KUALA LUMPUR: A WAR of words has erupted between Israel and Malaysia, days after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (above) stood defiant on the decision to ban Israeli participation in all sporting events it hosts.
The latest firecrackers came after Israeli paraplegic sportsmen were barred from taking part in a global swimming championship in the eastern state of Sarawak in July.
Tun Mahathir has made it clear that Israelis should not come to Malaysia as the country does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. He added that Malaysia had the “right to keep its border closed to certain people, especially from countries we feel are doing a lot of wrong things”.
In a no-compromise stand, Malaysia, a majority-Muslim country like Indonesia, will not open its doors to Israelis and the latest “red card” comes for the World Para Swimming championships. Swimmers from some 70 countries are expected to compete in the July 29-Aug. 4 championships. The event is an important milestone towards next year’s Tokyo Paralympics.
For the record, Singapore is one of the rare Asean countries to consistently support Israel, grateful of its unconditional support during the post-independence period over half-century.
CHANGE VENUE: ISRAEL
Israel condemned Malaysia’s ban and said the decision was inspired by Tun Mahathir’s “rabid anti-Semitism”. They even called on the International Paralympic Committee, which is organising the competition, to change the venue if it cannot persuade Malaysia to lift the edict.
Tun Mahathir, the world’s oldest premier at 93, has for decades been accused of anti-Semitism for his attacks against Jews. In a BBC interview in October, he described Jews as “hook-nosed” and blamed them for the troubles in the Middle East.
In a recent visit to Austria, he even likened the ban to US President Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall along the US-Mexico border. He explains: “Every country has the right to accept or refuse entry of anybody. You can see that in America now they are erecting a very high wall to prevent Mexicans from going to America.
“We have the same idea, that people who are undesirable for our country will be kept out of our country.”
Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said Malaysia would continue to take a strong position on the plight of the Palestinians. “It is about fighting on behalf of the oppressed,” he said.
PLIGHT OF PALESTINE
“For more than half a century, Israel has continued to disregard the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, while committing inhumane policies and practices that are in clear violation of international laws.
“Israel has no right to talk about moral values when they themselves are the exact opposite.”
He added the Cabinet affirmed last week that no Israeli delegates can enter Malaysia for sporting or other events in solidarity with the Palestinians.
“The Cabinet has also decided that Malaysia will not host any more events involving Israel or its representatives. This is to me, a decision to reflect the government’s firm stance over the Israeli issue,” Saifuddin said after meeting a coalition of Muslim groups.
Israeli athletes have been banned in the past by countries that do not recognise Israel. They have also competed at events in Arab countries without national symbols, typically under the flag of the sports federation running the event.
Malaysia stopped Israeli athletes from competing in a sports event before. Two Israeli windsurfers had to pull out of a competition on Langkawi island after they were refused visas in 2015. Malaysia also refused to host a conference for world football’s governing body (FIFA) in 2017 as an Israeli delegation was due to attend.
Dr Chandra Muzaffar, President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), says Malaysia’s decision was “politically correct and morally right”, supported by PKR president Anwar Ibrahim and Deputy Youth and Sports Minister Sim Hee Kyung. A coalition of 29 NGOs also voiced support for the decision.
“If our decision on Israeli swimmers is politically viable it is because it is anchored in a powerful moral ethos,” says Dr Chandra, usually a government critic. “In international law, Israel is an occupier that has annexed and usurped not only Palestinian land but also Syrian and Lebanese territories. If Malaysia recognised Israel, we would be bestowing legitimacy upon Israeli occupation and oppression.”
Singapore, however, rank as a rare breed of Asean countries that support Israel. In February 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Singapore in the first visit from that country’s leader in 30 years.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained: “We asked a number of countries (for help forming an army in the early years of Singapore)…we were starting from zero…we needed to build up an armed forces urgently from scratch. But only Israel responded to us, and it did so very promptly.”
Advice from Israel also shaped the early plans for Singapore’s army and today’s force still reflects the Israeli structure. Weapons sales to arm these troops was a key driver for early cooperation. In 1968, Singapore purchased 72 AMX-13 tanks from Israel but the sensitivities of Singapore’s position in a Muslim-majority region meant these deals were not public knowledge, reported Hongkong-based The South China Morning Post.
“We will always be grateful that Israel helped us and stood by us, at our time of great need,” PM Lee said.