Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Islam and the Middle East in the Far East: Angry Reactions to Israeli Repression

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Islam and the Middle East in the Far East: Angry Reactions to Israeli Repression

Article excerpt

ISLAM AND THE MIDDLE EAST IN THE FAR EAST: Angry Reactions to Israeli Repression

John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Singapore and the author of Unequal Conflict: Israel and the Palestinians, available from the AET Book Club.

The creeping normalization of relations between Israel and the predominantly Muslim Southeast Asian states of Malaysia and Indonesia has been set back by the violence which followed Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif on Sept. 28.

Media coverage was extensive throughout the region. Although the general public in predominantly non-Muslim states such as Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines normally takes little interest in the Palestine conflict, the violence that occurred grabbed a lot of attention. During the first week or so of the clashes, sentiment was generally very sympathetic to the Palestinians, who were regarded as the victims of Israeli acts of violence which were totally out of proportion to the "disorders" they were supposedly intended to remedy. Efforts by Israeli officials and pro-Israeli journalists to present the clashes as the result of a premeditated plot by Yasser Arafat to score political points fell flat. As a small example, after The Straits Times of Singapore published a letter from Israeli Ambassador David Danieli, Chng Nai Rui, a local reader, responded by criticizing Danieli for not passing judgment on Sharon's provocative visit, and commented:

"The claim that `Israeli security forces did not initiate any action but rather responded to life-threatening situations' deliberately downplays the brutal force of Israeli reprisals thus far. In the face of slingshots, sticks and Kalashnikovs wielded by mobs, the Israeli armed forces replied with helicopter gunships and armored vehicles....Not surprisingly, casualties have been overwhelmingly Palestinian."

Indignation reached a peak after newspapers and television stations showed images of the shooting of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Durrah on Sept. 30, and it was only after a Palestinian mob killed two Israelis held in a Ramallah police station on Oct. 12 that there was any change to the public perception of events.

Nevertheless, overall, Israel's standing was damaged.

The response differed in predominantly Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia, where a large segment of the population has long sympathized strongly with the Palestinians.

Reactions ranged from forthright declarations of support for the Palestinians to ugly threats against Jews in general by some extremist groups. Spokesmen from all the Muslim parties represented in the Indonesian parliament condemned Israeli actions.

On Oct. 13, public rallies in support of the Palestinians took place in Jakarta and in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. The Indonesian rally was addressed by National Assembly chairman Amien Rais, a persistent critic of President Aburrahman Wahid who harbors presidential ambitions himself. Rais called on the president to give up plans to normalize relations with Israel. In Malaysia, the protest was organized by PAS, the Islamist opposition party. It took place outside the U.S. Embassy, with participants calling for a jihad against Israel.

Parliamentarians from Indonesia's major Muslim parties welcomed the news that Israel had decided not to send representatives to the 104th meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). The meeting took place in Jakarta in the third week of October, and a Palestinian delegation took part. The Palestinians spoke out strongly on the events of the last few weeks in their homeland, but annoyed their hosts by criticizing Indonesia's president. They said that President Abdurrahman Wahid had not supported their cause and had failed to condemn the latest wave of Israeli violence. The move was inept. During the IPU meeting, Indonesia had lobbied for the issuing of a strong condemnation of Israel, and so its diplomats considered the criticisms to be unfair. …

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