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Israel-Hamas war strains Indonesia, Malaysia ties with West

November 20, 2023

The ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict is driving a wedge between the European Union, the United States and Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia.

Protesters shout slogans and wave Palestinian flags during a rally in support of the Palestinians at the National Monument in Jakarta, Indonesia
Tens of thousands of people have participated in pro-Palestinian protests in both Indonesia and MalaysiaImage: Dita Alangkara/AP/picture alliance

Indonesia and Malaysia are among countries where resentment against Western support for Israel is building amid its ongoing offensive in Gaza.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has so far refused to condemn Hamas atrocities that took place in Israel during its attacks on October 7. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has said "the root cause of the conflict" is "the occupation of Palestinian land by Israel."

In a meeting with US President Joe Biden in Washington on November 13, Widodo appealed for Biden to "do more to stop the atrocities in Gaza."

Tens of thousands of people have participated in pro-Palestinian protests in both Southeast Asian countries.

Indonesia and Malaysia do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, and Malaysia has often hosted officials from Hamas, which the EU and the US consider a terrorist organization.

Protesters in the US demand cease-fire in Israel-Hamas war

'West practices double standards' in Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Analysts have said many countries in the Global South, which is a term used to describe developing nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America, see the West's reluctance to condemn Israel's bombardment of Gaza as a "double standard."

This comes after the US tried to pressure countries in the Global South to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which has resulted in massive civilian casualties after Russian bombardment of Ukrainian cities.

"Like Muslims in other parts of the world, Malaysian Muslims generally think that the West practices double standards when it comes to the solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," said Tunku Mohar Mokhtar, an assistant professor at the International Islamic University of Malaysia.

Biden has attempted to draw parallels between the two conflicts, stating last month that Ukraine and Israel are democracies fighting enemies determined to "completely annihilate" them.

However, Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, has said the two conflicts are "completely different." He warned that some countries in the Global South will "take advantage of the crisis to underscore what they see as a contradiction in our positioning or even a contradiction among Europeans."

"International support for Ukraine may erode in the light of what is being seen as the practice of double standards," he added, while appealing to governments to reject the framing of the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza as the "West against the rest."

Indonesia, one of the most populous states in the Global South, was notable for ignoring Western appeals to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year. However, the Malaysian prime minister has condemned the Russian invasion.

Gazans with health issues struggle amid war

Crackdown on pro-Palestinian protests

European states have also come under criticism for allegedly silencing pro-Palestinian activists and not tackling Islamophobia.

On November 9, Indonesia's envoy to the United Nations urged Germany, which has refused to authorize numerous pro-Palestinian protests, to "ensure the freedom of opinion and expression is fulfilled by avoiding discriminatory treatments by police officers against activists, in particular to the peaceful pro-Palestinian protesters."

Islamic solidarity plays a part in the response of Indonesia and Malaysia to the Israel-Hamas conflict, but it shouldn't be exaggerated, said Radityo Dharmaputra, a lecturer in Eastern European studies at Airlangga University in Surabaya, Indonesia.

He said "these societies are conspicuously absent" in condemning China's treatment of the Muslim Uyghur population in the northwestern Xinjiang region.

The prevalence of overall anti-Western sentiment is also an important factor.

Western popularity goes up and down

There are concerns there could be a repeat of the early 2000s, when the US-led coalition's invasion of Iraq badly affected Washington's image in Southeast Asia.

Some 61% of Indonesians held favorable opinions of the US in 2002, but this fell to just 16% the following year after the Iraq war began, according to Pew Research Center surveys. It took several years for US-Indonesia relations to be repaired.

The EU was already unpopular in Indonesia and Malaysia over its environmental regulations on deforestation, which could significantly impact the two countries' economies.

In June, a senior Indonesian minister said the EU was guilty of "regulatory imperialism."

Both states, the world's two largest palm oil exporters, have joined forces to take the EU to the World Trade Organization over what they deem is protectionism disguised as environmentalism.

They are currently attempting to persuade other states, such as Thailand, to join in their lobbying efforts against EU policy.

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In 2023, nearly 48% of Indonesians said they had no or little trust in the EU to "do the right thing" to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity and governance, up from 30% a year earlier, according to the annual State of Southeast Asia surveys produced by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The share of Malaysians who said the same also rose to 31% in 2023.

Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate of the University of Nottingham's Asia Research Institute Malaysia, told DW there has been a "deepening fracturing" of perceptions of the West in parts of Southeast Asia, particularly because of the perceived lack of support for humanitarian aid and a cease-fire in Gaza.

She said the images of EU and US leaders embracing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been "very impactful" and are "shaping a new generation in a period when Western moral legitimacy has evaporated."

Edited by: Wesley Rahn