A second major city in Norway has voted to boycott Israeli goods and services produced in Palestinian territory occupied in 1967.
Tromsø’s resolution was sponsored by council members Jens Ingvald Olsen and Mads Gilbert, known worldwide for his medical work in the Gaza Strip.
With a population of 75,000 and one of only a handful of world cities north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø has a long tradition of solidarity with Palestine, Gilbert told The Electronic Intifada.
Tromsø has been twinned with Gaza City for 15 years, which has led to cultural and youth exchanges and a visit to by the mayor of Gaza City.
Given that history of solidarity, said Gilbert, “it should come as absolutely no surprise that Tromsø city council should be the second in Norway to vote in favor of a boycott of Israeli goods produced on occupied territory.”
According to Gilbert, there was little formal coordination with the vote in Trondheim except that officials shared the text of their resolution.
The primary inspiration for Tromsø’s boycott came from the Icelandic capital Reykjavik, which voted in 2015 to boycott all Israeli products until Israel complies with international law and human rights conventions.
After an extreme backlash from Israel and its supporters, however, the Reykjavik initiative was rescinded.
“We already then decided that we would support our Icelandic friends in a very concrete way by taking up the baton and promote similar votes in Norway,” said Gilbert. “It has been on our drafting table for quite some time.”
A moral question
The Tromsø city council has faced pressure both before and after the vote, which was approved by a left-wing alliance of Labor, Socialist Left and Red parties.
As with the Trondheim vote, members of the council’s right-wing opposition criticized the measure as an unjustified incursion by local politicians into foreign policy.
But there were also personal attacks.
Council member Benjamin Notkevich from the Socialist Left party faced particularly fierce criticism for supporting the boycott because of his Jewish heritage – many of his relatives perished in the Holocaust.
His rejection of that criticism was vehement.
“For me it’s a moral question,” Notkevich told The Electronic Intifada. “Should the money of the people of Tromsø go to supporting an occupation economy? We decided that it should not, and therefore we made this resolution.”
Following the vote, he has been harassed with abusive phone calls, emails and social media posts, including comments labeling him anti-Semitic, calling him “garbage with a Jewish name” and comparing him to Vidkun Quisling, the puppet leader of the collaborationist government during the Nazi occupation of Norway.
“To the charge made by several actors that this was motivated by anti-Semitism, let me put it as simple as this: It was not,” said Notkevich. The charge, he said, “is an easy way to run away from talking about the occupation and keep building new settlements.”
One injustice does not justify another
Israel’s ambassador to Norway, Raphael Schutz, was a leading voice suggesting the vote was anti-Semitic. In a letter to members of the Tromsø city council, Schutz asked them to vote against “sinister winds of hate” and made references to Nazi Germany and allegations of anti-Israel bias in the United Nations.
“The radical pro-boycott approach uses almost always false information and lies,” Schutz charged. “Describing Israel as an apartheid state, accusing it of committing ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians, blaming it for intentional killing of innocent people and indiscriminate attacks against civil population are just a few of them.”
The council’s majority leader, Jarle Heitmann of the Labor Party, responded publicly that while both the situation of Palestinians today and the historic tragedies experienced by Jews would be part of the council’s deliberations, “one injustice could never justify another.”
Heitmann called the ambassador’s declarations “counterproductive.”
The Tromsø resolution bans the purchase of goods produced in any occupied territory, but also refers to territory occupied by Morocco in Western Sahara.
“Start of a cascade”
Following the vote, Schutz dismissed the Tromsø boycott as “an empty gesture.”
But Gilbert argues that the Israeli government considers the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) to be a serious threat.
“They do whatever they can to combat it,” he said. “There is an increasing number of attempts from the Israeli government to make BDS activities illegal.”
This has included increasing attempts to either deny entry or expel BDS supporters, making visits to Palestine more difficult for solidarity activists.
In November 2014, Israel indefinitely banned Gilbert from entering Gaza.
Gilbert said he is not concerned about how his role in this vote could affect his ability to return to Palestine.
“Our hardship is absolutely miniscule compared to the daily hardship that Palestinians are facing on checkpoints, access to hospitals, the denial of right to travel from Gaza, the repeated brutal military assaults on Gaza and the limitations in access to health care,” he said. “I hope these two city council votes in Norway will be the start of a cascade of similar votes.”
The resolutions are the most recent indicators of changing trends within Norway’s Labor Party, the largest party in parliament, though not currently part of the governing coalition.
In a shift echoing the Democratic Party in the US, Israel’s repeated assaults on Gaza in the last decade have forced a reconsideration of a long history of support for the Zionist project and strong ties with the Israeli labor movement.
During the 2014 assault, Labor Party leaders went on record discouraging trade with Israeli settlements.
“There is no doubt that there is a major shift within the Labor Party and of course this is such a defeat for the Israeli government,” said Gilbert, whose own efforts to save the victims of Israeli military aggression in Gaza in 2008-2009 and 2014 became the basis for two books: Eyes in Gaza and Night in Gaza.
“I’m sure that if there is a left- or center-left majority during the next election, there is a real possibility that goods and services from the illegal Israeli colonies, misleadingly named ‘settlements,’ in the occupied Palestinian territories will be boycotted by the Norwegian parliament.”
Norway’s next national election takes place in September 2017. Recent polls show the Labor Party with a lead.
The party’s platform declares that “there should not be trade of [Israeli] goods and services produced in occupied areas.”