Erik Ullenhag, Swedish Ambassador to Israel

The narrative of the other

The Swedish Ambassador to Israel, Erik Ullenhag, published an article on the theme of the power of dialogue in the liberal magazine NU.

‘A couple of weeks ago, we gathered representatives from two peace organizations at the Swedish residence. Israeli “Women Wage Peace” and Palestinian “Women of the Sun” have cooperated with each other for a couple of years. However, the women had not met since the massacre on October 7, this was also the first time the Palestinian activists had been allowed to leave the West Bank since the war began. I began by deploring all the victims on both sides, especially the loss of Vivian Silver, one of the founders of Women Wage Peace. I had had the privilege of working quite a bit with Silver before she was murdered in her Kibbutz. Many of the Israeli women had lost loved ones and all had a family member who was drafted. One of the Palestinian women had lost her brother and 30 relatives in Gaza a week before the meeting. In the midst of despair, the women supported each other and the atmosphere in the room was electric as the women wept over each other’s grief. Their common message was that the war must end, the kidnapped be released and a way be found for Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace.

These types of meetings are currently unfortunately rare. A large percentage of Palestinians, both in the West Bank and Gaza, question that the massacre on October 7 really took place. On the Israeli side, very little of the suffering in Gaza is reflected – the television images seen in the rest of the world do not reach the Israeli citizens. Today I visited Kibbutz Nir Oz on the border with Gaza, where I was guided around by Swedish-Israeli Rita, who has lived there for decades. One in four members of the kibbutz had either been killed or kidnapped in the massacre and 80 percent of the houses were destroyed. Only three people have moved back, but many come from time to time to feed cats or take care of the Kibbutz. The devastation was hard to fathom and the grief of the victims I spoke to almost impossible to fathom. While walking around between burned houses, we heard the intense fighting from Khan Yunis a few kilometers away. In parallel with trying to take in the unimaginable atrocities that befell the kibbutz, I thought about the many thousands of children killed in Gaza. I heard the artillery fire and tried to imagine how people at that very moment were trying to seek shelter.

For me as a diplomat and in that sense an outsider, it is difficult enough to take in the suffering of both sides. I fully understand that it is even more difficult for two traumatized populations to see the other’s reality. But if peace is to be achieved, it is absolutely necessary that both sides try, and meetings between people are necessary. And as both Israelis and Palestinians often say – we all live here and none of us will leave. The key to peace and security after this war is a two-state solution and trying to understand the other side’s narrative. That is precisely why it gave hope when the Israeli and Palestinian women supported each other. And just recently I received a message from my guide Rita, whose parents-in-law were kidnapped on October 7th. She pleaded for help for a Palestinian family in Gaza “we need everyone’s help to free the kidnapped and ensure that we Israelis can live in peace with the people of Gaza”. Incredibly strong that someone who has been hit so hard still retains hope for peace and coexistence and can bear to see the suffering that befalls people in Gaza.’

Erik Ullenhag

Link to the article in NU