Sveinn Rúnar Hauksson, chair of the Iceland-Palestine Association, on the conflict and the cause he defends
The Israel-Palestine conflict has in the past few weeks yet again spiralled out of control, having already claimed the lives of over one thousand Palestinians and 43 Israeli soldiers—and the death toll is steadily rising. As aid organizations such as UNICEF and Amnesty International present reports of violence against civilians and children, foreign doctors testify that Israeli armed forces are using flechette shells, which violate international humanitarian law. Icelanders volunteering on the West Bank have also reported that they were fired at with automatic weapons while attending a peaceful march outside Jerusalem.
The international community has been pulled into the conflict, with heated protests taking place from Norway to France, while the United States reiterates its support of Israel’s right to defend itself—every attempt to find a solution and end the violence by the UN Security Council curtailed. Amidst concerns of growing anti-Semitism in Europe, several states such as South Africa and Brazil have taken the drastic step of severing diplomatic relations with Israel and withdrawing their ambassadors.
While several Western countries are divided on the subject, Iceland and its people are for the most part united in their support of the Palestinian cause. Iceland was for instance the first Western nation to acknowledge Palestine as an independent and sovereign state. Recently, Iceland’s UN representative Gréta Gunnarsdóttir condemned Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, while Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson pledged 6,000,000 ISK (50,000 USD) to relief efforts in Gaza, and Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson sent Israel’s PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, a critical letter concerning the recent Palestinian civilian death toll. Every one of these acts has received popular support.
One of the biggest proponents of the Palestinian cause in Iceland is the Iceland-Palestine Association. The organisation may only have 1,000 registered members, but during recent protests they gathered 1,700 supporters and then 3,000 people to demonstrate the occupation, which Sveinn points out is the biggest of such rallies in Europe, per capita, with almost 1% of the population showing up to support the cause.
The association was founded in 1987, and Sveinn has been its chair since ’91. He says it is his responsibility as a good Christian to not sit idly by, but rather to take a stance on the matter, as Palestinians are landlocked and their country is occupied by Israel, in spite of international laws.
The association’s mission is to work for a peaceful and just solution based on international law and the resolutions of the UN, as well as ensure the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. To reach these goals, the association works with local politicians, organises protests and rallies, as well as benefit concerts and fundraising rallies. The proceeds of these all go directly to organisations in Palestine, as the association doesn’t have any upkeep costs of its own.
What organisations do your funds go to?
We started to support Palestinian medical relief around the time of the first Intifada (1987-1993). Since then, we’ve expanded our support to multiple organisations. In 2009, we started a project with [prosthetic maker] Össur founder Össur Kristinsson, wherein we supply prosthetic limbs to Palestinians. In 2010, we began the María fund, named after a nurse from Blönduós and one of our biggest supporters, María M. Magnússdóttir. Through this fund, we support an organisation called Aisha, which gives advice, support and counselling to women, similar to the Icelandic organisation Stígamót. We also support a number of causes that work with children and families, as well as mental health programmes. I’ve visited these organisations personally and seen how they work.
You’ve been to Palestine more than a dozen times, what do you do when you go?
I visit old friends as well as oversee the projects we are supporting through our partners in Palestine. In my last trip when I went to the ALPC, the Artificial Limbs and Polio Centre, I met with people that had received artificial legs from us, some of whom were still wearing the original batch we made in May 2009.
I don’t go there to do the work I do in Iceland, as a GP, or perform field surgery, but being a doctor opens a lot of doors for me to see hospitals and clinics, and evaluate the situation. I also visit sister organisations of volunteers who are doing important work in showing solidarity with the people of Palestine.
Does your association send any other people to Palestine?
No, although we’ve wanted to, we haven’t been able to find any doctors willing to go from Iceland. I am though in the process of organising a trip for a specialist orthopedic doctor to go to Gaza right now to what we can do, but they don’t really need normal doctors there, they have plenty of those—what is needed is to come down there and show the Palestinians that they don’t stand alone, that we care, and to report on it as a doctor.
They do need drugs, medicine and medical equipment, and I always bring such materials needed to make artificial legs with me when I go, but the important thing is for people to see the situation with their own eyes and the oppression the occupation carries with it. We have to let our colleagues know that we are ready to stand by their side and help them however we can.
It seems like the cause has a wide support base in Iceland. Has it always been like that?
Yes, I believe so. I think Iceland has a very deep sense of solidarity for those who are oppressed—they want to root for David and not Goliath. There have been many instances where we have seen big imperialist powers attempting to crush a poor nation—such as during the Vietnam War—where the Icelandic nation has firmly stood by the underdog. Israel is a nuclear state armed with tanks, ships, the finest attack helicopters and fighter jets, but Palestine doesn’t have any of that.
After the fact, everyone in the West would talk about the Vietnam War being a mistake, but during it, the big media, politicians and papers such as Morgunblaðið supported it, even if the people didn’t. But I felt right from the beginning that it was very different with the Israel-Palestine conflict, that Palestine enjoys majority support from Icelanders. There are very few politicians or papers today that would defend Israeli policies and actions in occupied Palestine.
How are the people of Iceland trying to help Palestinians in need?
The best thing they can do is to use their imagination, because there are so many ways they can help, especially today when getting one’s opinion heard is so easy. People for instance join our association, help raise funds for relief efforts, work on the internet and get others interested in the cause, including diplomats and politicians that have international pull.
The people of Palestine always say they don’t want our humanitarian aid, but freedom for themselves, but of course, the humanitarian aid is also needed as the situation is absolutely horrible. There is very limited clean water and electricity, medicine is scarce and several hospitals have been damaged or destroyed in air strikes. My colleagues are working there, day and night and day, but the situation is disastrous, and they need more help.
Our demands, and what we’ve been working on has had the same message for so long that we can still use the signs we made years ago: “stop the bloodbath,” “down with the occupation,” “free Palestine” and “international protection.” That’s all we care about, not politics, but the people of Palestine and making a real change.