Migrant Heritage Commission (MHC) executive director Grace Valera at a recent function in McLean, Virginia

“The purpose of mapping is just in case we need to implement contingency measures we would know who and where they are, and how we can direct and give instructions to them for an orderly evacuation if it comes to that,” Calonge said.

In addition, the Philippines has an army battalion assigned with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights . About 350 Filipino soldiers serve as part of a buffer force in the mountainous region contested by Israel and Syria .

The most viable evacuation routes, he suggested, would be through the Mediterranean Sea or Jordan .

The Philippines and Israel have longstanding relations. The Philippines is reportedly the only Asian nation to vote for creating the state of Israel in the United Nations in 1947 although full diplomatic ties did not happen until a decade later.

“There is intense people to people relations between the two countries because of the Philippine’s Judeo-Christian tradition,” Calonge averred.

“People call us – those belonging to the 3 major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the people of the book. We have Holy Books that we believe in and the early parts of those books are closely aligned with each other,” he added.

Meanwhile, Calonge said Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario has asked him to concentrate on bolstering economic relations with Israel , particularly trade and investments.

With a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $245 billion, Israel is the world’s 49th biggest economy. Trade (as of the 1st semester of 2011) amounted to $250 million, 75 percent of which comprise of Israeli exports to the Philippines .

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