From Iceland — It’s Time To Shake The World: Inside the Free Palestine Movement in Iceland

It’s Time To Shake The World: Inside the Free Palestine Movement in Iceland

Published May 17, 2024

It’s Time To Shake The World: Inside the Free Palestine Movement in Iceland
Photo by
Joana Fontinha for The Reykjavík Grapevine

“The whole world knows we have been under occupation for more than 70 years — after a few days will be 76 years under occupation,” says Naji Asar, a Palestinian refugee living in Reykjavík. He’s referring to the anniversary of al Nakba on May 15, a couple days after our interview. “I shouldn’t be here, I should be in my homeland.”

The Nakba (catastrophe, in Arabic) in 1948 saw the mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians by Jewish immigrants who had fled persecution in Europe and Zionists seeking to establish a Jewish state in Palestine no matter the cost. The immediate result was the destruction of 530 towns and villages and the displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians who had lived on and cultivated those ancestral lands for generations.

The displacement of the Palestinian people and destruction of their centuries-old homes and villages has not stopped since 1948. Their population has been kettled into ever tighter borders and within more heavily fortified walls and checkpoints with each clash with the State of Israel — of which there have been many. Now, more than 220 days into the current iteration of violence in Gaza, the world has watched as more than 35,000 Palestinians — more than 15,000 of them children — have been slaughtered by Israel while trapped in the enclave that has oft been referred to as the world’s largest open-air prison.

While the Israel Defense Forces bombard Gaza with bunker buster bombs supplied by the United States in what they claim is an attempt to rid the region of Hamas — an act of revenge for the group’s October 7 incursion into Israel — Zionist Israeli settlers have ramped up their attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank and blocked humanitarian aid routes into Gaza, where the United Nations confirms a “full-blown famine” has taken hold as a direct result of Israel’s blockade. Despite a legally-binding ruling issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on January 26, 2024, that Israel must “take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian aid,” and to report back on its compliance to the specific measures “within one month,” Israel has continued to herd displaced, injured and malnourished Palestinians around Gaza while dropping bombs, blocking aid and, in at least eight cases, targeting humanitarian groups working in the region who had notified Israel of their movements through established lines of deconfliction.

Anti-war and pro-Palestine movements have erupted around the world as news reports and images of the carnage in Gaza splash across our screens every hour of every day, and as Israel continues to flout international law even as the ICJ says is “plausible” Israel is committing genocide in Gaza.

People have taken to the streets to demand a permanent ceasefire and the freedom of the Palestinian people from the apartheid rule under which they live. Iceland is no exception.

Though the Icelandic government has been toeing the line of the United States over the past seven months, in 2011 Iceland was the first western nation to recognise Palestinian statehood. Displaying the humanity Alþingi appears to be lacking, Icelanders have participated in more than 50 demonstrations and solidarity marches since October, calling for the government to cut diplomatic ties with Israel and invoke sanctions.

The Grapevine spoke with three people who have made a mark on the local anti-war movement.

The Palestinian Refugee

It has been five years since 29-year-old Naji Asar left his home in Gaza, fleeing with two young nephews and a cousin — who were then just one-, five- and nine-years old — to seek safety and peace elsewhere. After two years in Greece, Naji and his young family members sought refugee status in Iceland and, after a year in Reykjavík, Naji could apply to bring his family — including the parents of the children he had been caring for — to join him here.

That right to family reunification became a central platform to a protest that took shape on Austurvöllur, on the doorstep of Icelandic parliament from December 27, 2023, through January 24 of this year. There, Naji, along with other Palestinian refugees and immigrants, and supporters, called for the government to do more in the face of the atrocities being committed in Gaza. They did it by camping peacefully in the square, enduring the depths of Icelandic winter for the cause.

“It’s very hard. It’s very cold,” Naji told the Grapevine at the time. “But we sit here to feel what my family feels. We sit here for justice, for peace, for a response. We will sit here forever.” It didn’t take forever, and on March 9, Iceland welcomed 73 Palestinian refugees, including the parents of the children in Naji’s care.

It’s public — or what the government would call “disruptive” — actions like occupying public spaces and camping that Naji would like to see more people doing to express their outrage at the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.

“For myself as a Palestinian, I don’t feel like the demonstrations or marches or something like this are working,” he says. “I feel like what Americans are doing now at universities, what we did before — the camping — is doing something. We have to stop our lives for other human lives.”

“We make demonstrations for a few hours and then everyone goes back home or back to partying or back to whatever, but the day in Gaza doesn’t stop. It’s every minute, every hour. If all people — not just in Iceland, but the whole world — support Palestine and support freedom, then we have to stop our lives and do something serious, do something real, not just demonstrations,” he continues. “We have been making demonstrations for more than eight months but nothing happens — it’s more killing, more occupation, more wars. And we see what’s happening at courts — the ICJ and everywhere — it doesn’t work. But if we are serious about stopping life as usual, stop the system, stop school and work — stop everything because nothing is more important than a human life.”

Naji believes that following in the footsteps of the students who have occupied university campuses to push for their schools’ divestment from Israel and weapons manufacturers is working and has started to shake the powers that be. “The Zionist Benjamin Netanyahu, he talks about it. All ministers from the terrorist state of Israel are talking about it. And [U.S. President Joe] Biden and everyone talk about it — it shakes them. It shakes them because who are these students? They will be big people in the future.”

“As Palestinians, we’re tired of camping — we’ve been camping for 75 years,” the young man says with a weary smile. While he would like to see the international community do more to bring an end to the apartheid and wholesale slaughter of Palestinian people, Naji admits he is physically and emotionally exhausted. “As Palestinians, we don’t have time to be sad. We don’t have time to be crying, we don’t have time to look back and to stop our life. Because we have to rebuild in Gaza, we have to look for safety or to find food. We don’t have a few hours to cry, to sit and think we lost a daughter, we lost a sister. No, we have to run to find something to eat. To care for the kids. I don’t know how to explain this, but it’s so weird, the occupation cuts part of you away.”

We make demonstrations for a few hours and then everyone goes back home or back to partying or back to whatever, but the day in Gaza doesn’t stop. It’s every minute, every hour. If all people – not just in Iceland, but the whole world — support Palestine and support freedom, then we have to stop our lives and do something serious, do something real, not just demonstrations.

Something that has not been cut away is Naji’s love of his homeland and his culture. While he fled Gaza to keep himself and his young relatives alive, he wants nothing more than to return to his home, to his family’s carpentry business and to build a life like so many other twenty-somethings around the world get to do.

“If Palestine is free, we’re not here,” he says, as if speaking directly to the likes of Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, who has chosen this time of international unrest to push his anti-immigration policies and rally his supporters against asylum seekers. “You won’t see any refugee from Palestine here. We love our homeland. We love our home. Every day we have hope when we wake up that we can go back to Palestine. We’re not coming here for money or for food; we’re coming just for safety and peaceful life because right now if we stay [in Gaza], we die. This genocide didn’t start on October 7, they kill a few here and a few there — it’s a slow genocide.”

He shares the story of how disheartening it is to be a Palestinian, living in the home that your great grandfather built, only to be confronted one day by someone who has only just arrived to the land from Europe, but they somehow have papers stating that land is theirs. “And you go to court but who is there? Not anyone from Palestine, just Israeli people in court. And an Israeli judge says ‘yes, this house belongs to this Zionist.”

“There is just one solution: Intifada. Revolution. We’ve been talking about peace since [the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993 and 1995]. It’s been more than 30 years, but we get more apartheid, we get more occupation, we get more killing, we get more people like me out of Palestine. I’m 29 years old, why am I here? Why am I not growing up with my people in my country?”

The Organisation

Since 1987, Félagið Ísland-Palestína (The Iceland-Palestine Association) has supported the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and their right to return to their homeland. However, Hjálmtýr Heiðdal’s interest in the Palestinian cause predates the association.

“My name means ‘War Lord,’” Hjálmtýr, 79, laughs at the irony of a lifelong peace activist carrying such a contrary moniker. “I went to Sweden to study in the 60s, when here in Iceland the American view of things was very dominant,” he shares. “But in Sweden, it was quite different. The prime minister spoke against American imperialism and he was supporting the Vietnamese struggle and fight. I got involved there and a new world opened.” When Hjálmtýr returned to Iceland in April 1970, an anti-war movement had sprouted in Iceland, primarily around the university.

“I was active in that movement until the end of the Vietnam war,” Hjálmtýr explains, adding that he was also a member of the Maoist political party — “as far left as you were able to go at that time.”

“In 1975, a group of my comrades from the Maoist movement went to Lebanon, where they met Palestinian refugees who had no home, they had no papers, they were stateless. Those friends brought back a lot of material about the struggle of the Palestinians with Israel.”

For Hjálmtýr, the rest is history. He has been an active member of the local Palestinian solidarity movement since the 1980s and was elected chairperson of the Iceland-Palestine Association in 2021.

“I’m a documentary filmmaker and I wanted to do a documentary about Palestine and Israel,” Hjálmtýr recalls, explaining how he spent a great deal of time researching the role Iceland played in the United Nations’ vote to partition Palestine in 1947. “Even though it’s a small nation with little influence, Iceland played some part in it and it had never been investigated or written about. So I started. But after I got nine ‘nos’ from the film fund, I said, okay, I’ll use the material to write a book.”

The book, Iceland Street in Jerusalem tells the story of Iceland’s early support of the partition plan and how Thor Thors, Iceland’s representative in the UN, played an outsized role in swaying other member states — of which there were just 53 at the time — to support a plan that would grant 55 percent of historic Palestine to a Jewish state and 45 percent to a non-contiguous Arab state.

Fast forward to today and Hjálmtýr argues, “Palestine is the test for all those who say they support human rights and freedom.” He points to Minister of Foreign Affairs and Independence Party MP Þórdís Kolbrún R. Gylfadóttir saying since taking over the file in April that human rights should be universal and the conventions agreed upon at the UN are of the utmost importance for a nation like Iceland. “But she supports Israel even though Israel goes against everything she says is necessary to support,” he points out.

Though the Iceland-Palestine Association has been active for nearly 40 years, its membership and activism has multiplied in response to the most recent genocidal actions being carried out against the Palestinian people. The group has held more than 50 demonstrations, as well as solidarity walks, concerts and other happenings. They have also managed to mobilise a sizeable number of people, with Hjálmtýr pointing to recent opinion polling indicating that 76% of Icelanders support Palestine.

The Icelandic government has the possibility to pressure Israel. So our role is to influence the Icelandic government and Icelandic people to be active in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement so Israel knows that what they are doing is not acceptable.

“Our role is to put forward demands,” Hjálmtýr explains. “What we can do is demands that our government acts against genocide. Preferably, it would cut all ties with Israel, diplomatic and economical and so on.”

“Many people say ‘why don’t you support the people of Sudan? Why do you focus on Palestine?’” Hjálmtýr continues. “The thing is that the Icelandic government has no real possibility of influencing what’s happening in Sudan, except by maybe sending food. But politically, they have the possibility to influence what’s happening in Gaza and Palestine. For example, Oslo recently decided to ban all imports of goods from illegal Israeli settlements — and that makes Israel very angry. The Icelandic government also has the possibility to pressure Israel. So our role is to influence the Icelandic government and Icelandic people to be active in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement so Israel knows that what they are doing is not acceptable.”

Among the association’s recent BDS efforts have been their public boycott of the Eurovision Song Contest in response to Israel’s participation and a campaign against Israeli-owned payment gateway Rapyd, which has offices in Iceland. “That’s been quite successful,” Hjálmtýr says. “A lot of companies are leaving them.”

“I think that the BDS movement is a peaceful protest,” Hjálmtýr continues. “And that is the only way which would be very successful. Israelis will begin to feel their isolation in their wallets.”

Hjálmtýr admits he’s not optimistic he’ll see a solution to the apartheid in his lifetime. “The support of the U.S. is so strong and I think there’s a long road ahead,” he laments, “but eventually it is going to end and what’s happening now might speed up the process. The protests in the U.S. now remind me of the protest during the Vietnam War. The U.S. lost that war and it’s possible a worldwide movement against Israel, against Western support for Israel, will bring about change. I’m not sure, but our slogan is ‘Gaza will not give up. We will not give up.’”

The Activist Artist

The City of Reykjavík got a new mural in November, 2023, when, furnished with paint and supplies from the Iceland-Palestine Association, Julia Mai Linnéa Maria sought to create a symbol of solidarity with Palestine on the corner of Skólavörðustígur and Grettisgata.

Julia Mai’s mural Palestinian woman cradling the body of her niece, who was killed by an Israeli missile strike. Accompanying the image are the Palestinian flag and the words “Frjáls Palestína” (Free Palestine). It wasn’t long before it was vandalised.

“I was repairing the mural because someone had added ‘from Hamas’ to ‘Free Palestine’ and sprayed over the heart with the woman holding her niece,” Julia Mai recalls when asked about an encounter she filmed and which went viral. “[A couple] came up to me to tell me how offended they were and how scared she was because whenever she sees Arabs, her knees are shaking. It was just this textbook Zionist bullshit. A lot of the things the man was saying didn’t make sense. Like Hamas is coming for Iceland. I didn’t realise until I watched the video back afterwards that ‘wow, this was insane.’”

“I don’t see how you can be offended by a painting, but not be offended by where the painting came from — the actual atrocities continuing to this day in Gaza.”

“If they say things to my face, I’ll respond,” Julia Mai says of negative interactions she has had with passers by while painting the Palestine mural and during her activism since. “But I always try to keep anger out of it because there’s no point. Like, if people are going to come up to me and say these things, they’re not in a place where we can have a discussion. I think that’s just kind of a lost cause. Online, I block and delete — it’s not worth my time. I’d rather spend my time talking to people in a setting where they might have a chance to rethink.”

“There are a lot of trolls. I’ve been called all the worst things,” Julia Mai continues. “And it’s always like, ‘Oh, why don’t you go to Gaza and they will rape you.’ And I think ‘I would love to go to Gaza at some point, but I don’t agree with you on this.’ But it doesn’t really get to me that much. I’ve been working so long in bars, and I’m so used to drunk people harassing me. I was bullied in school. So, I don’t mind. It doesn’t doesn’t really affect me personally. Because that’s on them. That’s not me. I know that I’m not a ‘terrorist whore.’”

“I think the real terrorist is Israel — terrorists funded by the West,” she adds. “No matter how I put it, they call me a radical either way, so I may as well get my radical views out in the open — as if it’s radical to think children should be alive.”

The social media following that came with releasing the video of her remarkably calm response to a grown man pointing at her painting and screaming “that is Hamas” had little impact on the Swedish artist’s resolve. “The whole viral thing hasn’t changed me as much as my worldview in general has changed me,” she says. “My priorities have changed, I’m seeing things in a different light. And I think a lot of people can relate to that.”

It doesn’t doesn’t really affect me personally. Because that’s on them. That’s not me. I know that I’m not a ‘terrorist whore.’

Julia Mai explains that the occupation of Palestine is something she had been aware of since her teenage years — her father even gifted her a keffiyeh when she was around 15-years old. “Although I haven’t been as vocal before, I’ve been boycotting for years,” she says. “I wish I had done more before, but I think a lot of people can say that. We just didn’t really grasp the severity of it. But now there’s no going back.”

That’s a set of morals she is passing on to her children, as Julia Mai says she has explained the conflict to her four-year-old daughter as an “evil man who doesn’t want all the children to play. And that’s why Mommy’s not buying this chocolate. That’s why I’m boycotting this. That’s why I’m painting this. That’s why I’m writing this poem.’”

In addition to creating art in opposition to Israel’s war on the Palestinian people — an endeavour that spurred a collaboration with Wear The Peace that will see Julia Mai’s art sold to raise money for humanitarian aid in Gaza — Julia has been a staple of pro-Palestine protests in Reykjavík and has become a board member of the Iceland-Palestine Association. She was also soon en route to Brussels on May 17 to take part in a massive BDS rally.

Back home in Iceland, however, Julia May would like to see action from the government that aligns with the sentiments of the Icelandic public. “It’s interesting to see how our government does not reflect us at all, when it comes to Bjarni Benediktsson in his privileged, racist little world getting more offended by tents in Austurvöllur than all the tents that we see in the news with displaced people,” she says. “I would love to see more actions taken from our government officials.”

Don’t lose hope for Gaza

The state of the world may seem bleak. It’s emotionally exhausting to watch a genocide in real time on social media and wonder why people aren’t just constantly screaming in the streets and why global powers aren’t doing everything to stop it.

“We ask God, every day we pray and ask for free people to push all of this more,” Naji says. “Because free people have the safety and democracy and freedom to push for a solution. We Palestinians still just have hope.”

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