The Muslim-majority nations of Southeast Asia have issued a rare joint statement condemning Israel’s assault on Occupied Palestinian Territory, as fighting between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the militant group Hamas continued into its second week.
In a statement issued Sunday, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, and the Sultan of Brunei attacked Israel’s air strikes on Gaza and what they described as its “inhumane, colonial, and apartheid” policy toward the Palestinian people.
“We condemn in the strongest term the repeated blatant violations and aggressions, carried out by the Israelis, targeting civilians throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly in East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, which has killed, injured and caused suffering to many, including women and children,” the statement read.
“We reiterate our solidarity with, and commitment to the Palestinian people, including their rights to self-determination, and the creation of an independent and sovereign State of Palestine,” it added. The statement also called for an emergency meeting of the 193-member United Nations General Assembly to address the turmoil in Israel.
The current outbreak of violence in Israel and the Occupied Territory was prompted by Israeli raids on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem last month and the eviction of Palestinian residents from the city’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. The IDF’s air strikes have been justified as a response to Hamas’s firing of barrages of rockets into Israel. At least 212 Palestinians, including 61 children, have been killed by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, according to local officials, compared to 10 deaths as a result of Hamas rocket attacks.
The joint statement from the top leaders was backed up by the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, who took part in an emergency meeting of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on Sunday. The OIC meeting, convened by Saudi Arabia, condemned the Israeli attacks as “barbaric” and said the nation was undertaking “systematic crimes” against Palestinians.
After the meeting, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said on Twitter: “We must act together now. Justice must prevail for the Palestinian people.”
The Palestinian people have few remaining international friends. After striking ententes with Israel last year, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – one-time champions, if self-interested ones, of the Palestinian cause – have softened their support for Palestinian self-determination. This has left the Muslim-majority nations of Southeast Asia to take up the cause.
The stance of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei is not wholly without domestic political calculation. It reflects the fact that the Palestinian cause resonates with powerful conservative domestic constituencies, in a way that, for instance, the horrific plight of the Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region does not.
China is also a major and proximate trade and investment partner to these nations, whereas there is little downside to condemning the actions of Israel, with which none of the three nations has formal diplomatic ties. (Moreover, more than one Malaysian social media user pointed out the irony of the Malaysian government’s condemnation of Israeli apartheid given its own institutionalized system of ethnic preferences.) Still, the toughened stance of the three nations is a welcome sign of support for a people that currently have so few international allies.
If the current crisis in Israel and the Occupied Territory widens out into a third Intifada, the issue could potentially become a source of discord between the Muslim-majority nations of Southeast Asia and the United States.
Washington continues to be an unstinting supporter of Israel’s actions, stating repeatedly that Israel has “a right to defend itself” from attacks by Hamas, but remaining silent about the proportionality of its actions, as well as the question of whether Palestinians, too, enjoy a such a right to self-defense.
Yesterday, for the third time in a week, the United States blocked the adoption of a joint U.N. Security Council statement calling for a halt to Israeli-Palestinian violence – more or less the same thing that U.S. officials criticized China and Russia for doing recently in connection with the current crisis in Myanmar. China, displaying a similar degree of great power chutzpah, has called on the U.S. to stop blocking the Council’s efforts to demand an end to the bloodshed.
For many in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei, the staunch U.S. support for Israel’s actions stands as a demonstration of the gap between the rhetoric and reality of the “rules-based international order” that Washington has pledged itself to uphold. In the past, moreover, U.S. support for Israel, and the U.S. role in the Middle East more broadly, have had negative effects on public sentiment towards the U.S., suggesting that this current crisis could undermine American “soft power” in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.
The Israel-Palestine question will remain a peripheral issue in U.S. relations with Muslim-majority Southeast Asia, but as long as Washington’s carte blanche support for Israel continues, it will act as a drag on its relations with key partners in the region.