UPDATED: Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt met with both Israeli and Palestinian officials just last month, and claimed it was “tragic” for both sides that a Palestinian state still hadn’t been established. Now she’s condemning surprise Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians as war once again broke out in the Middle East.
“Norway condemns in the strongest of terms the attacks on Israeli civilians and calls for an immediate halt to the attacks and violence,” Huitfeldt said on Saturday. She was reacting to how Palestinians under the leadership of Hamas fired off a massive number of missiles from their base in Gaza, and then stormed over the border to Israel, attacking local communities and taking an unknown number of Israelis as hostages back to Gaza. Israel fired back and by Sunday morning, hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians including civilians had already been killed.
Norwegian diplomat Tor Wennesland, the UN’s special envoy to the Middle East, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that he thinks the attack by Hamas contained what he called “a regional component” behind it. “I think an attack like the one we’re seeing now could never have been carried out based only on initiative from Gaza and the West Bank.” He said he thinks there were “very few, if any” who foresaw the type of initial attacks carried out early Saturday morning.
Palestinian frustration has continued to rise in line with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian areas and Israel’s new conservative and hardline government that also has split Israel itself. Dag Henrik Tuastad, a researcher specializing in the Middle East at the University of Oslo, told news bureau NTB that he couldn’t see any direct factor that set off the Palestinian attacks, but thinks it’s a result of an ongoing “political status quo” in the conflict between Israel and all, also split, Palestinians.
“The lack of a political horizon has radicalized the Palestinians, and support for violence has risen,” said Tuastad, who thinks Hamas “must have planned this for a long time.” He also noted that most of the earlier armed conflicts have involved Israeli attacks to which Hamas has responded. “Now this is a 100 percent planned attack by Hamas,” he said. Several commentators said the attacks, which already had left hundreds of Israelis dead and wounded by Saturday afternoon, would now probably unite Israelis again against a common enemy, at least in the short term.
“They (the Palestinians) have taken many hostages and killed many civilians,” Wennesland told NRK, “so we can expect a major upscaling of the conflict over the next few days.” He said the UN was following the situation closely, condemned Hamas’ attacks and was in contact with both sides. “We’re doing everything we can to clarify what’s needed in terms of humanitarian aid and to secure access to it in the areas where the conflict is raging.”
Norway has long sought peace in the Middle East and Huitfeldt traveled back to the region just last month to mark the 30th anniversary of the so-called “Oslo Agreement” that was meant to finally bring peace but ended up falling apart like so many other attempts at Middle East peace pacts. Huitfeldt, from Norway’s Labour Party, said at the time that it was “very special to visit Israel and Palestine now,” adding that “it’s tragic for both Israelis and Palestinians that a Palestinian state hasn’t been established.”
She met with authorities in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah, including Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, along with cultural workers and activists. She stated that Israeli settlements were steadily taking over more Palestinian land, and that violence was increasing, “especially from militant settlers. There’s a lack of confidence between Palestinians and Israels, but also internally within Israel and the Palestinian areas.”
Huitfeldt did not meet with Hamas on last month’s trip but Norwegian officials have on several other occasions, and were among the first to controversially visit Hamas leaders just after their election in Gaza nearly 15 years ago. Norway had a left-green coalition government at the time led by the current NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. His foreign minister was Norway’s current prime minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, and he sent one of his state secretaries, Raymond Johansen, to meet with Hamas. Johansen has most recently been the mayor of Oslo.
While many governments including the US equated Hamas’ weekend offensive to a “terrorist attack,” Huitfeldt did not. Rather, when speaking on behalf of the current Labour-Center Norwegian government during her mid-September visit, she said that “Palestinians must not be forgotten” as other processes to normalize relations between Israel and other countries take place in the Middle East. “We have already seen what opportunities that gives for Israel,” Huitfeldt said. “What will contribute the most to Israel in improving relations to its neighbours is a fair peace solution with the Palestinians.”
Now the Hamas-led Palestinians have attacked, and Israel responded by quickly declaring war. Norwegians in the area were asked to follow advice from local authorities, orient their families and associates at home on their situation and register with the foreign ministry. “The situation is still very unpredictable,” Huitfeldt said, and dangerous.