Gaza was under bomb attack. Televisions were featured all over the world. Into the living room, not only to people in Otta, London and New York, but in Beirut, Amman and Beit Hanoun, came the blonde and blue-eyed Norwegian doctor who, clearly affected, told of her experiences at the Al-Shifa hospital on the Gaza Strip . He told the world about the injuries civilian Palestinian men, women and children suffered during the Israeli attack on Gaza in January. He spoke honestly and directly. He praised his Palestinian colleagues in the hospital and in the ambulance services. He didn't want to be himself. But he still has.
"I loved him (Mads Gilbert, journal note) and I love Norwegians too," Yasser Mostapha of Egypt writes on Facebook this week. He had seen Mads Gilbert on the local television station.
Through phone, text message, email and Facebook, people in Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Lebanon, the United States and Pakistan thank Gilbert and his colleagues for their efforts in the civilian population of Gaza. A young female student from Syria has obtained Mads Gilbert's cellphone number and turns on the wire. She's moved, and says that it meant a lot to her to watch Gilbert on TV.
The efforts of the Norwegian doctors at the hospital in Gaza and their reports on all the world's television stations now have significance beyond the witness function and the medical and humanitarian involvement they showed for the civilian population. Norway has become more famous in the Arab world and Norwegians have become Arabs' favorites.
- The image of Norway in the Arab world is more positive now after the Gaza conflict. People have the impression of Norway as a more balanced and fair player, but also as an important humanitarian contributor, says Samir Shatara, head of Al-Jazeera's Norden office in Oslo. He sent many positive news about and from Norway back to the Arab world during the Gaza war. He reported on Norwegians' participation in the many demonstrations in support of the people of Gaza, that Foreign Minister Støre asked for immediate ceasefire, that the trains stopped for two minutes in protest of the killing of civilians, and he interviewed Mads Gilbert and his colleagues both was in Gaza and afterwards. Shatara therefore takes some credit for having put Norway in focus in the Arab world.
Basically, Sweden and Denmark have been better known than Norway in the Arab world, says Shatara. Norway is now seriously on the map from Morocco to Tunisia and from Egypt to the Gulf states, the journalist believes.
- Many in the Arab world know Norway because of the Oslo agreement from 1993 and many did not think the agreement was fair to the Palestinians. Now that impression may have changed, says Shatara.
The fact that Norway in March 2007 was the first Western country to normalize relations with the Palestinian unity government, which also had members with a Hamas background, has also made a positive contribution. But it is the popular commitment that has really made a difference, Shatara believes.
- Foreign Minister Støre said during the conflict is not so different from what other European leaders have said, but there were not many countries where train traffic stopped for two minutes to remember the victims in Gaza. That makes an impression, says Shatara.
- On everyone's lips
This week, Mads Gilbert and his doctor colleague Erik Fosse were awarded the Fritt Ord's Honor for "tirelessly conveying unique eyewitness accounts of the civilian population's suffering during the bombing of Gaza", as stated in the justification from Fritt Ord. And while doctors in Norway are being honored for their reporting from Gaza, they are almost forgotten in Gaza.
- Norway is on everyone's lips in Gaza during the day, says mayor of Gaza City and ophthalmologist, Dr. Maged Awni Abu-Ramadan to Ny Tid.
Abu-Ramadan highlights in particular the interview Shatara had with Mads Gilbert on Arabic Al-Jazeera after the doctor returned to Norway. The interview has left its mark.
- He talked about the massacre and was clearly affected. The Arabs who saw Gilbert crying on television were moved. He was so honest. This, together with the fact that Mads Gilbert and Erik Fosse were actually among the first doctors to come to Gaza, has meant that the image of Norway in Palestinian and Arab eyes today is enormously improved, Abu-Ramadan believes.
He emphasizes that relations with Norway are already and have been good, but that things have now improved even more. He says that Norwegian official statements during the conflict were also well received by the population in Gaza, but that it was Gilbert and Fosse who have had the real effect on the population when they now have a more positive view of Norway.
- People here saw both the Norwegian doctors and the demonstrations in Norway. It has made many people see Norway as a place they want to visit, shop with and increasingly form ties to economically and culturally. The Gilbert effect is really a phenomenon in Gaza now, says Abu-Ramadan.
Put on the map
Norway has also been noticed elsewhere in the Middle East during the Gaza conflict. When Ny Tid asks the political commentator and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public and International Politics at the American University of Beirut, Rami Khouri, whether he has seen any change in attitudes towards Norway in Lebanon after the conflict in Gaza, it is one thing he points out: The Norwegian doctors.
- Many here in Lebanon speak very positively about the efforts of the Norwegian doctors. That they were shown on Arabic TV channels has contributed to people here now looking more positively at Norway, Khouri believes.
Norwegian embassies in the region also say that Norway's positive reputation has now been strengthened.
- We immediately noticed that Gilbert and Fosse came to Gaza and there was international attention around them, that the Lebanese got an even more positive attitude towards Norway, says Ambassador Aud Lise Norheim at the Norwegian Embassy in Beirut.
Lebanese media have written about the Norwegian doctors and the embassy has received emails thanking Norway for its efforts. The ambassador believes that it is a combination of the attention around the Norwegian NORWAC doctors in Gaza and the Norwegian authorities' view that has contributed to the positive picture. At the same time, she emphasizes that even before the conflict in the Gaza Strip this year, the Lebanese have been positive about Norway, partly due to many years of humanitarian efforts in the country. Norheim emphasizes that they are not consciously trying to profit from the positive image many now have of Norway.
- One important effect of Gilbert and Fosse's work in Gaza is also that the interaction between Norwegian organizations and the Norwegian authorities became clear. Such an interaction is not as obvious in this part of the world, and it is therefore important to highlight the positive role this can play in many contexts. Although the aid organization NORWAC (Norwegian Aid Committee) does not represent the Norwegian official authorities' policy in the Middle East, there has never been any question of not supporting their work, and this is an important signal to give the world, Norheim believes.
In Egypt – where the Norwegian foreign minister also participated in the shuttle diplomacy to establish a ceasefire between the parties in January – Norway has now been put on the map.
- The reports from the Norwegian doctors at Al-Jazeera have been of great importance in raising awareness of Norway and the country's profile in the region, says Rania Al Malky. She is the editor-in-chief of the English-language newspaper Daily News Egypt.
Al Malky tells Ny Tid that they usually hear little about Norway in Egypt, neither as a player in the Middle East nor as a humanitarian nation. We are mostly talking about the big ones – the EU, the USA and the UK. And even though Norway has received more positive exposure than usual during the Gaza conflict, she has little faith that it will be of political importance to Norway.
While Israeli forces went further and further into the Gaza Strip, and the same day that the Norwegian doctors, Mads Gilbert and Erik Fosse, landed at Gardermoen after 11 days of efforts to save Palestinian lives in the Gaza Strip, the Norwegian Embassy in the Jordanian capital Amman was visited by representatives of the Islamist party The Islamic Action Front (IAF). As previously mentioned in Ny Tid, the Islamists thanked Norway, as well as Turkey, for their position in the conflict. The embassy has also received thank you flowers from the neighbor next door. On Earth, about 60 percent of the population is of Palestinian origin.
Embassy secretary and deputy head of the embassy, Christina Eikeland, thought it was interesting to hear what the IAF had to say. The IAF is the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood in the country, and received 5,5 percent support in the parliamentary elections in 2007.
- Norway wants dialogue with everyone, and we have not received any negative reactions at the meeting. I think Norway has quite a lot of credibility in the foreign policy field, and many countries in Europe probably want to be able to pursue a more independent policy in relation to the Israel / Palestine conflict as we can, says Eikeland.
In general, she believes the Gaza conflict has contributed to strengthening the image of Norway as a humanitarian actor and as a balanced western country.
- Is the Norwegian doctors' Gaza involvement good Norwegian advertising?
I did not think of it that way. But it shows the involvement of the Norwegian people in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Every time the world sees Norwegians' altruism – as the Norwegian doctors showed – it is very positive for Norway's reputation. But that does not mean that we have plans to use it as Norwegian advertising, says Eikeland.
Ambassador Aud Lise Norheim in Beirut has also not noticed increased interest in Norway as a tourist destination or as a trading partner, and currently finds it difficult to say whether it may be an effect of the attention.
Made in Norway
In Gaza, however, Mayor Abu-Ramadan has been contacted by several Palestinian businessmen who want trade relations with Norway. People express to the mayor the desire for stronger ties with Norway in terms of tourism, trade, agriculture and industry. Others ask if he can help them find opportunities for exchange with Norwegian schools and universities.
- Before, people heard little about Norway, now there are many who have questions. A recurring theme among Palestinians now is the boycott of American products. People ask how they can instead trade with Norway who stood by our side and supported us in this conflict, says Abu-Ramadan.
Journalist Shatara at Al-Jazeera's Nordic office also believes that Norwegian products could be a winner in this conflict.
- In the Arab world, there are many emotions. After the Muhammad cartoons were published three years ago, many people were quick to boycott Danish products. Be sure that people will now to a greater extent buy products that say "made in Norway" or "made in Turkey", says Shatara.
However, it is not that simple, says Shankar Narayan, who through the consulting company Nordic Associates assists Norwegian and Scandinavian companies in establishing themselves in the Middle East and India and vice versa.
- Norway has always had a stable reputation in the Middle East and I do not think that limited attention to Norwegian doctors and the Norwegian position in the Gaza conflict can either harm or help Norwegian companies do business. Business is done because it is profitable, not because Mads has been in Gaza, Narayan tells Ny Tid.
He has an Indian background and has lived in the Arab world for many years before coming to Norway. One week ago he was in Dubai and there he did not get the impression that people had had a more positive view of Norway after the Gaza offensive.
- People have a clear distinction between the United States and Europe, and for them Norway belongs to the European image. It is rare for Norway to be particularly highlighted, says Narayan.
The paint manufacturer Jotun is a Norwegian company that is well established and has an important part of the market in the Middle East. This week, Erik Aaberg, division director of Jotun Dubai, was in Egypt. There he was told that what the Norwegian authorities had said and done during the Gaza conflict had been well received. In the Gulf countries, Aaberg has not registered any increased attention to Norway. During the telephone conversation from Egypt, he discusses the problems Jotun experienced in connection with the Muhammad conflict three years ago. There were then several customers, including in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who did not want anything to do with them.
- But it is not the same groupings that have now possibly changed their minds. Therefore, I do not think that Norwegian positions and Norwegian medical care in the Gaza conflict help us, says Aaberg.
At the Norwegian School of Management in Bergen, Elin Bolann is writing a doctorate on reputation issues. She looks at how a country's image can change attitudes towards the product being sold. If positive associations are associated with a country, it is something that can be played on, she says. But then you have to think long-term.
- When things happen that help to increase people's attention around Norway as a country, and the attention is positive, it can have a positive effect on sales of products related to Norway. But building a country's reputation takes many years and it is not enough to build on one event, says Bolann to Ny Tid.
She believes that in this case it is more difficult to enjoy such a reputation because it is all politically charged, and there may be disagreement about the degree of positivity in different countries.
Mads Gilbert himself does everything he can to get the focus away from his own person. He does not want to talk about any Gilbert effect.
- I do not like the personal focus this has received. The real heroes are the Palestinian health workers and the volunteers in Gaza, and indeed the entire Palestinian population, Gilbert repeats to Ny Tid.
He believes what the world has seen, rather is a Gaza effect where many, both in Norway and the world, have now realized how brutal the Israeli occupation is and has been. Gilbert has worked regularly as a doctor in Gaza for the past decades, and has always experienced being well received as a Norwegian. He sees his own and the other Norwegian health workers' efforts as a continuation of a Norwegian tradition dating back to the 70s, and believes that this commitment has contributed to improving Norway's reputation in Arab countries in general and among Palestinians in particular.
- I believe that this type of practical medical assistance is a useful part of the solidarity work. It is about coming to the rescue of someone who is oppressed, says Gilbert and tells a story that illustrates the view of Norwegians in Gaza today. Before Gilbert was to go on stage during a support concert for Gaza at the National Theater in Oslo on January 25, he called his medical friend Nafez to hear if he had anything he wanted to say to the Norwegian people. He replied, “My brother. Tell them that everyone in Gaza loves Norway ». ■