Malaysia’s Relationship With Israel Gets Frostier

The popular boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against companies that profit from the Israeli occupation is popular in Malaysia. (Photo: Kate Ausburn / Flickr)

The popular boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against companies that profit from the Israeli occupation is popular in Malaysia. (Photo: Kate Ausburn / Flickr)

The Israel Security Agency, better known as Shin Bet, recently claimed that Malaysia, a far-away majority-Muslim country in Southeast Asia, provided elite Hamas commandoes with paragliding training.

Reported by almost all major Israeli media outlets, such as The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz, Israel made the allegation after its security forces captured a senior Hamas commander who allegedly confessed to having been sent to Malaysia to receive paragliding training to conduct “terror attacks” in Israel.

Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar issued an official statement denying the report, calling it a “baseless” effort “to tarnish Malaysia’s good name.” Many Malaysians regard Israel’s unsubstantiated allegation as a knee-jerk reaction, perhaps even an indirect response to Malaysia’s support for the Palestinian cause and its strong condemnation of Israel’s current aggressions in Gaza.

Malaysia’s government has long been at odds with Israel. Mahathir Mohamad, who served as Malaysia’s prime minister for 22 years, constantly criticized Israel and its policies against the Palestinians, notoriously claiming in 2003 that Jews rule the world by “proxy.”

Malaysia is the only country in the world whose citizens’ passports clearly state that “this passport is valid for all countries except Israel.” A statement on the foreign ministry’s website explains that “Malaysia would consider beginning relations with Israel only when a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people is successfully concluded.”

Support for the Palestinian cause runs deep in Malaysian society. Malaysian NGOs like Viva Palestina Malaysia, Aman Palestin, and Aqsa Syarif are very active in advocating the Palestinian cause and have been conducting awareness campaigns intensively throughout the years focusing on humanitarian aid. And several years ago, the opposition in parliament heavily criticized Prime Minister Najib Razak for signing a contract with APCO Worldwide, a U.S.-based communications firm. The opposition alleged that APCO did PR for the Israeli government, though APCO denies this connection.

In 2010, a dozen Malaysian volunteers were on board the Mavi Marmara aid flotilla bound for Gaza when it had its tragic confrontation with Israeli forces. Their harrowing first-hand experience—seeing Israeli commandoes raid the unarmed ship and kill nine of their humanitarian worker colleagues—helped galvanize support from the Malaysian public for the Palestinian cause.

The recent escalation of violence by the Israeli government against Gaza, officially known as “Operation Protective Edge,” has intensified Palestinian solidarity activism in Malaysia. The popular boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against companies or international franchises that profit from the Israeli occupation is hugely popular in Malaysia, especially among its majority Muslim citizens.

Activists have gone to great lengths to scrutinize any business deals that might involve Israeli companies. The latest high-profile call is to boycott Malaysia’s largest television service provider, Astro, which allegedly concluded a business deal with Amdocs, an Israeli software and service provider.

Malaysian activists and NGOs are lambasting other multinational companies and franchises that have their footholds in Malaysia, like McDonalds and Tesco, for their alleged business relations with Israeli government. The corporations in turn are working very hard to manage the negative public perceptions by downplaying the political dimension of their economic footprint in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. For this they have constantly highlighted their contribution to the social wellbeing of Malaysian consumers by providing job opportunities and economic growth for the country.

As violence continues in Gaza, Malaysian civil society activists are waging their own campaign to create more awareness about the BDS initiative. They are delivering a strong message to any company that has any ties with Israel—no matter how small and indirect they might be—that Malaysians will not support or tolerate Israel’s aggressions against Palestinians.

Wan Ahmad Fayhsal is a fellow at Putra Business School, Malaysia and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.