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.