Malaysia’s foreign minister said Wednesday that the government will not budge over a ban on Israeli athletes in a para swimming competition and has decided that the country will not host any events in the future involving Israel.
Malaysia, a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause, is among the predominantly Muslim countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. The government has said Israeli swimmers cannot join the competition in eastern Sarawak state in July, which serves as a qualifying event for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said the Cabinet affirmed last week that no Israeli delegates can enter Malaysia for sporting or other events in solidarity with the Palestinians.
“The Cabinet has also decided that Malaysia will not host any more events involving Israel or its representatives. This is to me, a decision to reflect the government’s firm stance over the Israeli issue,” Saifuddin said after meeting a coalition of Muslim groups. The groups submitted a memorandum urging the government to stick to the ban and not to repeat mistakes in the past of allowing Israel delegates into the country.
Saifuddin said the Palestinian cause was not just a religious issue but also a human right violation.
“It’s about fighting on behalf of the oppressed,” he said.
Israel’s Paralympic Committee did not immediately reply to an email requesting comment on Malaysia’s move.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has said the International Paralympic Committee can withdraw Malaysia’s right to host the July 29-August 4 championship involving athletes from some 70 countries if it wishes to do so. The committee has said it was disappointed with Mahathir’s comments but hopes to find a solution to the issue.
This isn’t the first time Malaysia has stopped Israeli athletes from competing in a sports event. In 2015, two Israeli windsurfers had to withdraw from a competition on the resort island of Langkawi after they were refused visas to enter. The following year, Malaysia decided not to host a 2017 conference of the world football governing body FIFA because an Israeli delegation was scheduled to participate.
But in February 2018, the government allowed a high-level Israeli delegation to attend a UN conference in Kuala Lumpur, sparking widespread anger among Muslim groups.
Some 60 percent of Malaysia’s 32 million people are ethnic Malay Muslims. Many have taken to the streets in the past to support the Palestinian cause.
In 1997, the Israeli cricket team was allowed to play in the 22-nation International Cricket Council Trophy tournament in Kuala Lumpur despite violent street protests. It was the first official visit by an Israeli sports delegation to Malaysia.
Israeli athletes are regularly banned from competing at international sporting events in Arab or Muslim countries, or forced to compete without displaying their national symbols. A number of incidents have led to reprimands from international governing bodies and promises to reform.
In 2016, an Egyptian judoka was sent home after refusing to shake hands with his Israeli opponent at the Rio Olympics. The International Olympic Committee said at the time that Islam El Shehaby received a “severe reprimand” for his behavior following his first-round heavyweight bout loss to Or Sasson.
Last year, The International Judo Federation stripped the United Arab Emirates and Tunisia from hosting two international tournaments due to their failure to guarantee equal treatment of Israeli athletes.
The decision to suspend the tournaments came after organizers at last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Slam refused to acknowledge the nationality of the Israeli athletes — a policy directed only at Israeli participants.
This included a ban on the display of identifying symbols, as well as a refusal to fly the Israeli flag and play the national anthem during ceremonies for Israel’s five medalists.
Weeks later, the UAE acceded to pressure from international sports officials, allowing Israeli athletes to compete under their national flag in October for the first time ever.