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Israel-Hamas war divides Southeast Asia as trade, religion determine responses

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The outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas has caused divisions to reappear across Southeast Asia, where Muslim-majority countries historically align with the Palestinians, but trade interests – including buying weapons – have kept other nations on Israel’s side.

More than 20 Southeast Asians have been killed in the violence so far, with many more feared to have been taken hostage in the besieged Gaza Strip after Saturday’s shock raid on Israel by militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Among the dead are at least 18 Thais, according to authorities in Bangkok, who said they would evacuate as many of the estimated 30,000 Thai nationals working in Israel as wanted to leave. A Cambodian and an Indonesian medical volunteer have also died in the conflict, while Manila’s Department of Foreign Affairs said seven Filipinos were still missing.

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Families in Asia mourn loved ones killed in Israel, as others anxiously wait for news of missing

Families in Asia mourn loved ones killed in Israel, as others anxiously wait for news of missing

On Monday, the seriousness of their predicament was underscored when Hamas threatened to start executing the people it had taken hostage if Israel continued to hit Gaza with air strikes.

The conflict threatens to chip away at the increasingly thin veneer of unity at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – already squabbling over a joint response to Myanmar’s 2021 coup – as Muslim politicians in Malaysia and Indonesia speak out in favour of the Palestinians; Singapore throws its support behind Israel and condemns Hamas; and the response from Thailand and Vietnam has largely been muted.
As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Monday that his country’s response to the Hamas onslaught would “ change the Middle East”, Malaysia urged the UN Security Council and international community to act fast to stop the violence.

Hamas vows to execute hostages as Israel strikes and seals off Gaza

“Why the different approaches?” Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi asked in a ministerial statement to parliament. “In the Ukraine crisis, for example, the West were lightning fast to offer their support to Kyiv. Unfortunately when it involves Palestine, it is completely ignored.”
Outrage – juiced up by videos, many of them unverified, of Israeli strikes on Gaza – has rattled across Malaysian social media, as Islamist lawmakers called for protests and the diplomatic isolation of Israel.
“Any effort to normalise ties with Israel, regardless of which nation or even if it is an Arab state, is a betrayal,” PAS MP Ahmad Fadhli Shaari said in parliament, in a veiled reference to Saudi Arabia’s recent efforts to end decades of diplomatic enmity with Jerusalem.
Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs similarly laid the blame at Israel’s door on Sunday, saying in a statement that “the root of the conflict, namely the occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel, must be resolved, in accordance with the parameters agreed upon by the UN”.
Indonesian protesters shout slogans outside the US embassy in Jakarta during a rally on Tuesday to demand an end to the Israel-Hamas conflict. Photo: AP

It had earlier expressed deep concern “with the escalation of conflict between Palestine and Israel” and urged “the immediate end of violence to avoid further human casualties”.

Indonesian clerics took a more strident line, however. Sudarnoto Abdul Hakim of the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s top body of Islamic scholars, called Hamas’ assault a “counter-attack” to Israel’s own actions which “have systematically destroyed the sovereignty of the Palestinian people and nation”.

Said Iqbal, president of the Indonesian Trade Union Confederation and head of the recently formed Labour Party, said hundreds of workers would protest outside the US embassy and the UN building in Indonesia’s capital on Tuesday to call for an end to the war. “We believe that there is no victory in war, and the only way to achieve long-term stability in the region is through negotiation and dialogue,” he said

“All problems must be resolved at the negotiation table by following the decisions of the UN resolution on Palestinian independence. The Labour Party supports Palestinian independence without having to resort to war.”

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Protesters on both sides of Israel-Hamas conflict flood streets around the world

Protesters on both sides of Israel-Hamas conflict flood streets around the world

Singapore’s foreign ministry said in a statement that it “strongly” condemned the attacks on Israel, which have “resulted in deaths and injuries of many innocent civilians”.

“We call for an immediate end to the violence and urge all sides to do their utmost to protect the safety and security of civilians,” it added.

In a Facebook post on Saturday, Bilahari Kausikan, former permanent secretary of Singapore’s foreign ministry, backed Israel’s right to “retaliate massively”, writing: “ Hamas and the people under its control will soon pay a huge price”.

What is Hamas? Israel at war with group that rules Gaza

He added that Singapore’s interests included ending any notion of “terrorists anywhere to believe they can operate with impunity”, citing a failed attempt to launch a rocket at Singapore from Batam in 2016 as an example of a Hamas-inspired attack.
Israel is one of Singapore’s oldest and most important military partners. Following the city state’s acrimonious split from Malaysia in 1965, Israel provided the fledgling country with state help to build up its military, a task turned down by bigger powers including India and Egypt.

The republic maintains ties with the Palestinian Authority that governs the West Bank, and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan held talks with counterparts in Ramallah last year.

Observers have previously said that except for Southeast Asia’s three Muslim-majority nations – Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei – the region’s governments have generally moderated their criticism of Israel’s treatment of Gaza residents to maintain their trade and security ties with the Middle Eastern power.

Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara said on Sunday that Bangkok’s stance towards the conflict was neutral. He said that Thailand will not condemn either side but opposes any form of violence.

Vietnam’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, said it was “profoundly concerned” by the escalating violence, saying in a statement on Sunday that it called on all “relevant parties to exercise restraint, refrain from taking actions that complicate the situation, and soon resume negotiations to resolve disagreements through peaceful means”.

Vietnam is Israel’s third-largest export market for weapons, with the two countries signing a free trade deal earlier this year.

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