Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah announced Dec. 28 the appointment of honorary consuls for his country in Gaza and Ramallah. This follows an announcement by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad at the Non-Aligned Summit in Azerbaijan on Oct. 25 that his country intends to open an embassy accredited to Palestine but located in Jordan.
Abdullah expressed hope to see the embassy open this year; he said Malaysia would not locate the embassy in Ramallah to avoid having to deal with Israel over the matter. He said Malaysia seeks to obtain Jordan’s consent to open the embassy.
After Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007, the ambassadors to the Palestinian Authority (PA) all relocated to Ramallah. They only visit Gaza for several hours. But Malaysia’s recent decision may carry a new approach, which Hamas welcomes and the PA sees as a surprising and apparently unwelcome development.
The Palestinian Foreign Ministry in Ramallah declined to comment to Al-Monitor.
But a high-ranking Palestinian official at the PLO Executive Committee told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “We fear that the Malaysian move could mean Malaysia sees Gaza a political entity not subject to the PA.”
In an interview Oct. 28 with the Ramallah-based Voice of Palestine Radio, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki echoed similar fears. “Diplomatic custom and circumstances will not allow the opening of a Malaysian embassy accredited to Palestine in Jordan,” the Maan news agency quoted him as saying.
Basim Naeem, a member of the Hamas International Relations Office and a former minister of health, told Al-Monitor, “Malaysia’s decision is an expression of its strong relations with the Palestinians. This move reflects political stances in support of Hamas, which culminated in a Hamas delegation attending the Kuala Lumpur Summit on Dec. 18-20.”
Naeem added, “We hope Malaysian economic and financial support to Gaza grows. Appointing a consul to Gaza will further strengthen our relations with Malaysia and result in more economic projects that will improve the dire economic situation in Gaza. Malaysia has the right to play a political role, and the Palestinians welcome it as it serves their best interests.”
The Malaysian decision raises a number of questions about the international community’s legal and political perspective of the Gaza Strip under the control of Hamas. Malaysia's action could be seen as a sign of the growing relationship with Hamas. The movement sent a large leadership delegation to the Kuala Lumpur Islamic Summit, while the PA did not attend.
Hamas and Malaysia's relations have witnessed gradual growth through mutual visits and contacts. Khaled Meshaal visited Malaysia in December 2013 and December 2015 when he was the Hamas political leader and in May 2019 after leaving the post. In January 2019, Meshaal successor Ismail Haniyeh had a warm phone conversation with Mahathir. Also, Mohamed Naguib Abdel Razek visted Gaza when he was Malaysia's prime minister in January 2013.
A Malaysian parliamentarian who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity about the appointment of Malaysian consuls in Gaza and Ramallah said, “This is part of our policy of supporting the Palestinians wherever they are. It is easier for us to economically cooperate with Gaza. In the West Bank, we have to communicate with Israel, which controls its crossings.”
He did note, however, Malaysia’s support of the West Bank in terms of political stances and the training of government cadres.
In recent years, there has been an increase in Malaysian statements and actions in support of the Palestinians. On Nov. 16, the Foreign Ministry condemned Israeli aggression on Gaza. In August, Al-Quds Foundation Malaysia launched a multilingual website dubbed Aqsapedia to introduce Al-Aqsa Mosque to Southeast Asian communities and counter what it termed the Zionist narrative.
On July 27, Mahathir, 94, accused Israel of being the cause of terrorism in the world. On Jan. 23 of last year, he labeled Israelis as coming from a criminal state. He said Malaysia could not accept Israeli athletes as part of the World Para Swimming Championships that were set to be held in Kuching in the summer of 2019. This caused the International Paralympic Committee to strip Malaysia of hosting rights and move the event to London.
In April 2018, the Malaysian Foreign Ministry accused Israel of deliberately targeting Palestinians participating in the return marches on the Gaza border. In April 2017 the global campaign to break the Gaza blockade organized a sit-in in the Malaysian state of Kelantan to show solidarity with Gaza. In May 2014, then-Foreign Minister Anifah Aman demanded that Israel lift the siege on Gaza
Sharif Abu Shammala, the president of the Al-Quds Foundation Malaysia (Quds stands for Jerusalem), told Al-Monitor, “Malaysia’s decision stems from its will to help the Palestinians, follow up on their conditions and strengthen its popular and official relations with them. Gaza’s universities are very popular among Malaysian students. Some Malaysian men are married to Palestinian women, and there is a Malaysian community in Gaza.”
He said, “I doubt the PA would consent to the Malaysian step of appointing a consul in Gaza. I guess it will hinder such a step.”
At the economic level, Malaysian support for the Palestinians, especially in Gaza, has intensified through a number of governmental and private Malaysian institutions, most notably Aman Palestine, the Al-Quds Foundation Malaysia, Viva Palestine, Cinta Gaza Malaysia, and the Malaysian Consultative Council for Islamic Organization.
On July 17, a high-ranking Malaysian delegation visited Gaza to discuss support for the education sector. The delegation was headed by the foreign minister's political secretary, Mohamed Nazri Noh, who indicated that there have been talks within the Malaysian government to open a Malaysian consulate in the Gaza Strip to serve Malaysians residing in Gaza and boost cooperation between Malaysians and Palestinians.
The Malaysian delegation inaugurated the Malaysian Hall Gaza in the presence of Palestinian government officials. The hall hosts the Center for Strategic Studies, Cinta Gaza Malaysia and a number of Malaysian nongovernmental organizations providing aid to Palestinians. The delegation also visited the Ministry of Interior in Gaza to identify its needs.
Mahmoud al-Ajrami, a political analyst and former undersecretary of the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, told Al-Monitor, “The Malaysian consul in Gaza will run his country's interests in the besieged enclave and manage its projects closely. His appointment is a political act that carries recognition of Hamas as a main political force, not a terrorist group. This will open the gates of Asia to Hamas, which will benefit from Malaysia’s regional and international relations.”
Ajrami continued, “The problem is that the PA may reject this appointment and refuse to welcome the Malaysian consul in Ramallah. The PA believes that appointing another consul in Gaza questions the unity of its Palestinian representation. This could turn into a Palestinian-Malaysian diplomatic crisis.”
Muslim Imran, president of the Palestinian Culture Organization Malaysia and an influential figure in the Palestinian community in Malaysia, estimated at 4,000 Palestinians, told Al-Monitor, “Malaysia’s decision is a continuation of its policy of communicating with key, active Palestinian players and its desire to follow up on the field situation in Gaza directly through its consul.”
“We look positively at the decision,” Imran said, “It will surely boost the already existing relationship with Hamas and open channels for supporting the Palestinian people.”
Hamas sees in the Malaysian move a new effort to break Hamas' political isolation and revive its crumbling economic situation. For its part, the PA still wants everything related to Gaza to pass through Ramallah, and not Hamas, but this may be a losing cause.
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