Volunteer Efforts Prompt Icelandic Government Action on Gaza Visas

Palestine protest February 5 2024

The Icelandic government sent three representatives to Cairo, Egypt last week to meet with local authorities and assess the situation regarding Icelandic visa-holders who remain trapped in neighbouring Gaza. Iceland’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have both said that extracting Palestinians who hold Icelandic visas from Gaza is “complicated.” Meanwhile, a group of Icelandic civilians working on a volunteer basis in Cairo have already gotten two families out of Gaza across the Rafah border and continue their efforts.

Around 120 Palestinians currently in Gaza, mostly children, hold Icelandic residency permits. The Icelandic government issued these permits on the basis of family reunification but has, until last week, not taken action to help the children, women, and men leave Gaza and travel to Iceland. Around one week ago, three Icelandic civilians decided to take matters into their own hands, and travelled to Cairo, from where they have helped two families out of Gaza across the Rafah border.

Visas already approved

Sending foreign service representatives to Cairo is a “positive and important step,” stated Left-Green Movement MP Bjarni Jónsson, who is also the first vice-chair of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee. “We have already approved inviting these people to Iceland,” He added. “Already approved these family reunifications. The next thing is to keep the promise we’ve given these people.”

The volunteers in Cairo have pointed out that the Icelandic state does not have to pay to transport Palestinian refugees from Egypt as the United Nations covers the cost of their trip.

Public criticism mounts

The public in Iceland has been critical of the government’s perceived reluctance to carry out the family reunifications. Criticism mounted when it came to light that other Nordic countries had actively retrieved people from Gaza based on family reunification visas, contrary to what Iceland’s Prime Minister and Justice Minister had stated. Regular protests have been held in Reykjavík calling on the government to rescue the Icelandic visa-holders from Gaza.

Aid organisations wait for government action

Sema Erla Serdar, director of Icelandic refugee aid organisation Solaris, recently joined the Icelandic civilians in Cairo who are working to get Palestinians with Icelandic visas across the border. She told RÚV that she hopes the Icelandic government’s decision to send out representatives means it will act on the family reunifications soon. “But you can’t just talk forever, you have to let your actions speak.”

Hjálmtýr Heiðdal, the director of the Association Iceland-Palestine, agreed that the outcome of the representatives’ trip is yet to be seen. He stated, however, that it was clear the civilian efforts in Cairo had put pressure on the Icelandic government to act on the family reunifications.

“All of the answers we have received so far from the authorities have always been that it would be so complicated and impossible and that they had no obligation to do it. So it is clear that these brave women and their trip to Egypt is what finally makes the Ministry for Foreign Affairs take action,” Hjálmtýr stated.

Calls for Iceland to Join South Africa’s Genocide Case

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir

Some 100 protesters convened outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Tjarnargata this morning to protest the government’s handling of policy towards Palestine. They criticise authorities for not doing more to bring residents of Gaza who already hold Icelandic visas to the country on the basis of family reunification. The protesters chanted: “The children of Gaza are our children”.

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir met with protesters outside and sat down with an advocacy group leader to discuss pleas for Iceland to support South Africa’s case against Israel before the International Court of Justice, Mbl.is reports. South Africa has is seeking an emergency suspension of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

Public support for Palestine

Katrín met with Hjálmtýr Heiðdal, head of the Association Iceland-Palestine, who handed her a letter from the association along with a copy of South Africa’s charge. “If authorities suspect a genocide in the making, not to mention one already in progress, then it is their duty to step in,” Hjálmtýr told Mbl.is. He added that the best thing that the Icelandic government could do at this point would be to support South Africa’s case. “It is very important to do so right away.”

Hjálmtýr reiterated that Katrín had in the past supported the idea of severing political relations with Israel and added that polls show that three of every four Icelanders support the Palestinian cause. “110 children are being killed every day and it just keeps going,” he said. “They have to try to stop this. South Africa’s case could apply some pressure.”

Activists camped out in front of Alþingi

Local activists slept in tents in front of Alþingi, the Icelandic Parliament, on Saturday night in solidarity with Palestinian protesters who have camped there since December 27. The group has made three demands of Icelandic authorities. Firstly, to carry out the family reunifications for which they have already granted visas. Secondly, a meeting with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Justice, and the Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market. Thirdly, to stop the ongoing deportations of Palestinian people in Iceland and grant them international protection.

Disappointed in Icelandic Government’s Response to Gaza

Icelandic government Palestine protest

Locals in Iceland have held regular protests outside the Icelandic government’s cabinet meetings since the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas began on October 7. Protesters are calling on the government to condemn Israeli authorities for their actions and use its influence to call for a ceasefire in the conflict. Iceland abstained from voting on a ceasefire in an emergency meeting of the UN last month.

Call on government to condemn Israel’s actions

“We are here to tell the government of Iceland that it has not done its job in these matters, because it has only condemned Hamas. It has not yet gotten around to condemning Israel and the atrocities that are currently being committed. And the performance at the UN is of course shameful,” Hjálmtýr Heiðdal, chairman of the Iceland-Palestine Association, told RÚV reporters at this morning’s protest. A sizeable group gathered to wave flags, chant in support of Palestine, and express their disappointment towards cabinet ministers.

Iceland was the first Western country to officially recognise Palestine’s independence and support for the Palestinian cause is fairly strong among the Icelandic public. The Iceland-Palestine Association chaired by Hjálmtýr was founded in 1987.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson, who recently took on the position after resigning as Minister of Finance stated that he was not consulted on the UN General Assembly ceasefire vote. In a recent press conference, he refused to call Israel’s bombing of refugee camp Jabalia as an “attack on a refugee camp,” insisting it was “a matter of how you approach it.”

Iceland Abstains from UN Gaza Vote, Causing Tension

Katrín Jakbosdóttir, Bjarni Benediktsson Ríkissjórn Alþingi

Iceland abstained from voting on a ceasefire in Gaza at an emergency meeting of the United Nations General Assembly last Friday. The decision contradicts Iceland’s foreign policy on Palestine and the policy of Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s party, the Left-Green Movement. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir says she was not consulted on the decision.

Katrín told RÚV that she was not consulted before the vote, adding that the decision to abstain from voting is in opposition to Iceland’s official stance on the conflict. “Iceland’s stance was totally clear before the vote, it was that we support a ceasefire for humanitarian reasons,” Katrín Jakobsdóttir told RÚV. She added that it was also her personal stance and that of her party.

Support for Palestine among Icelandic public

Iceland was the first Western country to officially recognise Palestine’s independence and support for the Palestinian cause is relatively strong among the public in Iceland, in part thanks to the work of the Iceland-Palestine Association, founded in 1987. Many locals in Iceland have expressed disappointment and anger at the decision to abstain from the UN vote on a ceasefire. Several public protests have been held in Iceland in support of a ceasefire since the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas began.

Divisions within governing coalition

Iceland abstaining from the vote on a ceasefire is yet another example of how divided the parties within Iceland’s governing coalition are, Professor of Political Science Eiríkur Bergmann told RÚV. The governing coalition consists of PM Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement; the Independence Party led by Bjarni Benediktsson, currently Minister for Foreign Affairs; and the Progressive Party, led by Infrastructure Minister Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson.

As Foreign Affairs Minister, Bjarni Benediktsson bears responsibility for the UN vote. Bjarni resigned from the position of Finance Minister earlier this month following criticism of his handling of the sale of state-owned bank Íslandsbanki. Following his resignation, his fellow Independence Party MP Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir took over as Finance Minister, while Bjarni took over her position as Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Three governments in Iceland

“This is, of course, a very unusual issue, that there has been such a rift in the government over an issue this serious,” Eiríkur stated. “But, of course, this reflects what we have been seeing for a long time now, that there are actually three governments in the country. Each of the three political parties deals with the affairs of their [ministry], and the Independence Party manages foreign affairs, and it is therefore its policy that determines Iceland’s position in this matter, not the policy of other governing parties.”

STIs On the Rise in Iceland

Cases of syphilis and gonorrhoea continued to increase in Iceland in the first half of 2020, despite gathering bans and social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A bulletin on infectious diseases from the Directorate of Health says the two sexually transmitted infections “continue to be of particular concern,” and that men are the “driving force” behind their spread.

In the first six months of 2020, 43 individuals were diagnosed with syphilis, a significant increase compared to previous years. The vast majority, or 91%, were men, and almost half were Icelandic citizens.

Gonorrhoea is also on the rise, with 68 individuals diagnosed between January and June of this year, an increase from previous years. Most, or 69%, were men, and 81% were Icelandic citizens.

Chlamydia remains the most widespread sexually transmitted infection in Iceland. In the first six months of 2020, 834 individuals were diagnosed with the infection, a number similar to previous years. Women represented slightly more than half of cases, or 56%. Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist noted earlier this year that while increased social distancing and hygiene had brought down the number of influenza and stomach flu cases in the country, the same was not true for STIs.

Association Iceland-Palestine Criticises Treatment of LGBTQIA+ People in Palestine

LGBTQIA+ Rainbow Flag

The Association Iceland-Palestine has sent the Palestinian Authority a statement deploring the state of human rights of LGBTQIA+ individuals in the country, Vísir reports. What spurred the statement was a decision by the Palestinian Authority to ban all LGBT activities in the West Bank. The decision was later rescinded following protests from human rights groups.

“The Association Iceland-Palestine expresses grave concerns about the state of human rights for LGBTQIA+ people in occupied Palestine, and the authorities’ crackdown on LGBTQIA+ people, both in the West Bank and Gaza,” the association wrote in a statement published on Facebook. “The Association Iceland-Palestine joins rights groups who have called for an end to the authorities’ targeting of LGBTQIA+ people.”

Einar Steinn Valgarðsson, a board member in the Association Iceland-Palestine, says the organisation has always taken a firm stance when it comes to human rights violations. “All our work is founded on the respect of international laws and solidarity when it comes to human rights. We believe that disputes between Israel and Palestine will not be resolved fairly without human rights as a guiding light.”

Einar says that although groups such as Association Iceland-Palestine have limited influence in the big picture, history shows that international pressure can make a difference.

The Facebook post in English can be read in full below.

https://www.facebook.com/islandpalestina/posts/2463806847046693