Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s government on Wednesday defended its hardline anti-Israel stance as it declared it would not budge on banning Israeli athletes from an upcoming Paralympics swimming qualifier despite facing criticism for that stance.
Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, met in his ministry by local groups lobbying for the Israeli athletes’ ban, said the government would refrain from hosting events featuring Israeli participants in the future.
The minister said the decision – made by cabinet last week – was premised upon “humanitarian reasons” and was about “fighting on behalf of the oppressed”.
Media reports this week had quoted the International Paralympic Committee criticising the Southeast Asian country’s strict stance on not admitting Israeli athletes, though the organisation said it was holding out hope for a solution.
The event, the World Para Swimming Championships, is to be held in July and is a qualifying event for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
The episode showed Mahathir’s eight-month-old government is standing pat on past administrations’ policy towards Israel.
As a staunch supporter of a two-state solution to the Palestine-Israel question, Malaysia does not have formal diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv and its citizens are barred from entering the Middle Eastern country without special permission.
Malaysia’s latest move to bar the athletes has the support of some 29 non-governmental organisations including the Palestine Cultural Organisation Malaysia – which hailed the Malaysian government’s stance as reminiscent of its criticism of apartheid-era South Africa during Mahathir’s first stint in power from 1981 to 2003.
The sports ban is not altogether new to Malaysia – in 2010, Israeli boxer Ilya Grad received a special visa to record a television programme, but in 2015 two Israeli windsurfers were denied visas for a world championship event after Malaysia insisted that no Israeli flags be waved and that the national anthem could not be played.
Earlier still, in 1997, the Israeli cricket team was allowed to compete in a tournament in Malaysia in light of peace talks in the Middle East. However, this decision resulted in violent street protests and riot police had to be dispatched to guard the stadium.
In December last year, Mahathir criticised Israel’s decision to move its capital to Jerusalem, saying Israel had no right to do so as Jerusalem did not belong to them.
Mahathir’s unabashed hardline views and policies towards Israel are viewed in the west as anti-Semitic, even though he is dismissive of such a characterisation.
In his 1970 book The Malay Dilemma, he described Jews as “hook-nosed”, later defending this by saying that Malays were often called “fat-nosed” but had not responded negatively.
At the United Nations General Assembly in September, he also said the world “rewards Israel” for breaking international laws of armed conflict in Palestine, calling recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital “provoking”.
Oh Ei Sun from Singapore’s Institute of International Affairs said it was not just Mahathir who had a strong stance on Israel and that “successive Malaysian governments have never relented when it comes to admitting Israelis, much less establishing formal ties”.
“Although Malaysia and Israel do not have diplomatic relations, it should be noted that Israel is a full-fledged member of the international community, being a member of both the United Nations and the International Olympic Committee, as well as many other established international organisations and sports bodies,” Oh said.
“So countries hosting the related sports events are obliged under international rules and customs to allow Israeli athletes to compete if they are qualified.”