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Politics in Sweden: How the Israel-Gaza attacks became party politics in Sweden

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
Politics in Sweden: How the Israel-Gaza attacks became party politics in Sweden
Demonstrators wave Palestinian flags at a protest in Malmö on Saturday. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

After terror group Hamas' savage attack on a kibbutz in Israel, a foreign policy issue quickly descended into Swedish party politics, explains The Local's Nordic editor Richard Orange. But it's not certain that only the political right stands to benefit.


It took only a day after Hamas' attack on Israel before Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats, used it to smear the Social Democrats, Left Party, and Green Party. 

The political left in Sweden were "not credible" in their condemnation of Hamas, he claimed in a party leader debate on Sweden's public broadcaster SVT, accusing Jamal El-Haj, the leading Social Democrat MP of Palestinian origin of "hugging a Hamas leader". He also claimed that all the left-of-centre parties had links to "highly dubious Palestinian organisations". 

"He has devoted his entire life to fighting against Hamas," Magdalena Andersson, leader of the centre-left Social Democrats, responded in defence of El-Haj.  "I don't think there is any other MP in parliament who has ever declared Hamas as his greatest enemy to the same extent." 

Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson attacked the three left-of-centre parties for what he claimed were links to pro-Palestinian groups. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

In the days that followed, Left Party leader Nooshi Dadgostar also faced criticism, with right-wing politicians and commentators pointing out her party's divisions over how to respond. A party group in Gothenburg backed a pro-Palestinian demonstration, while a municipal politician called for the resignation of the "weak" Dadgostar due to her decision to condemn Hamas without also condemning Israel's occupation.  


A typical attack came from Niklas Gillström, press secretary for finance minister Elizabeth Svantesson, and former press spokesperson for the right-wing Moderate Party.

"The conflict between Israel and Hamas has truly shown the moral morass which exists in large parts of the Left," he wrote on X. "Everything from the Social Democrats' handling of El-Haj to the criticism against Dadgostar for her condemnation of Hamas' terror." 

A significant chunk of voters of the parties on the left, both from immigrant and Swedish backgrounds, and even some of their politicians, have been strongly pro-Palestinian historically.  

Although only 12,000 people in Sweden are recorded by Statistics Sweden as having one or more parent born in the Palestinian territories, some academics estimate that the true number of people of Palestinian origin could be as high as 80,000.

If you assume that the 200,000, or perhaps even as many as 250,000, Arabic speakers are broadly pro-Palestinian, that's an important voter base.  


And as the demonstrations in Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg in the days since the attack have shown, support for the Palestinian cause is strong on the campaigning left. The pro-Palestinian Swedish pressure group Ship to Gaza, is, for example, founded and run by former Left Party MPs.

Sweden's left-wing leaders still unequivocally condemned Hamas' attack. 

Andersson called it "a brutal attack" by a "terror group", saying Israel had a "clear right to defend itself in line with the principles of human rights" and calling on Hamas to "immediately end its attacks".   

Dadgostar called it a "terrible attack", saying that "violence and the attacks must stop" and was ready to "condemn all crimes against civilians and against international law". 

Green Party leader Märta Stenevi condemned the "terrible attack on Israel", which she said was "impossible to defend in any way". 

None of this was enough to ward off the criticism, of course.


In an article for Expressen, El-Haj complained that he was the victim of a smear campaign, pointing out that he had in 2018 written in the Sydsvenskan newspaper that people who look Jewish "should not be exposed to abuse or need to feel threatened", whether they are religious or not, and called for "organisations and individuals who carry out terror attacks against Jews to be prosecuted". 

The motion he had filed to Sweden's parliament only days before the attack was deeply critical of Hamas, he added. 

"Hamas is a terrorist organisation, born out of extreme circumstances whose goals we do not share," the motion reads. "Hamas' control of the Gaza strip has not promoted democracy or peace." 

The "Hamas leader" he is accused of hugging, Amin Abu Rashid, claims not to be connected to the terror group. He told Sydsvenskan that he had only been photographed with Hamas politician Ismail Haniyeh because he had visited Gaza at a time when Haniyeh was prime minister. "If I was in Sweden, I would have had a photograph with the King too," he said. 

The European Palestinian Conference, held in Malmö in June, which Rashid organised, put out press releases denouncing claims it is "pro-Hamas" or "Hamas-organised" as "a naked attempt by the Israeli occupation regime to suffocate European opinion". 

It obviously doesn't help the Social Democrat case that Abu Rashid and his daughter have since been arrested in The Netherlands for allegedly fundraising for Hamas (something they also claim was the result of Israeli pressure tactics).  

Responding to an attack of such indefensible brutality is certainly a tightrope for Sweden's left-wing leaders.

But judging the correct response hasn't been entirely easy for Sweden's prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, either. 

The other right-wing parties backing his government have rushed to make punitive proposals, announcing them, it would appear, before getting the government's backing. 

At the same time the Social Democrats have begun a counter-attack, criticising the government's slow moves to evacuate Swedish citizens.  


The Sweden Democrats, Liberals, and Christian Democrats are calling for Sweden to retract its recognition of Palestine, the Liberals have called for an end to controls on weapons sales to Israel, and Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats, has called for people who support Hamas in public demonstrations to be deported. 

This kneejerk reaction is already making some heavyweight figures within the Moderate party uncomfortable. 

Carl Bildt, the former Moderate Party prime minister, foreign minister and foreign policy expert, has argued ending aid to Palestine will be counterproductive. "There is important aid to Palestine which we need, if anything, to strengthen," he wrote on X. "It is hopelessness which gives birth to terrorism". 

Kristersson, meanwhile, has rejected the proposal to withdraw recognition of Palestine, at the same time as condemning the Social Democrats' decision to grant it nine years ago as "one-sided" and "pure gesture politics". 

Sweden's foreign minister, Tobias Billström, went even further, telling SvD: "If we withdraw the recognition of Palestine as a state according to UN resolutions and parameters, this would benefit Hamas."


Billström and Kristersson may be rewarded for their caution. 

While the global outrage at Hamas's atrocities makes defending the original attack all but impossible, criticism of Israel looks set to grow as the country enacts its revenge.

The order given on Saturday for one million people living in Gaza to evacuate in preparation for a ground offensive, and the harsh rhetoric from Israeli leaders – Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has described Israel's enemies in Gaza as "human animals" – have already started to generate sympathy for the civilians trapped in the area. 

So Billström may end up being right in his caution. Last week, he issued what looked like a gentle warning to the parties supporting his government.  

"I think what's needed now is to keep a cool head," he said. 


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