Dr Mads Gilbert, a surgeon and high-profile Norwegian political activist, returned to a hero’s welcome in Oslo on Wednesday after yet another voluntary trip to Gaza to treat injured Palestinians. Meanwhile, a high-profile politician from one of the Norwegian government’s own parties defended the Israeli attacks on Gaza that have resulted in more than a thousand civilian deaths and the injuries Gilbert was trying to mend.
As with most aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the conflicting positions of both Gilbert of the left-wing Reds party and Per Sandberg of the right-wing Progress Party are controversial. In Sandberg’s case, he’s publicly speaking out against the policy of his own government, which is a coalition of his Progress Party and the Conservatives. Its foreign policy has been generally consistent with that of former Norwegian governments and is widely supported by most political parties in Parliament. Gilbert, for his part, often upsets conservative Norwegians and, not least, officials at the Israeli Embassy in Oslo, who have urged local media to be more critical in publishing Gilbert’s first-hand accounts of the Palestinians’ suffering in the emergency rooms and devastated streets of Gaza.
Both men remain as outspoken as ever. Gilbert, met by a large crowd of cheering supporters at Oslo’s main airport, claimed Israel’s bombing of Gaza was increasingly ruthless and merciless. “The blood is running in Gaza’s streets,” Gilbert claimed after being hoisted up on the shoulders of his greeters. He just spent the past two weeks trying to save lives in the emergency room of Shifa Hospital in an enclave of Gaza that is now the target of a powerful Israeli offensive.
Gilbert told reporters that he thinks the current offensive is even worse than the one in 2009, when he also aided the wounded. “Israel is bombing systematically on residential areas, they’re bombing hospitals and attacking ambulances,” Gilbert said. “It’s more ruthless, more cynical and more bloody.” The death toll now stands at around 1,300, including around 50 Israelis, with another estimated 7,000 injured, with children making up a third of the casualties.
“These aren’t tunnels, they’re people,” said Gilbert, a veteran of working in war zones when he’s not attending to his regular doctor’s duties at the main hospital in Tromsø in northern Norway. “These aren’t terrorists, they’re civilians.”
Sandberg of the Progress Party lashed out with the opposite arguments in Thursday’s edition of Oslo newspaper Dagsavisen. He claims that Israel is simply trying to wipe out the Hamas organization (which a majority of Palestinians elected to represent them in 2006) because Israel considers it to be a terrorist organization.
“The day Hamas is removed, with those forces that want to wipe out Israel and don’t care about their own people, that’s when there will be an opportunity to create harmony,” Sandberg, a Member of Parliament who sits on its foreign relations committee, told Dagsavisen. “That’s what Israel is trying to do now, to get rid of Hamas once and for all.”
Sandberg served with UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon in 1986, has relatives in Israel and visits the country often. “I’m comfortable in Israel, together with both Jews and Palestinians,” Sandberg said. “The people know that they depend on each other, but there are some who don’t want peace.” Sandberg criticized a recent UN resolution to investigate whether Israel has committed war crimes in its latest bombardment of Gaza, suggesting that Hamas also has committed crimes against humanity. “Hamas encourages women and children to be shields,” he claimed. “That makes things very difficult.”
Sandberg, known for provocative remarks that often counter more moderate voices within his own traditionally Israel-friendly party, conceded that if it’s true Israel attacked a UN school sheltering refugees, he would condemn that just as the US has done. But he thinks Norway should now use its role as leader of the group of countries aiding the Palestinians to stop Hamas’ campaigns and then involve itself as little as possible in the ongoing crisis. Norway has long been involved in top-level international efforts to broker peace in the Middle East, but Sandberg thinks Norwegian foreign ministers involve themselves too often, because they think “a bit too highly of themselves.”
Neither Foreign Minister Børge Brende, from the Conservative Party, nor the Conservatives’ Bård Glad Pedersen, a state secretary in the foreign ministry, would comment on Sandberg’s remarks. Brende has also been under criticism for failing to be tough enough on Israel, from those with opinions on the crisis that counter Sandberg’s. Ada Nissen of the University of Oslo who has been researching Norway’s role in peace processes told Dagsavisen that Sandberg’s remarks reveal little knowledge of international diplomacy or Norway’s international peace work.
“I can only imagine that it must be quite challenging for Børge Brende and the rest of the Conservative Party to carry out Norwegian foreign policy when a politician from their own partner in the government coalition attacks both the foreign minister and the policy,” Nissen said. “It doesn’t make it any easier when it involves a politician who sits on the parliament’s foreign relations committee.”
Norway, meanwhile, is about to receive a new ambassador from Israel. ABC-nyheter reported that the chief of the European division of the Israeli foreign ministry, Raphael Schutz, has been appointed, as expected, as new ambassador to Norway, replacing acting ambassador George Deek. Schutz has also been Israel’s ambassador to Spain. Israel’s former ambassador, Naim Araidi, was recalled earlier this year following complaints of alleged sexual harassment at the embassy in Oslo.