Exploiting Palestine’s pain for political gain

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We do the people of Palestine a great disservice when we exploit their pain for political gain.

Let me be clear: What is happening in Gaza today is horrendous, a war crime, a crime against humanity, genocide even. The mass slaughter and destruction that is taking place in Gaza – a strip of land less than half the size of Perlis – has been horrific and without precedent in modern times. Nothing – absolutely nothing – justifies this.

Malaysians are right to feel outraged over the genocide now unfolding in Palestine. And Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is absolutely right to speak out in the strongest possible terms against the horrendous atrocities that are being committed.

But, at the same time, we do the people of Palestine a great disservice when we exploit their pain for political gain.

This shouldn’t be an occasion for politicians to preen their feathers or embellish their credentials. Or worse still, to pretend to be heroes for standing up to the West on behalf of Palestine. The only real heroes are the gallant people of Palestine who continue to fight for their freedom despite the genocide against them.

Malaysia has always been an outlier on the Palestinian issue. Former leaders like Dr Mahathir Mohamad were far more vocal and supportive of Palestine than anyone in government today; there was no hype about being threatened. So, all this talk about threats is quite puzzling and distracting.

There has also been much brouhaha over the demarches the US has made in connection with Malaysia’s stand on the issue. It is being made out to be something sinister and unusual; in fact, it is part of the normal diplomatic representation that nations make to each other on important issues. We too have made demarches over the years on issues of importance to us.

In this case, the US protested Malaysia’s support for Hamas. Our ambassador in Washington forcefully reiterated our position; further histrionics are unnecessary.

The way the pro-Palestine rally at Bukit Jalil was choreographed to showcase one man’s supposed role in standing up for Palestine and his achievements on the world stage was also in very poor taste. And then there was that spectacle of a non-Muslim deputy minister trying to score points by whipping up the religious fervour of the mostly Muslim crowd. It was all pure theatre, a shameful exploitation of a serious event for political gain.

The juvenile responses to the call for solidarity with Palestine – schoolkids brandishing toy guns, grown men shooting flaming arrows at the Israeli flag and horsemen carrying what looks like an ISIS flag galloping between lines of cheering supporters – didn’t help either. It just feeds into the narrative that Malaysia is becoming radicalised and increasingly sympathetic to jihadists. It may provide good entertainment for the greenies but it is not the kind of image we want to project internationally.

Actions have consequences. All those juvenile displays of militancy and chest-thumping are bound to make foreign investors jittery about Malaysia. The government may deny it but the danger is real.

Malaysia is also increasingly mentioned in international media reports as one of those countries that are sympathetic to militant Islamic groups including Hamas. There are allegations that Hamas has been using Malaysia as a training base; a Hamas operative was killed in Malaysia in 2018 reportedly by Mossad, the Israeli spy agency. What does all this say about where we are heading?

It should remind us that while we must stand with the long-suffering people of Palestine, our support should be commensurate with our capabilities and consistent with our overall foreign policy objectives. More thought needs to be given as to how we want the world to perceive us and the price we are willing to pay for the positions we take. Whatever it is, our national interests must not fall victim to short-term, knee-jerk, self-serving political agendas.

Finally, although we like to think that we punch above our weight on the world stage, we are peripheral at best on the Palestine issue. Instead of all the histrionics and chest-thumping, let’s focus on what we can do to make a meaningful difference for Palestine.

On the international stage, that means continuing to join with like-minded countries to keep up the pressure on Israel (and the US) to stop the carnage, urge respect for international law and UN resolutions and demand the immediate provision of humanitarian assistance. We might even want to consider promoting the idea of a global coalition in support of Palestine.

At the bilateral level, we ought to work with Egypt to provide medical assistance to the people of Gaza, offer additional funding for UNWRA as well as the Palestinian Authority and consider other forms of non-lethal support. And, when conditions permit, let’s build the best children’s hospital we can in Gaza as an enduring symbol of our commitment to the people of Palestine. – Dennis Ignatius