Published July 23, 2004


In Iceland, efforts towards intervention began years ago, culminating in the creation of the Icelandic-Palestinian Association in 1987. In a country where even the mass media has a bias against Israel, the potential for blanket generalisations of all Israelis, if not all Jews, is ripe. Fortunately for us we have Salmann Tamimi as chairman of the Icelandic Muslim Association, a man who, while steadfastly devoted to the Palestinian cause, continues to gently remind us that in times when emotions run high, the best thing we can do is use our heads.

Born in Jerusalem in 1955, Tamimi experienced his country go from bad to worse when the 1967 war broke out. The Palestinian university system wiped out, he decided to go to the United States to study. In 1971, he stopped in Iceland on his way over and promptly stayed here. After working as a sailor and in construction, he finished his studies in computer science at Háskoli Íslands and now works for Landspítali hospital, which is where I met him to get his take on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and Iceland’s role in it.

Israel and South Africa

In a recent opinion piece you wrote for Fréttablaðið, you called for Iceland to cut off all diplomatic and economic ties with Israel. Do you think this a realistic demand?

“Yes, I do. You can compare it to the sanctions which were imposed on South Africa in the late 80s, where an oppressive government was forced to step down due to international pressure. Israel should be treated no differently. This idea that Israel is a tiny country trying to defend itself from all sides is a myth. It’s the most powerful nation in the region militarily. Their policies against the Palestinian people are in many ways worse than those which South Africa imposed upon the majority of its own people. I made this statement to get people thinking about this issue, to think more deeply about Iceland’s relationship with Israel.”

Many people argue that Palestine is not ready to be an independent nation, that a transitional period is required.

“The United States was less prepared for independence after their Revolutionary War than Palestine is today. Iceland was less than 200,000 people when they achieved independence. My point is, we are better situated for independence than many other countries when they achieved their independence, or even those who are independent today. We want to join in the United Nations, to be a part of the world.”

Do you think that international pressure will create peace in the region?

“Not in the near future, but one thing to keep in mind is that 70% of Israel’s trade is with Europe. The recent UN resolution is very encouraging and if pressure starts now, within the next few years it will be too much for Israel to bear. The wall isn’t the only thing, either. There are also the settlements to consider, which also break international law. If they want to build a wall, fine. We have no problem with that. We just want them to build this wall on the 1967 borders between Israel and Palestine. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. But even with all the demands met, we still need the help of the rest of the world.”

So you’re not opposed to even a UN military intervention in the region?

“Not at all. We need to control extremists on both sides. Even with all the demands met, there will still be people who won’t be happy. We would like Palestine to be completely demilitarized; to have no army, like Iceland. To this end, we’ve asked for help from Europe, from the US, and from the United Nations. I don’t think peace will come quickly, but with such an intervention – coupled with educating our own children to turn away from hate – I think peace is possible.”

Zionists and refuseniks

Many people don’t make a distinction between Jews, Israelis, and Zionists. What distinction do you make?

“I have many Jewish friends who get very frustrated over this lack of distinction. A Zionist goes by the biblical definition of a Jewish homeland, the belief that they are ‘God’s chosen people’ who have the right to set up a religious state. How can Israel call themselves ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ when they want to set up a religious state? I personally wouldn’t want to live in any religious state, be it Jewish, Christian or Muslim. What frustrates many Jews is how the Zionists try to make them feel guilty for criticising Israel’s actions towards the Palestinians, to make them feel like traitors. Among the frustrated is Uri Avnery, head of the Israeli peace movement Gush-Shalom, whom I’ve invited to visit Iceland this winter. But there are also the ‘refuseniks’, people who have refused to serve in the Israeli army and go to prison for it. Also, while Israel says that all Jews are welcome in their country, they’ve turned away countless Jewish peace activists from even visiting Israel. “

The image that many westerners have of Muslims is that they are intolerant of other religions in general, and Jews in particular.

“What these people don’t realise is that when the west was wiping out Jews, such as during the Inquisition, the safest haven for Jews was in Islamic countries. There were of course crazies who would do terrible things from time to time, but Islam teaches tolerance. Our term for Christians and Jews – dimma – literally means ‘under the protection of God’. No true Muslim would act in the way Osama bin Laden is acting. It’s the sad fact that while I do think that one day Muslims and Jews could live together peacefully in the region, for now we need two countries, until we get to know each other again.”

Do you think that Iceland is tolerant towards Muslims?

“To an extent. They don’t have a policy against us, but the church enjoys government sponsorship whereas our temple does not. Everything we do we pay out of our own pocket. There are close to 700 Muslims living in Iceland now and I think that if Iceland wants to show the non-Christians living here that this is a multi-cultural nation, then all religions should be given the same level of treatment. After all, a beautiful garden has many different colours of flowers growing in it. If you have a garden with just one colour of flower, it’s boring to look at.”

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