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Gaza Puts Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in a Bind

Malaysia, a majority Muslim country, is deeply sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians. The nation has allowed Palestinian organizations with ties to Hamas to operate on its soil in the past. Now, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is playing the delicate balancing act of distancing himself from the militant group without appearing to abandon Palestine and thus offending his electorate.
Anwar Ibrahim

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA – NOVEMBER 22 2022 : Pakatan Harapan Chairman, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim spoke at press conference after meet The Sixteenth Yang Di-Pertuan Agong. © Alif Omar /

October 25, 2023 03:01 EDT

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is in a bind. He is caught between public support for the Palestinians — and even for Hamas in significant quarters — because of Malaysian sympathies, on the one side, and not enabling a militant organization that brutally targets civilians because of Western pressure, on the other. 

Opponents are painting him as a Western and Israeli lackey. Protesters clad in keffiyeh, the distinctive Palestinian scarf, and waving the Palestinian flag marched after last Friday’s prayers towards the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur and briefly clashed with police.

“What we are protesting here today is the colonization of Palestine, backed by America and Western powers,” said activist Hishamuddin Rais. He insisted that the Gaza war was neither a religious battle between Jews and Muslims nor a war against Hamas. Instead, he suggested, it was in opposition to a Western-backed Israeli effort to deprive Palestinians of their rights.

Rais echoed Ibrahim’s insistence that Hamas’ brutal October 7 attack on Israel in which some 1,400 people, mostly civilians, were killed would not alter Malaysian support for the group.

Among Middle Eastern and Asian nations with a Hamas representation, Malaysia may be the most exposed Hamas host.

The key role of Qatar, and how Turkey and Lebanon matter

Hamas leaders, including Khaled Mishaal and Ismail Haniyeh, are based in Qatar. Qatar has long served as a welcome intermediary between Israel and the group it once tacitly nurtured as an antidote to Palestinian nationalism. It was a policy tacitly endorsed by the United States, even though the US and various European countries, alongside Israel, have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization. Last week, Qatar negotiated the release of two American hostages kidnapped by Hamas during its attack.

A highflier, Qatar is seeking to get more of the approximately 222 Israelis and foreigners captured by Hamas liberated. Among the hostages are at least 26 Israeli military personnel. European leaders, including France’s Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Rishi Sunak, hope Qatar can help them get their nationals freed. Nevertheless, Qatar’s relationship with Hamas is encountering headwinds, with some pundits and Western officials taking the Gulf state to task.

“There can be no more business as usual with Hamas,” said US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. Blinken thanked Qatar for getting the two American hostages released. Last week, the United States sanctioned ten Hamas operatives it said were involved in financing and facilitating Hamas in Gaza, Turkey and Algeria, including Ahmad Abd Al-Dayim Nasrallah, a senior Hamas official based in Qatar.

Middle East analyst Hussien Ibish, a senior scholar at the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-funded Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington suggested a reckoning with Qatar may only come once the hostage crisis is resolved. “After the hostage situation concludes — whether it ends in tragedy or with negotiated releases involving possible prisoner swaps — Qatar is likely to face severe pressure and criticism,” Ibish said.

Turkey, another Hamas host country in which thousands have marched in support of Gaza, has sought to deflect criticism by playing a similar role, so far with less success. In a phone call with Haniyeh this weekend, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he was working to get humanitarian aid to Gaza and would welcome wounded Gazans for treatment in Turkish hospitals.

For now, Lebanon, a failed state on the verge of collapse, in which Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia, threatens to open a second front if Israel pushes ahead with a ground offensive in Gaza, is a lost case from a US and Israeli perspective.

Malaysia’s unwavering support for the Palestinian people

Ibrahim, the Malaysian prime minister, lacks a veneer for his unabashed support for Hamas to counter likely US pressure. Speaking to parliament after the October 7 attack, Ibrahim insisted, “We, as a policy, have a relationship with Hamas from before and this will continue.” The prime minister rejected unspecified foreign pressure to break with Hamas. “As such, we don’t agree with their pressuring attitude, as Hamas too won in Gaza freely through elections and Gazans chose them to lead.” Ibrahim was referring to Hamas’ electoral victory in 2006, the last time Palestinians voted.

Last week, Ibrahim pledged Malaysia’s “unwavering support for the Palestinian people” in a phone call with Haniyeh. In recent days, Ibrahim also called for an immediate ceasefire and the creation of an independent Palestinian state in territories conquered by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war. Malaysia has no diplomatic relations with Israel.

Ibrahim is likely to find maintaining his position increasingly problematic, particularly when Israel comes around to investigating its intelligence and operational failures in preventing a Hamas attack. Already, Malaysians are divided about their policy towards Hamas, even though criticism is expressed primarily behind closed doors. “With all that’s happening, support for Hamas is far from unequivocal,” said a well-placed Malaysian source.

The source noted that the Hamas-controlled, Kuala Lumpur-based Palestinian Cultural Organization Malaysia (PCOM) organizes well-attended public events joined by prominent intellectuals, journalists and civil society figures but rarely by senior officials.

Even so, former prime minister Mahathir Mohammed invited Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to attend a 2019 Islamic summit in Kuala Lumpur. In addition, Mahathir met Hamas leaders on several earlier occasions in the Malaysian capital. Some analysts suggested that the government, rather than changing its public stance, could quietly distance itself from Hamas by not renewing the residency visas of the group’s operatives.

PCOM was co-founded in 2011 by Ibrahim’s Rural and Regional Development Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and the prime minister’s Home Affairs Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail. The Hamas attack has revived debate in government circles and security forces about the risks involved in allowing Hamas to operate in Malaysia.

Officials and security officers first questioned the value of relations with Hamas after the 2018 killing of Kuala Lumpur-based Palestinian electrical engineering professor and Hamas operative Fadi al-Batsh in a drive-by shooting on the streets of the Malaysian capital.

Media reports asserted that Al-Batsh helped Hamas develop its rocket and drone arsenal and may have been negotiating an arms deal with North Korea. Al-Batsh, who obtained his PhD from the University of Malaya, where he lectured on electrical engineering, published extensively on power, electricity, and battery-related issues.

Moreover, in 2014, the Israeli military said that a captured Hamas commander had told Israel’s domestic intelligence service that he was one of ten fighters who trained in Malaysia for the use of motor-powered hang gliders. Fighters on hang gliders landed on the Israeli side of the Gaza border in the first minutes of the October 7 Hamas attack.

Malaysian analysts believe the company that trained the fighters was duped into believing it was developing a new tourism opportunity.

Hamas uses PCOM, the cultural center, described by Malaysians as an “unofficial embassy,” for public outreach and fundraising. PCOM denies being a political organization with Hamas links.

The analysts said Malaysian governments allowed PCOM to operate alongside the Palestinian embassy in Kuala Lumpur to balance Malaysia’s relations with Hamas and its archrival, Al Fatah, which dominates the officially recognized Palestine Authority and has an embassy in the Malaysian capital.

PCOM raises funds through a network of Malaysian civil society groups. The center advises potential donors knocking on its door to contact those groups.

Ibrahim “[was] committed to the Palestinian struggle from his younger days in Abim (Muslim Islamic Youth Movement) until he became the prime minister… His efforts in the last few hours were important in pushing back the Western narrative and Western pressure on the international community,” said Muslim Imran, a member of Hamas’ international bureau and founding director of the Kuala Lumpur-based Asia Middle East Center for Research & Dialogue.

[The Turbulent World first published this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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