RIYADH: Israel’s military assault on Gaza is a disproportionate response, and the conflict can only be halted through negotiation with Hamas and by pursuing a two-state solution, according to Mahathir bin Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia.
The veteran statesman, who held office from 1981 to 2003 and from 2018 to 2020, making him the country’s longest-serving prime minister, has long been a staunch supporter of Palestinian national rights.
Compared with the 1948 Nakba, or “catastrophe,” that resulted in the creation of the state of Israel and the dispossession of millions of Palestinians, Mahathir believes the current conflict in Gaza presents an even greater threat and is more akin to an extermination.
“This is worse than the previous Nakba because this is not war. This is, simply, a humanitarian oppression,” he told Arab News.
“We don’t see soldiers fighting each other. We see, simply, Israeli soldiers killing civilians. That is not war. It is a humanitarian disaster.”
Israel launched its military assault on Gaza with the intention of eliminating Hamas after the Palestinian militant group mounted its unprecedented attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, which resulted in the death of 1,200 people, Israelis and foreigners, and the taking of more than 200 hostages.
The US and many other Western governments have repeatedly voiced their support for Israel’s right to defend itself and broadly backed the aim of eliminating Hamas, which Washington and many European governments consider a terrorist organization.
“It may have the right to defend itself but not to the extent of proposing to kill Palestinian civilians without any limit,” said Mahathir.
“Already, they have killed 12,000. They claim they have lost 1,400, but now they have killed more than 12,000 Palestinians. That is not the way to secure the well-being of Israel.”
The steadfast Western support for Israel has started to wane, however, as the civilian body count in Gaza continues to rise, prompting growing calls for an immediate ceasefire, the establishment of humanitarian aid corridors, and a negotiated settlement of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mahathir, who was in office during the 1993-1999 peace process, when the Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Yasser Arafat, came close to its goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state, said the violence of Oct. 7 was all but inevitable after Israel failed to keep up its end of successive agreements.
“For 70 years, the Israelis have been oppressing the Palestinians, have taken their land and built settlements on their land,” said Mahathir.
“And they (the Palestinians) have tried many ways, including negotiation by Arafat. But every time they tried to solve the problem, the Israelis reneged on their promises. For example, when Arafat finally agreed that the state of Israel should exist, that there should be a two-state solution, the Israelis (did) not implement the promise they made that there should be a two-state solution.
“So, what can the Palestinians do? They had to eventually resort to violence. They have no other way. The world is not helping them. There is no justice. So the attack on Oct. 7 is because there is no other way for them to regain their land. It’s not terrorism, it’s to fight to liberate your own country.”
Mahathir doubts whether Israel ever truly countenanced the possibility of an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines and with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Instead, he believes Israel wants to dispossess the Palestinians of all their remaining lands west of the Jordan river, and goes so far as to accuse the current government of orchestrating a campaign of attempted extermination.
“What they want is actually, if what they are doing in Gaza is any evidence, what they want is to rid the world of all Palestinians. That is their final solution,” said Mahathir.
“They learned this from the Nazis of Germany. The Nazi solution to the Jewish problem was to kill all Jews. Now, it seems that Israel is adopting that approach to the problem, wanting to kill all Palestinians so that the Middle East will not have any Palestinians left.”
The “final solution” refers to the killing of 6 million Jews by the Nazis, primarily in purpose-built death camps, between 1941 and 1945.
Last weekend, Saudi Arabia hosted an extraordinary joint summit of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Riyadh, during which leaders demanded an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and rejected Israel’s justification of its actions as being self-defense.
They urged the International Criminal Court to investigate the “war crimes and crimes against humanity that Israel is committing” in the Palestinian territories, according to the summit’s final communique.
They also demanded an end to the siege of Gaza, access for the delivery of humanitarian aid, and a halt to the sale of arms to Israel, and called on the UN Security Council to take action.
“Just asking the Israelis to stop the war is not doing very much, because everybody is saying that,” said Mahathir. “But the Islamic countries can demand from the UN all peacekeepers to be sent to Gaza so that they can look after the welfare, the well-being, the security of the Gazan people.
“Today, the Gazan people have no defense. They are being killed almost as if they are not human. And this is what Israel is doing. Merely asking Israel just to stop killing is not enough. Israel will not stop killing.
“But I think at least they should send peacekeepers. They should supply food, medicine, water and all that, all the needs of the people in Gaza. And they should be there, represented as peacekeepers, to stop this unfair killing of innocent people by the Israeli military.
“And it’s not only killing that Israel is doing. They’ve cut off water, electricity, food supplies, humanitarian aid for close to a month now. And they’re saying that they want to eliminate Hamas, that they want to eradicate the terrorist group, Hamas.”
Mahathir does not believe that Hamas can be defeated by force of arms alone. Instead, he said that Israel and its allies will have to negotiate with the group if they hope to end the cycle of violence that led to the Oct. 7 attacks.
“If you want to eliminate Hamas, sit down and negotiate with Hamas,” he said. “Give back the land belonging to the Palestinians; the Palestinians who are ready to acknowledge there is Israel. That was not (the case) before but now they accept that there is Israel.
“Israel must give back the land belonging to the Palestinians and that should be done through negotiation, not through killing. Killing is uncivilized. Yes, we’ve heard so many officials say that dialogue should be open. There should be more conversation. There should be a conversation also taking place. But Israel says they needed a proportionate response to what happened to them.”
In the meantime, Mahathir believes Arab and Islamic countries in the region should offer sanctuary to Palestinian women and children, while the men should remain behind to prevent a permanent Israeli occupation.
“If the Israelis keep on killing the Palestinians, we should provide asylum for at least the women and the children,” he said. “The men should stay back in Gaza, because if you don’t, then the Israelis will occupy Gaza. So, the men will stay back, and they should be given some way of defending themselves.
“At the moment, they cannot defend themselves. They have no weapons, and they are being killed. Whether they are Hamas or not has not been ascertained. They (Israel) are killing people, saying they want to get rid of Hamas. But the people, the babies, who were killed, are they Hamas? How can you justify killing people?”
Mahathir established the Kuala Lumpur Initiative to Criminalize War in 2015, as well as the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission to investigate the activities of the US, Israel and their allies in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
He has also accused the West of increasing the likelihood of a third world war as a result of its intervention in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Part of the problem, in his view, is the dearth of moral values among the current crop of world leaders.
“We are getting world leaders who have no conscience,” Mahathir said. “We have very poor qualities of world leaders. To find the president of the US actually approving the killing of the Palestinians, that shows the quality of leadership.
“A leader should always move toward doing good things and correct things — just use the rule of law. But now the US president and the prime minister of the UK and many other European leaders, the quality of leadership is very bad. They have no conscience, no moral values. They like to see wars being fought and they don’t mind if there is no justice, if the laws are broken.”
At a time when islamophobic and antisemitic hate crimes appear to be on the rise worldwide in response to the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, Malaysia has managed to maintain a degree of harmony among its diverse population, which is made up of a majority of Malay Muslims along with Buddhists, Christian Chinese and mainly Hindu Tamils.
“Malaysia is a multiracial, multireligious country,” said Mahathir. “We have different beliefs, different cultures, but each one of us accepts that we have to tolerate each other.
“Of course, we are different. We cannot be the same. If God wants us to be the same, we will all be Muslim. But there are people who are not Muslims, and Muslims must tolerate the non-Muslims. That is part of the teachings of Islam.
“So, we adhere to the teachings of Islam and we live together. They have their own way, we have our own way and we tolerate that, for instance.”
Mahathir said this has been achieved through widespread recognition of the fact that resorting to violence can only harm the nation and its people. It is a lesson he believes other countries ought to take on board.
“If we have confrontation, (if) we have violence, (then) we will destroy the country. In the end, nobody gets anything,” he said. “Everybody in Malaysia understands that if you fight, the whole country is going to be destroyed. Everybody is going to suffer.
“Yes, we have our differences. We can settle our differences around a table, not by fighting each other. When you fight each other, you kill people and you destroy the country. In the end, even if you win, the country is destroyed. Of course, if you lose, you will also face a country that is no longer, well, stable.”