Iceland and Israel Discuss Gaza Visa Holders

bjarni benediktsson

Iceland’s Foreign Minister Bjarni Benediktsson had a phone meeting with his Israeli counterpart Israel Katz yesterday, where the two discussed Icelandic visa holders in Gaza. Some 100 Palestinians in Gaza, mostly children, hold approved Icelandic visas on the basis of family reunification. Bjarni requested assistance in processing the list of visa holders, according to a press release from the Icelandic government.

Government criticised for moving slowly

Iceland’s government has been criticised for moving slowly on extracting Icelandic visa holders from Gaza. An Icelandic lawyer representing one Palestinian family waiting for reunification has submitted a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman asserting that the government is responsible for the individuals on the basis of humanitarian law. In early February, Icelandic authorities sent three representatives to Cairo to look into bringing the visa-holders across the Rafah border, but their efforts have yet to bear fruit. Meanwhile, a group of Icelandic civilian volunteers have already gotten around 25 Icelandic visa holders out of Gaza.

Special examination needed, Foreign Ministry says

“The Icelandic government sent a list of residence permit holders to the authorities in the region in the first half of February,” the government press release states. “In communication with the Israeli government, it has been stated that the list is unique as there are no Icelandic citizens or dual citizens on it, only residence permit holders. The list therefore requires special examination on their part, and has therefore not yet been processed.”

Icelandic government ministers previously stated that Iceland has no obligation to extract Icelandic visa holders from Gaza. Ministers also stated that other Nordic countries were only extracting their own citizens from the region, not visa holders, a statement that proved to be false.

Ambassador Nomination Draws Surprise and Criticism

foreign minister bjarni benediktsson

Minister for Foreign Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson has nominated his former assistant as Ambassador to the United States, RÚV reports. An administrative analyst has called the nomination unusual while Pirate Party MP Björn Leví Gunnarsson has called it a breach of ethics.

Svanhildur Holm Valsdóttir, Bjarni’s nominee, has been director of the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce for the past three years. Between 2013 and 2020, she worked as Bjarni’s assistant. Prior to that, she was the CEO of the Independence Party, of which Bjarni is the chair. Svanhildur holds a law degree as well as an MBA from Reykjavík University.

Threshold for ambassador lowered

“The threshold for the rank of ambassador has really been lowered with the appointment of Svanhildur Holm, as her promotion in this regard is very rare,” Haukur Arnþórsson, an administrative analyst, told RÚV. He added that the appointment was a surprise. While in the past, former politicians have been appointed as ambassadors, often to strong criticism, appointing a former political assistant and a public official from a minister’s former ministry is something completely new, Haukur stated.

Breach of ethics, says opposition

Pirate Party MP Björn Leví Gunnarsson asserted that Bjarni’s nomination of Svanhildur may constitute a breach of ethics. He stated that the Parliamentary Ombudsman can investigate the matter if he considers there to be reason to do so.

Position not advertised

Bjarni Benediktsson stepped into the role of Minister for Foreign Affairs two months ago, after resigning as Minister of Finance when the Parliamentary Ombudsman concluded he had been unfit to approve the partial sale of Íslandsbanki bank.

Svanhildur’s appointment is for a period of five years. The position was not advertised. US authorities have yet to accept the nomination.

In 2020, Bjarni’s fellow party member Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson proposed tightening the regulations for appointing ambassadors. The proposed amendments, which, among other changes, would have made advertising ambassadorial openings mandatory, were not passed.

Iceland’s Foreign Minister Contradicts Israel’s Statement

Katrín Jakbosdóttir, Bjarni Benediktsson

Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson refused to call the Israeli Defense Forces’ operation on the refugee camp Jabalia an “attack” even though the IDF itself had called it such. In a press conference in Oslo earlier this week, Bjarni described the event as “a matter of how you approach it.” The parties in Iceland’s coalition government seem to be having trouble agreeing on a stance on the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

At a press conference in Oslo, a reporter from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) asked Bjarni how he would describe the attack on Jabalia refugee camp carried out by Israeli forces. Bjarni responded: “If you’re asking me to give a response on an attack on a refugee camp, then you’re saying there was an attack on a refugee camp.” When the reporter rephrased his question, Bjarni continued: “It’s a matter of how you approach it. As I see it, there is a fight going on against terrorists. And anything that happens as we have seen in the media in the refugee camp is just horrific. Something that should always be avoided. It is against international law. But you cannot take this out of the context. That there are terrorists actively now fighting the Israelis, and they still are. And there is some response because of that. And we’ve seen many examples where the terrorists use civilians as shields and that is what makes things extremely complicated. So what we are seeing in the media is horrific. It’s extremely saddening. And this is why we are calling for a humanitarian pause to the conflict.”

Over 100,000 live in the Jabalia refugee camp, which has been the target of Israeli strikes since October 9. It was struck again on October 31, killing at least 47 Palestinians and trapping more than a hundred beneath the rubble. The Indonesia Hospital said most casualties were women and children. Israel asserted that it had killed a Hamas commander in the attacks.

Rift between coalition parties

The Icelandic government has faced criticism for abstaining from a UN vote on a ceasefire in Gaza last Friday. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir expressed regret over the lack of support for the resolution and admitted that communication between ministries was inadequate. Foreign Minister Bjarni Benediktsson stated that he had not been consulted on the vote in the United Nations General Assembly.

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. “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.

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.”

Iceland to Close Embassy in Moscow

Minister for Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir

The embassy of Iceland in Moscow will be shut down on August 1, according to a press release from Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Icelandic authorities have also requested the Russian embassy in Reykjavík scale down its operations so there is no longer a Russian ambassador in Iceland. These changes do not mean a complete severing of diplomatic relations between Iceland and Russia, however.

Ukraine’s Minister for Foreign Affairs thanked Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir, his Icelandic counterpart, for the decision to suspend operations of its embassy in Moscow and request Russia to limit the operations of its embassy in Reykjavík. “Russia must see that barbarism leads to complete isolation. I encourage other states to follow Iceland’s example,” he tweeted.

Þórdís Kolbrún told RÚV that the decision was made after extensive consideration, adding “it is not suitable for there to be so much Russian activity here in Reykjavík because of how relations are very limited and will continue to be until the Russians decide to behave in a different way than they are doing now.”

Iceland has operated an embassy in Moscow since 1944 with the exception of 1951-1953. The last time there was no Russian ambassador in Iceland was 1948-1954. “The decision to close down the embassy’s activities does not imply the termination of the diplomatic relationship between the countries,” the press release from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs states. “As soon as conditions permit, emphasis will be placed on resuming the activities of the Icelandic embassy in Moscow.”

Primacy of EEA Rules Does Not Include Transfer of Legislative Power, Foreign Minister States

Minister for Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir

Minister Of Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir has presented a bill to Parliament ensuring the primacy of EEA rules introduced into Icelandic legislation over other national legislation, meaning that in the case of conflict, EEA rules will prevail.

The bill is a response to EFTA Surveillance Authority complaints, which has issued a reasoned opinion to Iceland concerning its failure to fulfil its obligations under Protocol 35 to the EEA Agreement and Article 3 of the EEA Agreement, as there is no mention of EEA rule precedence in Icelandic legislation.

“This bill is just one sentence that would do so,” Þórdís Kolbrún told RÚV, stating that a main point was that the article only applied to EEA regulations that Parliament had already approved, thereby making it national legislation. “The changes in wording might change the way courts interpret the law but it is of course up to them to make those judgements,” she added. In response to criticism from a member of her own party, Þórdis added that “Protocol 35 explicitly states that it does not include any transfer of legislative powers to any institution of the European Economic Area. The primacy rule will only affect articles of Icelandic legislation instituted by Parliament in case of a conflict where one contradicts another.”

Iceland to Take Part in Sanctions Against Russia, Ministers Say

Prime Minister of Iceland Katrín Jakobsdóttir

Iceland’s Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and President publicly condemned Russian military action in Ukraine this morning. Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, discussed the development during question period today, when opposition MP Helga Vala Helgadóttir urged the Justice Minister to declare Ukraine an unsafe country and accept refugees from the country in Iceland. Foreign Minister Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir stated Iceland would take “full part in international sanctions” on Russia.

Iceland’s National Security Council will meet today to discuss the Russian attack on Ukraine, RÚV reports. The meeting was scheduled prior to the attack launched by Russia last night. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated that the most pessimistic predictions of events in Russia and Ukraine have come to pass.

“The Icelandic government and I condemn this attack, of course. This is a serious breach of international law and truly looks as if the worst predictions in this matter have come to pass,” Katrín stated. Asked about Icelandic authorities’ response, she stated that Iceland would collaborate with its allies and NATO, of which it is a founding member.

Unclear whether Russian ambassador will stay

Þórdís Kolbrún was asked whether authorities would consider deporting Russia’s ambassador to Iceland. “We called him to a meeting here yesterday and reviewed our case. Now the priority is really to support what needs to be supported within NATO, monitor closely and review what is happening.  As for the Russian embassy here, it will remain to be seen,” Þórdís stated. The Russian Embassy to Iceland criticised statements from the President of Iceland and the Minister of Foreign Affairs expressing support in Ukraine’s territorial integrity earlier this month, calling them “one-sided” and “subjective.”

During the Icelandic Parliament’s question period this morning, opposition MP Helga Vala Helgadóttir urged Justice Minister Jón Gunnarsson to declare Ukraine an unsafe country today and ease the arrival of refugees from the country. The Minister answered that the issue “should be reviewed” at this point, but made no firm declarations, Kjarninn reports. Jón’s recent actions concerning asylum seekers, including proposed amendments to the Immigration Act, have been criticised by human rights organisations and medical professionals in Iceland.

Icelandic Officials Express Support for Ukraine

Minister for Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir

Iceland’s Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and President have expressed their support for Ukraine and called on Russia to de-escalate its military advance into the country. Minister for Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir met with the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) yesterday, who issued a statement on the matter. The Icelandic government considers Russia’s actions to be a breach of international law, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated in an interview with RÚV.

“The Icelandic government’s stance is completely clear. We consider this to be a breach of international law,” the Prime Minister stated. “This concerns the border of an independent state and not only have the Russians recognised the independence of these two regions but moreover sent troops over the border which is, of course, a very serious situation.” Katrín added that she hoped the current situation would not lead to conflict, and that “all diplomatic paths would be pursued as far as possible.”

The Prime Minister tweeted along similar lines yesterday, writing that “Escalation and armed conflict is not the solution to current challenges. The door for diplomacy must remain open.” Iceland’s President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson retweeted Katrín’s statement, adding: “A clear stance by the government of Iceland. Respect for international law is paramount, recourse to violence unacceptable.”

Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs met with the Partner Nations of the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) yesterday, who issued a statement calling out Russia for breaking international law and reiterating their support for Ukraine and its sovereignty. “We call on Russia to deescalate and encourage them to engage in transparent dialogue, including through the OSCE and the NATO-Russia Council, in order to reduce tensions,” the statement reads, in part.

Blinken Grilled on Gaza and Russia at Reykjavík Press Conference

Antony Blinken US Secretary of State and Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson this morning in Reykjavík’s Harpa Conference Centre. The two held a press conference after the meeting, where reporters questioned Blinken on the ongoing violence in Gaza, US military presence in Iceland, and Russian activity in the Arctic. Secretary Blinken is in Iceland to attend the ministerial meeting of the Artic Council, which takes place tomorrow and Thursday.

Blinken arrived at Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre in downtown Reykjavík shortly after 10.00am this morning, where a group of protesters had gathered outside the building. Individuals held signs with slogans including “USA, stop arming apartheid!” and “Free Palestine” at the protest, which was organised by the Association Iceland-Palestine.

Félagið Ísland-Palestína.

Gratitude for Icelandic Defence Efforts

At the press conference following the meeting, both Guðlaugur Þór and Blinken underlined the longstanding friendship between Iceland and the United States. In Blinken’s words: “Iceland and the United States are allies and trusted partners. We have a friendship that stretches back to 1944, when we were proud to be the first country to recognize Iceland’s independence.” The Secretary commended Iceland on its leadership in gender equality and praised it as an “example to the world of what is possible in renewable energy.” He added that the United States were “grateful” for Iceland’s co-operation in defence issues, pointing out that the US-Iceland bilateral defence agreement marked its 70th anniversary earlier this month.

Grilled on Israel and Palestine

Reporters pressed Blinken on the ongoing violence in Palestine and Israel, which the two officials stated they had discussed during their meeting. Blinken referenced US President Joe Biden’s statement that “Israel, like every country, has the right to defend itself against attacks.” He added, however, that the US’ goal is “to bring the current cycle of violence to an end as quickly as possible.” Both Guðlaugur and Blinken articulated their nations’ support for a two-state solution in the region.

When asked how the US justified blocking a proposed UN statement that would condemn the violence in Gaza and call for a cease-fire, Blinked answered: “First, I think it’s important to note that we are engaged in quiet but very intense diplomacy in an effort to de-escalate and end the violence and then hopefully move on to build something more positive in its wake. That’s involved and continues to involve dozens of phone calls and engagements with Israelis and Palestinians [and other parties].” He insisted that by blocking the resolution the US was “not standing in the way of diplomacy” and questioned whether the statement would “actually advance the goal of ending the violence or moving to a better place.”

“Rotational” Military Presence in Iceland

An Icelandic reporter at the press conference inquired whether the US was considering establishing a more permanent military presence in Iceland and Greenland. Blinken stated the country planned “to continue to maintain the US presence on a persistent rotational basis,” adding that any changes to current operations “are closely co-ordinated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and all NATO allies.” He added that the upcoming NATO summit in June would be an opportunity “to think about and work on NATO’s future.” Both Blinken and Guðlaugur Þór emphasised that the purpose of the Iceland-US alliance was defensive.

Goal of Peaceful Co-operation in Arctic

Throughout the press conference, Blinken underlined the importance of maintaining peace in the Arctic as it becomes an increasingly “strategic” area. According to Blinken, the Arctic “must remain an area of peaceful co-operation.” Blinken stated that he was looking forward to meeting Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later in the week and discussing the Arctic, among other issues. He expressed concern at “increased military activities” in the region on the part of Russia, saying they undermined the goal of peaceful co-operation. “I think what we need to avoid is a militarisation of the region,” Blinken stated. Guðlaugur added that the Arctic “should be a low-tension area like it has been.”

Read More: Iceland and the Arctic

Blinken’s agenda for the rest of the day includes meetings with Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson. He will also visit Hellisheiði geothermal power station, where he will learn about the CarbFix carbon fixation project.

 

Icelandic Ministers Condemn Attack on Democracy in United States

Iceland Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir

Iceland’s foremost government officials took to Twitter last night to condemn the attack on the United States Capitol. The building was breached by hundreds of Trump supporters, many of them armed, as the ceremonial counting of electoral votes took place confirming President-elect Joe Biden’s win.

Attackers Egged On By Trump, Says Prime Minister

As reports of the attack were published last night, Prime Minister of Iceland Katrín Jakobsdóttir tweeted: “An attack on Capitol Hill is an attack on democracy. We are witnessing disturbing scenes of violence in Washington DC. Liberty, democracy and decency must be respected.”

The Prime Minister later shared her reactions to the event in an interview with RÚV. “We’re talking about an attack on the parliament building and an attack on democracy and I was of course incredibly stunned when I saw the first reports of it,” she stated. “There we are seeing this great institution that is simply about to confirm the results of a democratic election and it is attacked at the urging of the outgoing president.” Katrín added that it was important that representatives returned to work and finished confirming the election, standing their ground in that regard. She called the attackers’ actions “anti-democratic.”

Icelandic President, Ministers Address Attack

Katrín was not alone among Icelandic officials to condemn the attack. Minister for Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson tweeted last night: “Shocking scenes in #WashingtonDC. Any attacks on #democratic institutions and undermining of rule of law should be condemned. Outcome of democratic elections must be respected.” Around the same time, Minister of Justice Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir tweeted: “The events in USA unfolding now are an affront to democracy. @realdonaldtrump must condemn the mob and demand they cease the violent protests and leave the Capitol.” Minister of Tourism, Industry and Innovation Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir added her words to those of her colleagues, calling it “sad and surreal to watch this attack on democracy.”

Iceland’s President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson was more subtle in his discussion of the events. Guðni tweeted this morning: “As Congress confirms election of @JoeBiden, I reiterate my congratulations to the next President of the United States, legally elected by the people. 1000 year old wisdom from Althing, world’s oldest nationwide parliament, still true: If we tear the law apart we tear peace apart.”