Head of the Norwegian Refugees Council Jan Egeland is a humanitarian fighter with extraordinary experience and a range of leading roles in human rights, conflict negotiation, and humanitarian response. He leads Norway’s largest humanitarian NGO, an organisation established in 1946 that works in 40 countries around the world.
Called the “world’s conscience” and one of the most influential people of our time by the US Time magazine in 2006, Egeland was undersecretary-general of the UN for Humanitarian Affairs from 2003 to 2006. He was special adviser to the UN secretary-general for Conflict Prevention and Resolution from 2006 to 2008 and special adviser to the UN special envoy for Syria in 2015.
At the time of the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, Egeland was state secretary of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has also been secretary-general of the Norwegian Red Cross.
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, he stressed the importance of Egypt’s role in many crises in the region, along with the need for justice for the killing of innocent people in Gaza and the need for a comprehensive agreement between Israel and the Palestinians as the only hope for a lasting peace.
Your work in providing relief to afflicted areas has spanned decades. What has pained you the most?
I have been a humanitarian worker for 40 years and started in Colombia in Latin America when I was 19 years old. I have worked in Moldova, and I have been to Central America, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, all of them large crises. There have been so many terrible catastrophes and wars over the years, but I think the Darfur atrocities and ethnic cleansing in Sudan that happened between 2003 and 2006 was particularly terrible. It really pains me that so many people are still starving and suffering in silence with the world neglecting Sudan, Congo, Somalia, and now Gaza.
In the light of your long experience in conflicts, how would you describe the humanitarian crisis in Gaza?
The war in Gaza and on Gaza has been much bigger than anything we have seen in many years. My organisation is responsible for providing housing to refugees. There are several hundred thousand damaged or destroyed housing units in Gaza, which means that more than half of the children of Gaza are without homes to return to, so the trauma is terrible. Remember also that Gaza is under siege, so people have nowhere to flee. The Sudanese could flee to Egypt, and the Syrians could flee to Lebanon. Where can the Gazans flee to under the bombardments? The border with Israel is closed, and the border with Egypt is closed.
There has been an arrest warrant issued in Paris against Syrian officials for crimes against humanity. Will we see similar action being taken against Israeli officials for what Israel is doing in Gaza?
We hope there will be accountability for both the Hamas killings of civilians in Israel on 7 October and for the Israeli killings of Palestinian children, women, and other civilians in Gaza since then. This will take time, but there should be justice for the killing of the innocents.
How do you respond to calls to displace the Gazans to Egypt?
In general, we always call for borders to be open for people so they can seek protection. They should be able to come to Norway or to any other place. But it has to be voluntary, and we are very much against Israel saying that people have to move so that they can wage war. People should have the right to return, and many are afraid that if they flee, they will not be able to return.
How do you see the international community’s position on the ongoing war in Gaza versus the war in Ukraine?
I think that there is a lot of interest in the Ukraine war and that there is a lot of interest in Gaza, but I think there is also a lot of hypocrisy when some say they are more willing to tolerate the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians while they condemn the Russian occupation of Ukraine. We should have an equal attitude to suffering whether in Ukraine or in Palestine.
Gaza is caught up in a cycle of destruction, construction, and reconstruction. What has the Refugee Council provided? How much does Gaza need for reconstruction?
We have rebuilt after every war. There has been a war more or less every two years in and on Gaza. Each time, we are only able to rebuild half of the houses or none at all. This time, however, is a hundred times worse than the previous ones, so it will be a tremendous rebuilding effort and we will do our best. But we need donors from all over the world to help us. First and foremost, we ask for a ceasefire, and more homes must not be destroyed. This has to end now.
You were one of the architects of the Oslo Accords in 1993. In your opinion, is it possible to build on them? Are the Israeli and Palestinian authorities ready for peace?
The Oslo Accords were the best we could get at that time. We had valuable help from Egypt that led to the Oslo Accords. It will not be the same today. At that time, there were some possibilities for direct talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Now it is impossible for direct talks between Israel and Hamas, so I think this time there has to be a strong push from the international community. The US, Qatar, Egypt, and other countries have to push the parties to make agreements, and push Israel, which is the stronger party, but also have the Palestinians come together to agree to one position.
After the Oslo Accords, there was a saying that “incomplete peace is better than crushing war.” The saying has now turned into “a grinding war and no hope for peace.”
The reason that we have the war now is of course that we didn’t succeed at that time. None of the peace efforts have succeeded so far, and the underlying injustice was not resolved. We got recognition between Israel and PLO, but we did not get a final solution to the conflict. A comprehensive agreement such that two peoples can live in equality next door to each other is the only hope for a lasting peace.
How would you describe the humanitarian situations in Syria, Sudan, Yemen, and Libya?
They are very difficult. Syria has experienced a horrible war for many years. I was working very hard on Syria when there were the besieged areas. I was working with the UN to get supplies into areas that were besieged in Syria. People were dying from neglect, from hunger, and from having no medical care. The war is largely over now, as there is not much fighting in Syria now, but many people said we went from war to hell because there is too little aid and people have no income.
We are urging increased aid to Syria, as we are in Yemen, where there is still starvation and terrible deprivation. What I would say about Libya is that the problem of the war has left many communities devastated and on top of that they had the flooding earlier this year. We are working in Derna to provide relief to the population there.
You are described as optimistic, but the Middle East is still bleeding and divided. Are you optimistic for this part of the world?
I’m optimistic in the long term. I think these are ancient civilisations that have given the world so much. I am sure that the region will be rebuilt and there will be better days, but in the short term I’m pessimistic. I think things will be even worse in Gaza because we have no ceasefire. We need an end to the war. I think there is now going to be more polarisation, more hatred, more wishes for revenge, and this is not making anyone secure, neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis. It means even more misery for the Palestinians who have the same human rights and right to dignity and hope for the future as the Israelis or the Americans or anyone else.
Fears of waves of people migrating are increasing. Will the events in Gaza add more fuel to the fire on this issue?
Let’s remember that no one is letting the Palestinians out. They cannot go to either Israel or to Egypt. They cannot go to Europe or across the Mediterranean. However, migration will be an enormous issue for the future because there is such an enormous generation of young people who have not been given hope in their own societies. There are no jobs for them, no future for them, so they want to go where they see opportunities and hope and work. When North America, Europe, and the Gulf countries and others close their borders, of course there will be more pressure in that direction.
Can you tell us about your meetings here in Cairo?
I am here in Cairo because Egypt stands in the middle of two tremendous crises, the first in Sudan where there is a terrible Civil War that has displaced six million people. Twenty four million people need aid inside Sudan, and several hundred thousand refugees have come to Egypt. We are discussing with the Egyptian government and the Egyptian Red Crescent how we can help the Sudanese refugees.
We have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Egyptian Red Crescent for help not only for the Sudanese refugees but also to Palestinians in Gaza. My organisation has a large programme inside Gaza. We have 55 aid workers in Gaza, and we want to send relief into Gaza through the Rafah Crossing. We want to prepare for the rebuilding of Gaza as soon as possible. In all of this Egypt plays a very important role, so we would like to see partnerships here.
The Norwegian Refugees Council looks forward to working closely with Egyptian organisations and the Egyptian authorities to help the displaced and refugees that have come to Egypt and to work with Egypt to help rebuild Gaza and provide hope there.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly