Australia/Israel Review

Asia Watch: Witness Protection

Feb 23, 2009 | Michael Shannon

By Michael Shannon

Three months ago, this column noted the signing of a cooperation agreement in Tel Aviv between Israel’s emergency medical service Magen David Adom (MDA) and Indonesia’s 118 Ambulance Service Foundation (Yayasan Ambulance Gawat Darurat 118). The agreement was witnessed by representatives of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second largest Muslim organisation, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Well, what was a small news item back in November blew-up in a big way at the height of the Israeli military offensive in Gaza. The Indonesian internet was abuzz for several weeks as Islamist-oriented websites like, and attacked Muhammadiyah for its supposed ties with Israel. In the gun especially was Dr. Sudibyo Markus, senior member of Muhammadiyah’s management board, who made an official visit to Israel for the signing.

Muhammadiyah Chairman Din Syamsuddin was forced to flatly deny any Israel-links. “That’s not true,” he said in a statement posted at the organisation’s website. In a statement to Singapore’s Straits Times, he said that the agreement was purely between the 118 Ambulance Foundation and the MDA. “There was no memorandum of understanding signed between Muhammadiyah and the MDA,” he said. As to the presence of the Muhammadiyah official at the ceremony, the statement said: “Dr. Sudibyo Markus was only a witness.”

But Muhammadiyah’s lame protestations of innocence came too late for the websites, as they had already been swamped with postings lambasting Muhammadiyah. Even Indonesian newspapers did not carry the statement.

Indonesian parliamentarian Sutan Batugana told “Neither the government nor any local organisations should open any kind of cooperation with Israel, until they return the Palestinian land back to its people.”

Ironically, the organisation that signed the agreement with the MDA was spared the vitriol. Nevertheless, 118 Ambulance’s head of operations, Dr. Suhartono, defended the cooperation: “We forge ties with the Israeli organisation because we can learn a lot from its experience and expertise in emergency and rescue service.”

Not surprisingly, Indonesian organisations are far happier to be associated with Palestinian causes. In fact, Muhammadiyah is one of several Indonesian organisations that have pledged funds to supplement a Rp 20 billion (A$2.6 million) grant from the Indonesian Government to build a new hospital in Gaza after recent severe damage to some existing medical facilities. The new two-storey hospital will apparently be known as Rumah Sakit Indonesia (Indonesia Hospital).

Indonesians with less humanitarian motives are still noisily declaring their intention to fight alongside their Palestinian “brothers”. The Aceh branch of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) claimed on Feb. 6 that it would send a first wave of trained guerilla fighters to fight Israel the following week, including two snipers and four suicide bombers. “We call them the Martyr Bomb Squad, not suicide bombers, which has been labelled negatively by the foreign media,” Yusuf al-Qardhani said.

Yusuf said the six were selected from a group of 80 who passed a four-day interview and physical training in North Aceh district last month. They reportedly trained with Abu Alyas, a “mujahideen” with combat experience in Afghanistan, who has also fought alongside the Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines and who is a member of Hamas.

The central office of the FPI in Jakarta claimed that two other batches of jihadists had been sent to Gaza in January, but such claims are unproven and have been dismissed by many as publicity stunts. One recent contributor to the Jakarta Post, Bramantyo Prijosusilo, observed: “Upon closer examination, most calls to jihad in Palestine in Indonesia are designed to impress fellow Indonesians, rather than to attack Israel… [Those] rattling their sabres loudest here are more interested in intimidating their fellow countrymen and posing as macho defenders of Islam.”

Some of those self-styled Islamic defenders not embarking for foreign shores have now turned their attention to… Rotary and Lions Club members. The leader of the Indonesian Forum of Ulema and Muslims (FUUI) has announced that Muslims who did not quit either of these two clubs would be labelled as infidels. “The Rotary Club and the Lions Club are the Zionists’ accomplices,” Athian Ali Muhammad Da’i explained on Feb. 1. “They gather funds and give them to America and the Israeli Zionists” and have introduced “Jewish ideals” to their Muslim members, he elaborated.

Even a senior member of the hardline Indonesia Ulema Council, the country’s highest religious body which last month issued a fatwa against certain forms of yoga, said it was not considering a ruling against the Lions or Rotary clubs.

Finally, amid the anti-Israel feeling in South-East Asia comes a case of poor judgement. An Israeli tourist landed himself in a Philippines jail on Jan. 26 and is facing charges after joking he had a bomb in his baggage at the Mactan Cebu International Airport. Cebu Daily News reported that Eliav Goali, 23, was apparently heading for Australia to be with his girlfriend and had reached the final security check when he jokingly said he had a bomb in his shoe. Police found no such bomb but detained Goali despite his protests for violating Presidential Decree 1727 which outlaws bomb jokes.


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