NEWS ANALYSIS: Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide was on national radio Friday morning, expressing relief that the Israelis and Palestinians had finally gone along with a ceasefire after 11 days of what she called “intense” fighting. Norway has a long history of trying to end the constant conflicts between the two sides, with little success.
“I welcome this (the ceasefire) and it was also absolutely necessary,” Søreide told state broadcaster NRK. “Now the job for both sides is to get together and discuss a two-state solution and a lasting peace.”
On Thursday she had announced that Norway was giving an extra NOK 30 million in emergency aid to the civilian population in Gaza, bringing the current total to just over NOK 100 million (USD 12 million). “We want to contribute towards protection of civilians, food, housing and medical help,” said Søreide.
Norway also continues to lead the international donor organization to the Palestinians, and channels aid to Gaza through the United Nations (UN) and humanitarian organizations already in place.
“A lot of critical infrastructure in Gaza has been destroyed,” Søreiede noted, during the recent bombings by Israelis, who were retaliating for missiles fired into Israel by Gaza’s leaders in the Islamist organization Hamas, who were retaliating for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and recent efforts to displace residents of the West Bank.
While Søreide has met with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders in recent years, Norway’s ambassador to the UN, Mona Juul, played a key role in the 1990s’ so-called Oslo Agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians that later collapsed. Now, with Norway a new member of the UN Security Council, she and Søreide had been actively involved in trying to ease tensions once again and urging a ceasefire.
One of Juul’s former colleagues at Norway’s foreign ministry, diplomat and former UN Envoy Jan Egeland, had also been anxiously following the most recent destructive and deadly attacks and counter-attacks that killed more than 200 Palestinians and 12 Israelis. Egeland is now secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), and he called on Friday for the “belated ceasefire” to be observed by both Israel and the Palestinian armed groups, “so that we can start reaching out to people most in need.” He also called upon Israel, which controls the borders the Gaza, for “immediate, full and unimpeded access to Gaza and the tens of thousands who have been left homeless and deprived of their belongings.”
Egeland also stressed that the current calm must not be mistaken for normality. He thinks the Mideast conflict is has become “10-times worse” than it was in 1993, when he and Juul, along with Juul’s husband Terje Rød-Larsen, helped bring about the historic peace pact that didn’t last.
“There are extreme leaders who are holding the trigger now,” Egeland told NRK earlier this week. “A two-state solution is less clear now than it was 30 years ago.” He pointed to agression on both sides, Israel’s ongoing expansion of its controversial settlements in Palestinian territory and a deeply split Palestinian leadership. Egeland was also mourning the deaths this week of Palestinian children in Gaza, 11 of whom NRC had been helping with trauma care when the bombing began.
“Unless the siege on civilians in Gaza is lifted, and the wider (Israeli) occupation of Palestinians is brought to an end, the death and destruction we have seen in the last 10 days are bound to repeat themselves,” Egeland stated on Friday.
Søreide also pointed to how the Palestinians remain split and to the lack of any recent Palestinian elections. Others see mostly an ongoing cycle of violence, with a new ceasefire that’s no solution to the conflict.
“It generally goes this way,” Hilde Henriksen Waage, a professor at the University of Oslo who’s also a senior researcher at Oslo-based peace research institute PRIO, told NRK. “After several days of war, Egypt gets involved, Hamas asks for a ceasefire and Israel says ‘now it’s enough.’ We’ve seen this before. They lick their wounds and Hamas makes new missiles and then they go at it again, with the result that everything gets much worse, with more deaths, uncertainty and civilian losses. That will continue until someone takes a bite of the sour apple that’s called peace talks. Israel doesn’t want that, because then they’ll have to surrender land.”
Commentator Frank Rossavik wrote in newspaper Aftenposten last weekend that Norway, meanwhile, is driven by an “illusion” of having some power in the situation. Norway became one of Israel’s best friends after it was created by the UN in 1948, not just because of the Christian community’s view that Israel fulfilled a Biblical prophecy but because the post-war Labour movement in Norway viewed Israel as a socially democratic “dream society.” Links were tight between Norway’s powerful Labour Party at the time and Israel’s early leaders, who also represented workers’ parties.
Public opinion in Norway was long pro-Israel, and the Palestinians were seen as terrorists. Rossavik noted how Israel was the proverbial “little David, up against the Goliath made up of surrounding Arab states.”
That began to change after the six-day war in 1967 when “little David” suddenly occupied the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula (later returned to Egypt), the West Bank and Gaza. Some critical voices began rising within Norway’s labour movement and the still-dominant Labour Party’s youth group. The Palestinians’ loss of lands and unhappiness got more attention, especially after the election in 1977 when Israel’s conservative politicians first won power, and after massacres of Palestinian refugees in 1982. Many Norwegian soldiers in UN peace-keeping forces traveled out as Israel’s friends, and came home disillusioned, Rossavik wrote.
Norway, meanwhile, as a small, increasingly wealthy and non-threatening nation, began to become involved in peace talks around the world and became directly involved in trying to settle the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Agreements were hammered out by Norwegian diplomats in 1993 and 1995, but they didn’t hold. Now, Rossavik writes, it’s “an illusion” that Norway can create peace in the Middle East. As long as the US continues to support Israel so strongly, the best thing Norway can do is remain an active supporter of the Palestinian authorities on the West Bank, despite allegations of corruption and their lack of democracy, and provide aid to civilians in Gaza, even though they’re led by an extreme Islamic organization.
“Is (Palestinian President Mahmoud) Abbas and his people better than the extreme Islamists in Hamas, who run Gaza?” wondered Rossavik in his commentary in Aftenposten. “There’s at least a hope. If nothing else, hope can nurture ongoing Norwegian involvement.” As he wrote at the outset, though, “yet again, a little country in the north is trying to bring order in the Middle East,” referring to Norway’s latest efforts at the UN Security Council, its UN envoy Tor Wennesland in Israel and its leadership of the donor group for the Palestinians. “Apparently none of this will lead to peace, not this time either.”