Since Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip began, Venezuela's president has openly and strongly criticized Israel and the United States for what he labeled the 'holocaust' of the Palestinian people; his outspoken rhetoric has turned him into a hero for the Arabs resisting occupation.
Venezuelan flags and portraits of Hugo Chavez have been flying high during protests across the Middle East, with people in Lebanon, Jordan and across the Palestinian territories showing their support for the left-wing South American leader.
Chavez's portrait took centre stage at protests in the Lebanese capital Beirut last week when demonstrators raised his portrait with a slogan directed at Arab leaders that read: "This is what real men are like."
Chavez's decision on Jan. 6 to expel Israel's ambassador from Caracas -- the only country apart from Mauritania to take such a step – coupled with his outspoken criticism of the situation in Gaza have made him a hero as the Arab public feel their leaders have let them down.
Hamas, the Islamist resistance group that runs Gaza, has welcomed Chavez's "courageous decision," while Hassan Nasrallah, head of Lebanon's Hezbollah group, urged Arab states to follow the Venezuelan president's example.
On Saturday, Chavez accused Israel of being the "murder arm" of the United States and said the solution to the Gaza crisis was in the hands of Barack Obama when he becomes U.S. president later this month.
Chavez like Che
Mohammed al-Lahham, an MP for the Fatah party of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, said Chavez was "a symbol of the struggle for liberty, like [Cuban revolutionary] Che Guevara. This distinguishes him from the world's other presidents."
His opposition to Washington, Israel's loyal ally, over the invasion of Iraq and to the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006 have made Chavez a symbol for all peoples who "are resisting and fighting against occupation," he said.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro has slammed "the criminals who govern Israel" and who have "carried out a holocaust against Palestinians for 60 years."
"I would like to be able to give Chavez a Palestinian passport so he could become a Palestinian citizen. Then we would elect him and he would become our president," said Mahmoud Zwahreh, mayor of Al-Masar, a community near Bethlehem where 8,000 people live in poverty.
"This is the right reaction" to American domination, said the mayor, who is printing out as many portraits as he can of the Venezuelan president to hand out to protesters," he said.
"Everyone here knows about him. More and more people are coming to ask me for photos to carry during the demonstrations," Zwahreh said, referring to the fact that Venezuelan flags and portraits of Chavez could be seen lofted by demonstrators in the West Bank towns of Bethlehem, Ramallah and Hebron during rallies last week.
"Better than Arab leaders"
Mohammed Brijeh, who heads an action group in the Bethlehem area against the security wall between Israel and the West Bank, said: "Chavez's response is worth more than the UN's."
The United Nations "only does what Israel wants," he said.
"If only we had leaders as strong as Hugo Chavez," Brijeh said, while Zwahreh said: "We have no leader with a clear strategy and mission."
Abbas and his moderate Fatah movement have been weakened by rivalry with Hamas and by the ever-present memory of his predecessor Yasser Arafat, whose portraits still adorn many public buildings and homes.
Iyad, who runs a shop near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, has no doubt: "Chavez is the best president. He always supports the Palestinians."
"He is better than Arab leaders. Jordan and Egypt should have also expelled their ambassadors (from Israel). It is a real shame that we have no leaders like him," said Assem, another shopkeeper.
The mayor of the northern Lebanese town of Bireh said his town had named a street after Chavez.
"It's the least we can do for this great man who revived hope in our hearts and took revenge for us on the Zionist entity," Mohammed Wehbe said, saying the move was to "honor him and raise our spirits."
The main road to Bireh, 45 kilometers (28 miles) north of the port city of Tripoli, was lined with banners reading: "The nation needs men like Chavez" and "Chavez expelled the Israeli ambassador. When will you do that, Arab rulers?"
Portraits of the Venezuelan president are plastered all over the town with a population of 17,000.
"We saw Chavez kick out the Israeli ambassador and hoped Arab leaders would do the same," Wehbe said.
Imam Bilal Rifai said: "We do not have a direct relationship with Chavez. We are not of the same religion. We don't speak the same language. But he shared our pain and this deserves our appreciation and respect."