Flag burnings and assault claims have not dampened Eye from Zion “success”: DMC

An Israeli opthamologist NGO has been praised for providing the “most successful” medical camp the Maldives has ever seen following its conclusion last week, despite protests including the burning of Israeli flags and the alleged assault of a government under secretary, Abdulla Shahid, Coordinator for the country’s National Disaster Management Centre (DMC) has claimed.

Shahid claimed that for the hundreds of Maldivians who had not “been too scared” to travel for a consultation or s surgical procedure on their eyes with the NGO, a free service was on offer that was only available otherwise at the country’s private medical clinics.

“There has never been such a successful camp,” he said, despite allegations of “scare mongering” and an assault on a relative of one patient arriving at a hospital for an operation with the NGO.

However, the visit of the Eye from Zion NGO, which had been working at hospitals across the country offering “eye surgery camps”, has seen a number of protests taking place against it, with high-profile politicians such as Umar Naseer and former State Islamic Minister Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed joining the movement.

Both men have claimed following a protest held in front of the Tsunami memorial on Friday December 17, that their opposition to the NGO was not anti-Semitic or targeted directly at Jews, but rather a sign of “solidarity” with fellow Muslims about concerns with Israeli foreign policy, particularly in Palestine.

Both politicians spoke along with other figures at a rally of hundreds of people gathered in Male’, some carrying banners in both Dhivehi and English with messages ranging from “Say no to Israeli terrorism” and “Jews said Allah is poor” to “We are with anyone who fights Israel & USA” and “Bloody Zionists”.
However, Shahid told Minivan News that he believed that the protests were more often the result of “political” considerations rather than solidarity with Palestinians. Therefore he claimed that for the hundreds of people screened at camps in Male’, Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll and Addu Atoll, who “couldn’t afford to fly to destinations like Bangkok for specialist treatment”, the arrival of Eye from Zion staff on December 9, 2010 was an important sharing of expertise from a “knowledge-based economy”.

“From the first day [the NGO worked] at the hospitals, religious groups had begun displaying their banners outside and they even tried to attack one person. The person has since filed a complaint with the Country’s Human Rights Commission,” he claimed.

According to Shahid, the person who alleged the attack, themselves a political under secretary, claimed to have been assaulted after trying to take a relative for an operation with the Eye from Zion group, a process that was eventually carried out.  The alleged victim was unavailable for comment when contacted by Minivan News at the time of going to press.

Ultimately, with the screening of some 215 people in Male’ alone, Shahid said that 16 patients had undergone surgery with Eye from Zion doctors in the capital and 104 had received consultations from the NGO. DMC figures stated meanwhile that 137 people were found to have been treated in Thinadhoo, Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll.

However, Shahid conceded that the protests, along with a campaign of “scare stories” that were being spread around the country involving “organ harvesting”, had taken their toll on numbers actually turning up for surgery, some of whom he said “were too scared to take part” in the eye camps.
“In Addu Atolll there were rumours going around that the doctors were putting strong glue in the eyes of patients,” he said. “These guys [protests organisers] need to bring surgeons to the country to help start treatments for people.”

These “stories” included claims reported by NGOs such as the Islamic Foundation of the Maldives (IFM) that it was advisable to take “precautionary measures to avoid any foul play” from Jewish doctors that were “ notorious for illegally harvesting organs from non-Jews.”

The furore over the visit of Israeli surgeons under the Eye from Zion banner has led to NGOs such as Jamiyyathusalaf to call for the provision of “military training to all Muslim Maldivians and familiarise citizens with the use of modern weaponry” before “Jews take over the country”.

Distancing itself from what it called “hysterical” statements such as these, the co-founders of the IFM told Minivan News earlier this month that they believed by adopting a “pro-Israel” stance and working with NGOs like Eye from Zion, the Maldivian government was losing support and credibility among its people.

However, Shahid claimed that from the perspective of the DMC, cooperation with specialist NGOs was seen as hugely beneficial, no matter their national origin.

“There have been several camps all set up with different NGOs. This is the first time we have had a group from Israel,” he said. “However, we don’t have any set practices in regards to what nation we invite NGOs to visit from. We would welcome help from anywhere.”  Former Deputy Leader of the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), Umar Naseer, who had been one of the speakers at the Tsunami Memorial protest, said last week that he believed that protests continuing throughout the week were a reflection of “concern over the continued relationship” between the governments of Israel and the Maldives.

“Israel continues to bombard cities and continues to occupy Palestinian lands,” he said. “As Muslims, we have one basic principle; if one of us is hurt, we all are. Similarly, if Palestinian people suffer, so do we,” he said.

Naseer claimed that the government had turned a “blind eye to the frustrations of its people” and that the protestors believed that the “Maldives should not accept Israeli NGOs or their aid”. “Once we have settled the issue [of Palestine], then we can have normal relations,” he said.

Before resigning from his position as the Islamic State Minister on Thursday December 23, Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed of the religious Adhaalath party said that he didn’t see the protests against Eye from Zion “as a religious problem” but as a reflection of dissatisfaction with Israeli foreign policy. “The thing is injustice, we are not enemies of Jews and Christians,” he said. “We don’t want Jews to kill Palestinians; they are not obeying the UN or international law.”

Prior to his speech at the Tsunami memorial protest, Miadhu last week reported that Shaheem had used his Friday sermon on the same day – December 17 – to claim that the history of Jewish people was “full of deception, trickery, rebellion, oppression, evil and corruption”.

According to the report, Shaheem had said that they [Jewish people] were always seeking to cause “mischief on the earth and Allah loves not the mischief-makers”.

“So it is not it is not acceptable that one who would stab the ummah in the heart could heal the eyes. This philosophy is not acceptable,” he said.

Shaheem did not elaborate or confirm if he had said these comments when questioned by Minivan News at the time. The former Islamic State Minister claimed that he had used his Friday Sermon to call for peaceful protest.
“I asked for no problems to be created for the [Eye from Zion] doctors,” he said.

Ultimately, Shaheem said that protests against the policies of the Israeli government have been occurring all over the world in London, Paris and New York and this didn’t mean “these people were against all Jews”.

“Our problems are with groups like Zionists,” he said.

Shaheem pointed to the London-based protestor, Brian Haw, who has spent many years camped outside London’s Houses of Parliament in part of ongoing peaceful demonstration linked to opposing UK governmental policy such as backing invading Iraq back in 2003, as a reflection of the “democratic” importance of protesting and solidarity.

“He is just one man sleeping in a tent protesting, yet he is not a Muslim,” Shaheem said.


“Hysterical outbursts” reflect dissatisfaction over Israel aid, says Islamic Foundation

Founders of the Islamic Foundation of the Maldives (IFM) NGO have claimed that although they do not believe in “hysterical outbursts” and theories of an imminent “Jewish invasion” in the country, a week of anti-Israel protests and flag burning across Male’ has reflected “strong dissatisfaction with the government’s open attitude” to the Jewish state.

During the last six days, Maldivians both in Male’ and some islands have engaged in protest marches and burning the Israeli flag, calling for the deportation of a group of Israeli doctors conducting eye surgery at a number of hospitals around the country as part of a humanitarian work for a group called ‘Eye from Zion’.

Some 739 people in Male’ and 879 in Addu and Fuvahmulah had registered for treatment at eye camps run by the NGO as of  December 9.

The furore over the visit of the group of Israeli surgeons led to groups such as Jamiyyathusalaf to call for the provision of “military training to all Muslim Maldivians and familiarise citizens with the use of modern weaponry” before “Jews take over the country”.

Distancing itself from these statements, the IFM told Minivan News it believes that by adopting a “pro-Israel” stance, the Maldivian government was losing support and credibility among its people.

While the government said it has been “consistent” in its opposition to Israel’s foreign policy concerning Palestine, the President’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair said the Maldives had tried to maintain positive diplomatic relations with almost every nation and that it welcomed humanitarian aid, such as the services provided by Eye from Zion.

Speaking to Minivan News this week, IFM co-founders Ibrahim Nazim and Ibrahim Fauzee said that although they were not actively involved in protests and flag burnings as an organisation, they did not wish to “prohibit its members” from taking part in the week’s protests that it saw as a “spontaneous reaction” to concerns over Israel’s attitude towards Palestine.

“We’re very concerned about Palestine, but we are neither anti-Israel or pro-Israel,” said Nazim. “We understand there are genuine feelings of concern about Palestine, which is always a central issue for Muslims.”

Nazim said that the IFM did not favour violence as an organisation and that claims by “other organisations in the country” that Jewish people were planning to take over the country were setting back legitimate concerns over the visit of Eye from Zion and Israeli foreign policy.

“What I feel is that some groups are trying to win publicity by making radical statements,” he said. “We do not believe this is good and in the long-term it is not be favourable [towards effectively opposing Israeli activities in the Maldives].”

Nazim said the IFM “understood concerns about offensive nature of burning flags”, but added that “it’s not the first time flags have been burned around the world.”

Fauzee said that he believed the protests reflected the fact that “many people in the Maldives do not accept Israel as a state.”

As an organisation, he said, the IFM backed “the official Iranian position” in regards to Israel and its legitimacy as a state, though he distanced himself from any potential calls for violence against the nation itself.

“[The IFM supports this position] not because the Iranian leader is a great or respected person, but because of the issue of legitimacy regarding the land [Israel] occupies,” claimed Fauzee.

He added that opposition to the Eye from Zion group was very much tied in to Israel’s foreign policy in relation to Palestine and its conduct in Gaza.

Amidst claims that a majority of Maldivians were opposed to the notion of an Israeli state, Nazim said the IFM itself feared that the government were having both open and “secret” negotiations with Israel.

“What are these negotiations? As an NGO we are concerned at this, and such suspicion is shared across the country,” he added. “The more the government gets involved in relations with Israel, the more problems it creates for itself.”

Nazim claimed that President Mohamed Nasheed was now suffering very low approval ratings as a result of allowing Eye from Zion to operate in the country.

“We feel the government should not have any diplomatic relations with Israel,” he said. “There is [political] opposition that wants to exploit this situation; the President is giving them opportunity to do so.”

Nazim added that as an NGO, beyond opposition to allowing collaboration with Israel, it was not opposed as a group to humanitarian aid from interfaith groups as long as they did not try and conduct missionary work in the country.

“Eye from Zion is a radical group that is trying to win the support of islands across the Maldives,” he said. “What we believe is that the protests will die down once the Zionists go back.”

In response to this week’s anti-Israel protests and criticism that the government was engaged in a pro-Israel agenda, Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair said that the government “holds friendly relations with Israel, as it does almost every other nation in the world.”

“We are not at loggerheads with any states, thugh we have some differences with Burma over the treatment of [formerly arrested dissident] Aung Sun Suu Kyi,” he said. “There is nothing special in terms of agreements with Israel.”

Though Zuhair claimed that the Maldives government has been “consistent on criticising Israel over Palestine and other foreign policy issues it did not agree on”, this was not a barrier to humanitarian cooperation, he said.

Zuhair added that by having bilateral relations with a large number of nations, the Maldives was able to benefit from cooperation based on technical assistance, education and humanitarian aid.

He claimed that the medical expertise offered by Eye from Zion was a strong example of this.

“We ourselves don’t have the means for this type of surgery, which has so far treated 140 patients in Male’ and 40 people across islands in the outer atolls,” Zuhair added. “In this case, the patients that thankful for the treatment they have received, which outweighs the protests against [the doctors].”

David Goldfarb, spokesperson for the Embassy of Israel in New Dehli, claimed that “too much emphasis” has been placed on protests against the visit of Eye from Zion to the Maldives compared to the work they had conducted.

“There will always be extremists ready to sacrifice their own people’s welfare in order to achieve extreme political goals,” he told Minivan News. “The major success of the project has been proven by well over 1000 men, women and children who have flocked to the doctors to receive ophthalmological care, and this is where the emphasis really lies.”

Goldfarb claimed that Israel had conducted a wide range of humanitarian work around South Asia beyond the current project relating to eye surgeries.

“Israel is actively involved in international development and humanitarian cooperation in India, Sri Lanka and in many other countries in South Asia,” he told Minivan News. “This was especially noticeable, for example, after the Tsunami, when Israel was one of the first countries to offer and provide assistance to South Asia.”

When considering ongoing conflict and the difficulties being experienced in Gaza, Goldfarb claimed that the Hamas leadership had themselves “declared an existential war with Israel”, but this was not related to wider aid projects that the country was involved in.

“This has nothing at all to do with the extremely large scale Israeli humanitarian projects in the Maldives and around the world, including in many countries in Asia and Africa,” he said.