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Pressure builds on Anwar to condemn US over 'blanket support' for Israeli offensive in Gaza

Critics say 'too little' has come from the prime minister who was previously mired in controversial remarks on the Palestine-Israel conflict.

5 minute read
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim with representatives from pro-Palestinian groups in a Facebook post on Oct 10. Photo: Facebook
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim with representatives from pro-Palestinian groups in a Facebook post on Oct 10. Photo: Facebook

Pressure has been building within both the ruling and opposition blocs over Putrajaya's lack of response to Washington's blanket support for Israel in the latter's latest bombardment of Gaza which threatens to create the biggest human catastrophe in the occupied territories in more than two decades, MalaysiaNow has learnt.

This comes as Israel's second week of bombardments in retaliation to Hamas – which breached the Zionist state's heavily fortified security fence along the borders of Gaza before carrying out attacks and taking hundreds of hostages – continues to receive unreserved support and encouragement from the US, where Washington appears to have sidestepped international fears of a massive human crisis by invoking Israel's "absolute right to retaliate".

At least two officials familiar with formulating Malaysia's stand on such crises said the response from the Anwar Ibrahim government lacked new content, while others said that by failing to single out the US for encouraging the war, Putrajaya's response was a "standard draft" that did not reflect the gravity of the situation in Gaza.

"Since the attacks and the bombardments of Gaza, the prime minister has yet to make any strong criticism of Western powers, especially the US, despite some of the biggest public protests in these countries against their governments' support for Israel," said one former Malaysian diplomat who served in the Middle East.

He said anti-Israel sentiments had been building up in Western countries in the past decade, thanks to an intensive campaign by Muslim and rights groups to educate the public on the conflict in Palestine.

"The huge protests you see in London and New York and other European and South American cities show the unprecendented sympathy for Palestinians outside the Muslim world. So many pundits and even officials from governments have come out in the open to speak out against Washington's policy, so why the silence from Putrajaya on condemning the US?" he asked.

Since the Oct 7 incursion by Hamas, there has been no official statement from the Malaysian government against the US, whose military assistance to Tel Aviv this time includes one of the largest aircraft carriers in the world and an accompanying strike group, giving more cover to Israeli forces which have already mobilised hundreds of thousands of troops for a ground offensive in Gaza.

On his Facebook account, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim had posted pictures of him with several local pro-Palestinian groups, speaking as well of their plan to organise a million-man rally. 

In his short post on Oct 10, Anwar, whose controversial statements on Israel have often been cited by opponents who accuse his Pakatan Harapan coalition of being out of touch with the Malay-Muslim base, said the government would "continue being together with the Palestinian struggle".

A prominent member from Amanah said the statement was not only "mellowed", but unbecoming of Malaysia, which he said had enjoyed "huge respect among Palestinians" over the years due to the strong words from its leaders.

"In this regard, one must really salute Dr Mahathir Mohamad's strong words whenever he condemns atrocities against the Palestinians. He doesn't mince his words, and officials from the US and West, too, would not engage with him for fear of a protracted public debate," said the Amanah man who is among the close confidantes of party president Mohamad Sabu.

He said Mohamad himself had made stronger condemnations of Israel than his boss.

"Some will say that lip service does not matter. But for Anwar, who has repeatedly faced doubts over his stand on the Palestine issue, it matters. So he needs to come out stronger in supporting Palestinians without any reservations," said the Amanah man.

He said Anwar's trip to the UAE, among the Gulf states which have normalised ties with Israel under the US-sponsored Abrahamic Accords, was also bad for optics as it had taken place amid attention on Palestine.

"On social media, people have been questioning if we are going to take a strong stance to drive home the fact that Malaysia is the number one supporter of Palestinians."

Checks on social media showed PKR supporters defending their leader against accusations of being mild in his response to the latest developments in Gaza.

"Didn't Anwar already say he stands in solidarity with Palestine? Does he have to condemn Israel only in order to be counted as supporting Palestine?" said Kentaki in a Twitter response.

A statement in Parliament on Oct 16 appears to be the closest Anwar has come to taking Western powers to task, saying Malaysia's policy of ties with Hamas would continue despite demands to condemn the Palestinian movement.

"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," he said.

Last year, Anwar fought off allegations that he was sympathetic towards Israel, following revelations that an individual who was arrested for being a Mossad mercenary in Kuala Lumpur had been photographed waving the PKR flag years earlier.

Raibafie Amdan was one of several suspects charged with the abduction of a Palestinian man accused of Hamas links, in an incident in the heart of Kuala Lumpur in September last year.

The incident sparked fears of Mossad’s reach in the country to carry out covert operations using local mercenaries.

It also surfaced in the lead-up to the general election last year, with the opposition Perikatan Nasional reminding Anwar of an interview he had with The Wall Street Journal in 2012, where he was quoted as saying that he would "support all efforts to protect the security of the state of Israel".

In response, Anwar claimed that he was close to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"Even when I was jailed, Yasser wrote a long letter to Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was then prime minister, explaining that he was making a mistake putting me in jail," Anwar reportedly said, a claim that cannot be independently verified by MalaysiaNow.

Bersatu subsequently urged Anwar to retract his statement in support of Israel.

Anwar was mired in further difficulty when, hours after taking the top office, an influential Israeli daily welcomed his appointment as prime minister, saying it could signal a new chapter between Malaysia and the Jewish state.

"Unlike his predecessor [sic] Mahathir, Malaysia's new PM Anwar Ibrahim doesn't call himself a 'proud antisemite'; indeed, his foes slur him as an 'agent' of Jews and/or Christians," said Esther Solomon, chief editor of the English-language Haaretz.

"Israel would love closer ties with Kuala Lumpur. Could this be the opportunity?" she said on Twitter.

When asked if there was any change in the response from the Malaysian government with regards to Palestine, a diplomat at Wisma Putra disagreed, but added:

"I think it is unfair to make comparisons to past strong statements on Israel by Mahathir. I wouldn't expect PMX to repeat such remarks. Maybe he has his own ways," he told MalaysiaNow, adding that Malaysia had already "made its voice heard".

Mahathir, meanwhile, has issued several lengthy statements on the latest violence in Palestine, with a major theme of condemning Western media bias as well as calling for a focus on the history of the conflict.

"The responses that came from powerful Western nations and their apparatus, including their media, are hypocritical, bigoted and pathological.

"Instead of addressing the conflict for what it actually is, they chose to continue with their deceptive narrative that it is an attack on Israel by terrorists – their blame being obviously against Hamas, the Hezbollah and Iran," said the former leader, who also condemned the US for being a "party to apartheid, genocide and crimes against humanity".

Mahathir also defended Hamas against accusations of committing terrorism.

"But isn’t Hamas reacting as any people who had been pushed to a corner? Isn’t theirs the reaction of a people who feel helpless and have lost hope of getting help from nations proclaiming to be defenders of justice and humanity?"