KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia unexpectedly jumped into the fraught politics of the Israel-Hamas war when Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim vowed to maintain ties with Hamas even if his government were to come under outside pressure. Anwar has become one of the most vocal leaders in publicly criticising Israel, calling its military operations in Gaza the "height of barbarism".
While political observers say that has made him popular at home by appealing to the Muslim majority, it puts Malaysia at odds with the United States, its third-largest trading partner. Here is a closer look at the history behind Malaysia’s stance.
Is Malaysia's government pro-Hamas?
While the government has not said outright that it is pro-Hamas, it maintains ties and reserves the right to engage with the group — listed as a terrorist organisation by the US and European Union (EU) — to find solutions to the ongoing crisis with Israel. Hamas attacked Israel on Oct 7, killing around 1,400 people including civilians and soldiers.
Anwar told Parliament in October that Palestinians in Gaza "have been for the last six decades incarcerated in the largest open-air prison in the world". The Southeast Asian nation views Hamas as the legitimately elected leader of Gaza, Anwar said, though no elections in the enclave have been held since 2006.
Muslims perform a special prayer during a solidarity gathering to show support for Palestinians, amid escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Oct 24, 2023. (Photo: Reuters)
Malaysia has long backed a two-state solution, which calls for Israelis and Palestinians to share the Holy Land under separate, independent nations. In his maiden speech at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in September, Anwar railed against oppression across the globe, including "atrocities" against Palestinians and the "stripping" of their land — moves he said posed challenges to brokering peace. Hamas, which has a history of suicide bombings, has held fast to its stated mission of destroying the state of Israel while other Palestinian leaders have advocated for peaceful coexistence.
How does Malaysia support the Palestinians?
Israel responded to Hamas's attack on Oct 7 with airstrikes and military operations in the Gaza Strip it says are aimed at destroying the group. At least 10,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Malaysian political leaders have taken part in pro-Palestinian rallies and discussed support for the Palestinian cause in Parliament. Malaysia's education ministry organised a Palestine Solidarity Week program at schools and colleges it oversees.
The Malaysian government manages a Humanitarian Trust Fund for the People of Palestine, which has about 81 million ringgit (US$17 million) as of Oct 19, on the way to its 100-million-ringgit goal. It is earmarked for medical aid, food and basic necessities in Gaza and for any Palestinians affected by the war, according to Anwar.
Malaysia and Palestinian authorities maintain reciprocal embassies. After Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was among the first heads of state to visit. Another former premier, Mahathir Mohamad, posted snippets of a conversation in October with Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh, who asked him for help in swaying Western and Israeli narratives. Anwar also posted on X that he had a phone conversation with Haniyeh, expressing Malaysia’s support for the Palestinian people.
Malaysians step on Israeli President Isaac Herzog's pictures and the country's flags as they protest outside the US embassy in support of Palestinians in Gaza after an explosion at a hospital in Gaza, as the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Oct 20, 2023. (Photo: Reuters)
What is Malaysia’s position on Israel?
Israel was a supporter of newly independent Malaysia’s admission into the UN in 1957 and traded with the Southeast Asian nation. However, Malaysia's first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, started the policy of eschewing formal diplomatic ties with Israel as the Southeast Asian nation sought to bolster its Islamic image.
Currently, Malaysian passports contain the inscription "this passport is valid for all countries except Israel". Israel passport holders are also restricted from entering Malaysia without permission.
Is religion playing a role in Malaysia's stance?
Malaysia’s foreign policy emphasises "the solidarity of the Ummah", or Muslim community, and some political analysts say Anwar may be drumming up support for Palestinians partly to shore up his Islamist credentials.
The prime minister said he raised the Palestinian issue during his visits to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in October. He also said several Muslim nations have agreed to an emergency meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on the matter.
At the same time, he has stressed the war is a humanitarian crisis and “Palestinian Christians have been victimised just as much as their Muslim brothers and sisters.” Non-Muslim politicians in Malaysia have expressed support for Palestinians in Parliament and in rallies.
How do ordinary Malaysians feel about the Israel-Hamas war?
Citizens have held pro-Palestinian street protests, including one headlined by Anwar and attended by an estimated 16,000 people.
Malaysians have also boycotted fast-food establishments seen to have ties to Israel. After footage spread on social media showing McDonald’s Corp restaurants in Israel distributing meals to soldiers, its Malaysian subsidiary released a statement saying it is 100% Muslim-owned and that the incident does not reflect its values. Starbucks Corp in Malaysia has also been the target of a boycott.
A shopping mall is decorated for Christmas celebration in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (File photo)