The reactions to Israel-Gaza reveal a multipolar world

While Israel has the support of US and its allies, Indonesia and Malaysia have long been on the Palestinian side

Palestinians beside the bodies of their loved ones, at Al Shefa hospital, in Gaza City, on October 11. EPA
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The terrible events in Israel and Gaza truly illuminate what a multipolar and divided world we live in. The US and its allies have been united in backing Israel to the hilt – to the extent that British Home Secretary Suella Braverman has told senior police that waving a Palestinian flag may constitute a criminal offence.

However, in South-East Asia, home to about 260 million Muslims, statements by the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia – where the vast majority of the region’s Muslims live – were very much in line with those issued by Saudi Arabia and Qatar over the weekend.

“The root of the conflict, namely the occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel, must be resolved, in accordance with the parameters agreed upon by the UN,” Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry said. “The confiscation of land and property belonging to the Palestinian people is done relentlessly by the Zionists,” Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said. “As a result of this injustice, hundreds of innocent lives were sacrificed.”

These echoed Doha’s statement, which held “Israel solely responsible for the ongoing escalation due to its ongoing violations of the rights of the Palestinian people”, and Riyadh’s “repeated warnings” of escalation in light of “the ongoing occupation and the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights, as well as the repeated deliberate provocations against their holy sites”.

Neither officially nor among the general public did there appear to be significant condemnation of Hamas or any sympathy for Israel, which on Saturday saw hundreds of its citizens killed in the surprise attack from Gaza, and many others kidnapped and held hostage.

Indonesia and Malaysia have long been firmly on the Palestinian side; neither country has diplomatic relations with Israel. Perhaps a disproportionate response by the Netanyahu government was expected and grimly factored in. Yet in the region there was little sign of the horror that arose in western cities as news came in of the civilians who were massacred at a music festival on Saturday morning.

Why so? After all, these were innocent people, not combatants.

Part of the reason may be that few in Indonesia and Malaysia could think, “this could have been Levi and Ruth who used to live next door to us” and feel automatic empathy for the lost lives. For there is no Jewish community in Malaysia, and only one working synagogue and perhaps 200 Jewish Indonesians across the breadth of the country’s huge archipelago. There is simply no connection whatsoever with Israel or Jewish people – a distinction many will not make, in any case.

To ask another difficult question: is there any element of anti-Semitism in the response to what an Israeli military spokesman called “by far the worst day in Israeli history”? Well, Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is not alone in the region in believing that “today the Jews rule the world by proxy”, as he put it in his speech to the Organisation of Islamic Conference in Kuala Lumpur in 2003, words which he tweeted again this July. But such sentiments are only fuelled by what South-East Asia’s Muslims see as the enormous double standard applied to Israel.

Settlers dispossess Palestinians still further. Innocent people are shot dead. Children are left amputees. Even a former head of the Mossad has said that Israel has become “an apartheid state”. Gaza is routinely described as the world’s biggest open-air prison. The “complete siege” of the strip that Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has announced has been condemned by many as a war crime. And all of this is done with seeming impunity. Meanwhile in the US, Tel Aviv’s great sponsor and protector, politicians compete among themselves to be the most pro-Israel.

Indonesians and Malaysians don’t, on the whole, make very much of grievances against their former colonial powers, the Netherlands and the UK. But they know they were colonised, and they can see it happening to the Palestinians.

Indeed, they have seen it from the start. Both Indonesia and Malaysia have championed their cause for decades, raising their plight at the UN, the Organisation of Islamic Conference, the Non-Aligned Movement and numerous other gatherings. In fact, it is almost inconceivable that a Malaysian prime minister would make a speech on international affairs, anywhere or at any time, without mentioning Palestine.

One of the reasons why they feel so connected to the Palestinians is because of their deep attachment to the idea of the “umma”, the worldwide Muslim community.

Mr Anwar once said that South-East Asian man was “homo religiosus”. Politicians know they need sufficient Islamic credentials to succeed, with even Indonesia’s Gen Suharto – more a Javanese spiritualist than a devout Muslim – seeking to burnish his, towards the end of his three-decade rule. The plight of Palestine, and its holy sites, has become iconic to them, in the struggle to restore the glory of the Muslim world and its final liberation from colonial oppression – and it is an issue that is never forgotten.

Over the past few days, two prominent Palestinians – ambassador Husam Zomlot and former information minister Mustafa Barghouti – have responded, when asked to condemn Hamas in media interviews, by insisting that the attack be seen in the context of their people’s decades-long fight for freedom and dignity.

Muslims in South-East Asia know that history. Many of Israel’s supporters wish the world to focus on the past few days, and only on Israel’s losses. Indonesians, Malaysians and others in the region are very aware of the bigger picture. That is why they are so sure about who to blame, and why it is unlikely that any new Israeli embassies will open in the region for some time to come.

Published: October 11, 2023, 1:58 PM