Middle East, Europe

Sweden's pivot: From recognizing Palestinian statehood to backing Israel in Gaza

The 'unconditional support' Sweden's right-wing government has given Israel highlights a radical change in the Nordic country's stance despite a ruling of plausible genocide against Palestinians

Leila Nezirevic  | 21.03.2024 - Update : 28.03.2024
Sweden's pivot: From recognizing Palestinian statehood to backing Israel in Gaza

- Sweden's position on 'Israeli genocide against Palestinians' almost identical to that of Washington, Tel Aviv, former government-appointed investigator Masoud Kamali points out in interview with Anadolu

- Kamali argues now, 'racist' Stockholm tolerates little dissent on Israel, in what he says could herald 'frightening' prospects of fascism


For years, Sweden had been one of Europe’s most committed nations to the Palestinian cause, going so far in 2014 as to become the first EU member to recognize Palestine as a state.

At the time, the new left-wing government in Stockholm took that important step to confirm Palestinians’ “right to self-determination,” said then-Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom.

“We hope that this will show the way for others,” she had added.

Almost a decade later, Sweden’s current right-wing administration has presided over a radical shift with its near-unwavering support for Israel even as roughly 32,000 Palestinians — mostly women and children — have been killed in Tel Aviv’s brutal offensive on the Gaza Strip.

Now, any open criticism of the Israeli military campaign is unthinkable. After an Oct. 31 attack leveled an entire residential square in Northern Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp, Sweden’s Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom dismissed the outcry at the hundreds killed and injured, calling Tel Aviv’s move “proportionate, in relation to its right to defend itself.”

Over five months into the onslaught, which came after Palestinian group Hamas launched a surprise attack that Israel said killed 1,200 people, vast swathes of Gaza lay in ruins, pushing 85% of the enclave’s population into internal displacement amid a crippling blockade of most food, clean water, and medicine, according to the UN.

Today, Israel stands accused of genocide at the International Court of Justice. An interim ruling in January ordered Tel Aviv to ensure its forces do not commit acts of genocide, and guarantee that humanitarian assistance is provided to civilians in Gaza.

Adopting US policies

Sweden began its political and socioeconomic pivot in the 1990s, when both right-wing and left-wing parties adjusted to neoliberal policies, as well as unconditional support for Israel.

However in 2014, the Social Democrats were unable to form a government without the support of the Greens, whose leadership at the time was mainly pro-Palestinian, in turn leading to the recognition of the State of Palestine by the Nordic country.

Since Oct. 7, Sweden’s pro-Israeli change in stance became more pronounced, as all parties trumpet Israel’s “right to defend itself,” in what, according to Masoud Kamali, former Swedish special investigator on discrimination, racism, and integration, helped Tel Aviv wage its “genocide against Palestinian people.”

Kamali, who is also a professor of sociology and social work, told Anadolu that the new “racist government” is ideologically led by the far-right Sweden Democrats party, known to have supported Israel since its formation in 1988.

Like many other countries in the West and beyond, Sweden started adopting US policy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue to avoid possible sanctions and other negative consequences that Washington may impose, he added.

Sweden’s position on Israel's devastating attacks on Palestinians is almost identical to that of Washington and Tel Aviv, said Kamali,

‘Very frightening’ development

The issue, noted Kamali, is that the current Swedish government does not allow any dissent to the government’s stance on Palestine.

This is evident, in particular, when in Swedish media coverage of the ongoing war, he added.

“They never call it genocide. They call it the war between Israel and Hamas, even (though) everybody knows that it’s not a war between Israel and Hamas. It’s a war even in the West Bank. It’s a war on Palestinians. It’s a colonial settlers’ war, which has been going on for 75 years,” he explained.

This approach is also prevalent in other spheres, with university students also facing negative consequences if they demonstrate in favor of Palestinians, Kamali added.

“They are controlled, and they are going to be sanctioned” unless they comply, with some students risking being “expelled” from their universities, he said.

In one of his books, Neoliberal Securitization and Symbolic Violence: Silencing Political, Academic and Societal Resistance, Kamali argues that censorship is rife in Sweden, with many admitting being expelled after refusing to change their attitudes towards Israel.

Even government-sponsored civil society groups are under pressure, asked not to participate in protests supporting Palestine, to prevent them from doing anything that would harm the official position that Sweden and many other countries have adopted on Gaza, Kamali added.

He pointed out that in recent decades, social democrats across the world have been shifting to the political right, leaving behind their traditional ideologies and policies that played a constructive role in peacekeeping.

For this reason, attitudes towards Israel’s attacks on Palestinians would be almost identical even if a left-wing party was in power, argued the author.

In Kamali’s opinion, these factors point to the “very frightening” prospect of the “establishment of fascism in this country,” while social democrats and other groups are “just silent and letting this happen.”

Western hypocrisy

Israel’s actions in Gaza have exposed Western hypocrisy that claims to support human rights, democracy, and the self-determination of people, according to Kamali.

“Those claims are just words, they do not mean anything,” he said.

The world should reflect on the history of colonialism in the West, and the history of Western powers’ participation in genocides in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, he asserted.

The Israeli war on Gaza showed that the only power to stop it and to change the course of history lies with civil organizations and with people in all countries, who must raise their voices to stop governments from establishing “fascist regimes.”

Many European countries like the UK, France, and Germany have been overwhelmingly pro-Israel in their stance on the ongoing war, particularly among the ruling elite, establishment voices and media.

Meanwhile, Spain and Ireland have exhibited the most pro-Palestinian sentiments, says Nader Hashemi, associate professor of Middle East and Islamic politics at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

When Russia launched its war on Ukraine in February 2022, Western nations including Sweden said, “we had to abide by international law, that we had to oppose the occupation, we had to oppose annexation, we had to support the criminal prosecution of those people who are guilty of war crimes,” he told Anadolu.

These principles announced in the context of Ukraine “have completely been abandoned” when it comes to Palestine, Hashemi asserted, adding that it was “very difficult to take the West seriously anymore on these questions.”

Government officials in the West are very pro-Israel, but “now they have to respond to outraged public opinion,” he pointed out.

Today, that is forcing them “to make statements that attempt to acknowledge the Palestinian dimension of this crisis, the suffering in Gaza, the need for a Palestinian state,” he said.

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