Sweden, like most countries in the western world, is obsessed with the Middle-East. The Arab-Israeli conflict receives constant media coverage and public interest, and the recent events in Gaza were no exception. As usual, they sparked a lively and sometimes violent debate. Sadly, and this too is usual, the debate is full of misinformation and misunderstandings.
Most Swedish political figures positioned themselves between strongly condemning Israel while mildly criticizing Hamas' actions on the one hand and totally supporting Hamas and its administration in Gaza on the other.
On the left many condemned Israel's military operation and the Jewish state in general. "I don't think Israel is a democracy worthy of the name. It's a racist apartheid state,” said the Left Party's Hans Linde, calling for a boycott of Israel.
On the right, Carl Bildt, Sweden's foreign minister who visited Gaza last week, blamed Israel for intentionally targeting economic infrastructure and called Israeli policies "neither morally nor politically defensible". These remarks were part of a wider debate which included demonstrations, calls for boycotts and anti-Israel diplomacy.
A leading Social-Democrat, Urban Ahlin, Deputy Chair of the Committee of Foreign Affairs, implored the government to encourage the EU to suspend its cooperation agreement with Israel, while perhaps the most amazing remark was made by another Social-Democrat. “Israel is an apartheid state. I think Gaza is comparable to the Warsaw ghetto,” said Ingalill Bjartén, the vice-chair of one of the Social Democratic women's organizations.
This is all very well and is part of living in a democracy but when one mentions the Holocaust and the latest round of violence in the Middle East in the same breath - a ridiculous and manipulative comparison - one should try to remain true to the facts. These are important since the victims of the conflict in Gaza and southern Israel, Jews and Arabs alike, deserve the truth. Deceitful and over-simplified versions, like those listed above, are an insult to those who live through the reality of the region, and are part of the reason the tragedy goes on.
Here are a few inconvenient truths that Swedish politicians, on the left and right, choose to forget:
There is no Israeli occupation in Gaza. Israel withdrew all its troops and settlements years ago and did not blockade Gaza when its forces withdrew. In fact - and this may come as a surprise to those who don't bother with facts before they make their moral judgments - Israel signed an agreement with the Palestinian Authority concerning security arrangements and safe passage of people and goods between Israel and Gaza. The agreement was breached by Hamas, purposely ignoring the best interest of the Palestinians themselves, when they took control of Gaza in 2007 and declared that all agreements and cease-fires with Israel were cancelled and that Israel must be destroyed.
Hamas then launched numerous rocket attacks against Israeli citizens (who, for some reason, don't attract much attention from Swedish moral experts) and massacred hundreds of members of the rival Palestinian fraction, Fatah, among them those who were responsible for the safety of the borders with Israel (yes, that's right, their own people). Two additional facts are interesting to point out here: first, even when Israel finally had to close its border with Gaza because of the violent nature of the new Palestinian regime it still allowed the passage of humanitarian help, fuel, electricity and money.
Second, Egypt too had to close its border with Gaza, which shows that this is not really an Israeli-Arab conflict, but rather a struggle against gangsters and thugs. Egypt, of course, drew absolutely no Swedish criticism though it is blockading Gaza just as much as Israel is. In Swedish terms you could imagine the following scenario: Norway is taken over by a gang of crazed fascists who regularly launch rocket attacks on Karlstad, kidnap Swedish nationals and threaten to annihilate all Swedes in a holy war. Obviously, in a case like this most Swedes would support a strong reaction and certain adjustments in Swedish border and foreign policies. Well, this is exactly what happened in Israel and Israel waited eight years before finally attacking the Hamas power basis in Gaza.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. During the latest conflict Hamas intentionally fired rockets from schools and mosques in order to provoke a counter-attack. You would expect Hamas's rather unlikely Swedish supporters (oddly enough, usually left-wingers supporting ultra nationalist religious fanatics), to be a little more critical of a leadership cynically sacrificing its own people, including women and children for political purposes.
Even the Arab press has had enough of this. "There are a million and a half desperate people", wrote a columnist in the leading Arab daily Al-Hayat, "they were wounded, their houses destroyed, their children were kidnapped to be human shields for those craving a confrontation with Israel. And there are those who sit in their comfortable chairs in Damascus and Beirut, boasting their divine victory which never existed and preventing a cease-fire". It is one thing that extremist Arab regimes silence voices like this. It's incomprehensible that Swedes should do the same.
In the broader context, Hamas began to implement Sharia Law over the population of Gaza. These laws include punishments such as executions, beatings and limb amputations, not to speak of the degradation of women, a total lack of respect for human rights and a complete disregard of human life. Not exactly the material of Socialist utopias.
Now Israel is often accused of aggression towards its Arab and Muslim neighbors but history, both recent and far, shows that it is the Arab regimes which oppress their own people and sometimes slaughter them in an orgy of death-worshipping fundamentalism. Yet, somehow Israel is always to blame. Israel, though far from perfect, didn't butcher almost two hundred thousands Muslims with knives and axes during the nineties, that was Algeria. Thousands of Palestinians were murdered during "Black September" by forces under the control of the king of Jordan, not by the Israelis.
The Israeli regime, while having its flaws, didn't slaughter, rape and burn thousands of Shia Muslims in Afghanistan. That was the Taliban. Israel is not responsible for the daily suicide bombs in Iraq that claim the lives of thousands of Muslims. Israel is not innocent, it has also committed acts of violence and aggression, but it is nothing compared to the barbaric and murderous regimes in Sudan, Syria and Saudi Arabia, which, like Hamas are all responsible for countless Muslim deaths and for millions of Muslims living in poverty and despair.
Swedes with a conscience may want to stop turning their head the other way when it concerns the homemade tragedies of the Muslim world. Was there a large demonstration in Sergels Torg when the Syrians, the Pakistanis or the Somalis initiated yet another of their bloodbaths? Are there any boycotts of products from the Gulf States which continue to persecute minorities, oppress women and mock basic concepts of freedom and Democracy? Of course not. It's all Israel's fault.
If only the Jews could stop provoking the Arab world, say Israel's critics, if only Israel would accept a peaceful solution. But they're wrong. The assumption that the Palestinian struggle is a reaction to Israeli policies, though it may sound reasonable, is simply wrong.
Any careful study will show that radical Islamism is not a reaction to Israel's so-called imperialism - it existed long before the state of Israel; Islamic racism and anti-Semitism are not a reaction to Israel's so-called aggression, they existed long before the Zionist movement even began and, for God's sake, movements like Hamas and Hizbullah aren't really interested in a Palestinian state. Their agenda is to kill Jews, and focusing on this agenda enables them to continue oppressing their own people.
The Palestinians themselves rejected numerous chances to establish an independent state and reach a solution to their tragic situation (some examples are the 1936 Peel Commission, the 1947 UN Partition plan and the 2000 Clinton proposal). Their leadership simply thrives on the conflict and they'll continue it at any cost.
But why are these facts ignored in Sweden? How can a leading Social Democrat compare Israel to the Nazis and still keep her seat. Is this ignorance or deceitfulness? Are they ill-informed or are they knowingly playing an active role in the propaganda machine of extremist elements from the Middle East? One can only speculate as to which of these is the case for Ms Bjartén and Mr Linde.
And it's not just a question of words. Mr Linde and Ms Bjartén cannot claim their words have nothing to do with the eggs and bottles thrown at pro-Israel demonstrators in Malmö at the end of January. They are partly responsible for the attacks on Israel's embassy in Stockholm, the Jewish centre in Helsingborg and the Jewish cemetery in Malmö. An ugly wave of anti-Semitism is on the rise in Sweden and they cannot claim to be free of responsibility.
A participant in a demonstration in Stockholm, a Swede converted to Islam who writes regularly in the Swedish press, wrote in his blog: "it felt good to burn Israel's flag and trample on the remains. It was uplifting to shout "Allahu akbar" [Allah is great] together with blond and blue eyed non-Muslim Swedes".
Do Mona Sahlin and Jan Eliasson, leaders of Sweden's biggest political party, really think that marching under Hezbollah and Hamas flags, as they did a couple of weeks ago, doesn't contribute to the legitimacy of these actions? Can they really consider themselves worthy heirs to the noble Social Democratic values of Humanism and Solidarity?
Back in Israel, many Israelis are not at all sure that the Israeli operation in Gaza was wise or justified. Many opposed it and demonstrated against it. They may be right. Israel is a democracy and unlike the Palestinians in Gaza they are entitled to express their opinion without being tortured or executed. The obvious conclusion after almost every round of violence in the Middle-East is that the conflict isn't between Jews and Arabs, it's between progressive peace-seekers and warmongers within the various countries.
At the end of the day, the Palestinians have suffered the most from the recent conflict. Sadly, their own leadership is responsible. Most Palestinians, and especially the children and the families who have lost everything, are innocent victims. For their sake the historical lesson must be clear. Freedom and Democracy must be defended at any cost. Racists, fascists and promoters of oppression and genocide must be opposed.
Hamas is all of these things just like the Lebanese Hezbollah, despite the support they attract from the bizarre Swedish so-called left. Swedes, as lovers of peace and freedom, would be wise to encourage those who fight these forces of evil thousands of miles away or they might find them in their back yard. If they're not there already.