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Hamas puts Malaysia in a bind

James M. Dorsey

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Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is in a bind.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim Photo: picture alliance / | Peerapon Boonyakiat

He is caught between public support for the Palestinians, and for Hamas in significant quarters, opponents painting him as a Western and Israeli lackey, and the need to not be seen as enabling a militant organization that brutally targets civilians.

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 scuffled with police.

“What we are protesting here today is the colonisation of Palestine, backed by America and Western powers,” said activist Hishamuddin Rais.

Mr. Rais 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.

Mr. Rais echoed Mr. 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.

Hamas leaders, including Khaled Mishaal and Ismail Haniyeh, are based in Qatar.

Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal (L) hugs senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh before leaving Gaza Strip December 10, 2012. Hamas leader Meshaal ended his first visit to the Gaza Strip on Monday with a pledge his Islamist movement would strive to heal political rifts with Palestinian rivals who hold sway in the occupied West Bank. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Qatar has long served as a welcome intermediary between Israel and the group it once tacitly nurtured as an anti-dote 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 organisation.

Last week, Qatar negotiated the release of two American hostages kidnapped by Hamas during its attack.

A high-flyer, 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 head winds 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. Mr. 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 (AGSIW) 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. Haniyeh this weekend, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan 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.

Mr. 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, Mr. 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."

Mr. Ibrahim was referring to Hamas’ electoral victory in 2006, the last time Palestinians voted.

Last week, Mr. Ibrahim pledged Malaysia's “unwavering support for the Palestinian people” in a phone call with Mr. Haniyeh.

In recent days, Mr. 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.

Mr. 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, Mr. Mahathir met Hamas leaders on several earlier occasions in the Malaysian capital.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (left) meets Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh at Putrajaya. Photo: Prime Minister's Office of Malaysia

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.

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.

Mr. 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 fund raising. 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 recognised 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.

Mr. Ibrahim “is 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 (AMEC).

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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