Indonesia is likely to support the Palestinian people and redouble its commitment and calls for a two-state solution in light of the ongoing Israeli-Gaza violence. Domestically, the spiralling crisis has some potential to affect the 2024 presidential candidates and security climate, especially if no urgent solution is in sight.
The crisis sparked by the brutal Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October 2023 has potentially significant implications for Indonesia.
A longstanding supporter of the Palestinian cause and the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation-state, Indonesia and many of its people have consistently sympathised with Palestinians in Gaza and contributed to capacity-building to prepare for an independent Palestinian state.
Prior to 7 October, Indonesia had expressed hope that there would be a “peace incentive package” to “revitalise the long-stalled peace negotiation process” on Palestine. These phrases were in the Indonesian foreign minister’s official statement in mid-September, read out at the sidelines of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly.
However, the latest violence sparked by Hamas and the ensuing conflagration complicate Indonesia’s Palestinian policy. The current violence almost certainly rings the death knell for the peace process. Indonesia’s calls for an immediate ceasefire and end of violence, like those of other nations, are falling on deaf ears.
While no major violence has erupted within Indonesia thus far, the authorities would need to watch for signs that the recent shootings in Brussels of two Swedes or the killing of a French teacher might spark copycat attacks on foreigners – whatever their religion – as emotions run high.
This crisis is however a chance for Indonesia’s leaders to demonstrate solidarity with the wider Muslim world and to call for both sides’ adherence to international laws and norms of war, as innocent children and non-combatants are being killed by both sides.
The first priority is sticking to Indonesia’s long-held policy of supporting Palestine. Three days after the Hamas attack, President Joko Widodo publicly focused attention on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, calling for the conflict to be “immediately” resolved according to parameters that the UN had agreed upon and for both sides to cease fighting. Widodo referred to Israel’s “occupation” of Palestinian land as the “root cause” of the conflict.
On her part, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has been engaged in intense telephone and in-person diplomacy, tweeting on 15 October that she had spoken with Malaysia’s foreign minister to “focus on…saving lives” and to secure a humanitarian corridor for those fleeing the conflict zones. She has had discussions with several other counterparts, including Egypt’s foreign minister, and cut short her trip to China on 18 October to join an emergency meeting called by the OIC following the blast at a Gaza hospital earlier that day.
Undoubtedly, more clarity on Indonesia’s efforts to resolve the crisis alongside like-minded nation-states will emerge after this meeting and the ASEAN-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit planned for later this week in Saudi Arabia.
Another of Indonesia’s priorities is to ensure the safety of affected Indonesians in the areas of conflict. Indonesia’s ministry of foreign affairs (Kemlu) initially announced that about 275 Indonesians were in Israel and the Palestinian areas; some were on religious tours while others were working or studying there. Appealing for Indonesian citizens in the Palestinian territories and Israel to leave and for those who had been planning to visit those areas to cancel their travel plans, Kemlu has been working on plans to get citizens out through Indonesia’s embassies in Amman, Beirut and Cairo.
However, the government cannot compel evacuation. An earlier report noted that only four Indonesians in Israel and the West Bank wanted to be evacuated. Although four evacuees from the West Bank are now safely back in Indonesia, some 136 citizens remain in that region. This complicates Kemlu’s operations and considerations as it works to evacuate more Indonesians from the Gaza strip.
There is also material damage to consider. On 10 October, the Medical Emergency Rescue Committee (MER-C) confirmed that the hospital built with Indonesia’s donations in Beit Lahia, in north Gaza, had been bombed by Israeli jets, damaging its oxygen distribution pipe system. The hospital could still operate but had run out of capacity to hold corpses.
Given the tragic toll in Gaza, the Indonesian public is largely on the side of the Palestinians and concerned about the humanitarian tragedy following the Israeli retaliatory strikes on Gaza. Demonstrations occurred in Jakarta soon after the Hamas attack on 7 October, with crowds waving Palestinian flags and expressing solidarity with Palestinians. A group of several hundred reportedly affiliated with the Islamic Brotherhood Front (Front Persaudaraan Islam) gathered outside the American embassy in Jakarta on 11 October.
While no major violence has erupted within Indonesia thus far, the authorities would need to watch for signs that the recent shootings in Brussels of two Swedes or the killing of a French teacher might spark copycat attacks on foreigners — whatever their religion — as emotions run high. There is a less likely prospect that the small minority of Indonesians who support the Israeli cause might be at risk. It is unlikely that these individuals would speak up openly against prevailing opinion.
That the conflict will linger into Indonesia’s presidential nomination (19-25 October) and campaign period means that the prospective candidates will be compelled to take a stance. This may even emerge as a campaign issue on which the candidates may differ slightly, in their tussle to win votes, depending on how public opinion shifts as the Gaza crisis continues.
The clearest articulation of a considered position comes from Anies Baswedan, who as Jakarta governor had taken the Palestinians’ side when violence broke out in Gaza in May 2021. Anies on 8 October called the latest violence the result of an “injustice” caused by Israel’s occupation of Palestine and described the deaths of Palestinians as “murders” (author’s translation). He also used the word “apartheid” and did not mention the deaths of Israeli victims.
The other two prospective candidates Ganjar Pranowo and Prabowo Subianto have not been as vocal. Prabowo as defence minister has the luxury of toeing the official line; his ministry is partly responsible for evacuating Indonesians caught in the crossfire. On 13 October, Prabowo said that he and his government will “always support the people of Palestine until they gain independence”.
Ganjar has not issued a statement: his Twitter account had no mentions of Palestine or Israel from 7 to 18 October. Ganjar might be playing it safe or more probably has been distracted by the confirmation and announcement of his running-mate, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Mahfud MD, for his 2024 run.
Such silence from a presidential candidate on a key foreign policy issue is surprising. The Palestinian issue is something with which every president of Indonesia must grapple. Widodo’s administration will have to guard against media and online disinformation, which is occurring globally about the Gaza conflict and could possibly rend Indonesia’s own social fabric as it prepares to choose his successor and a new government. If the situation deteriorates in the Middle East, which is the most likely outcome, Widodo’s successor must not only stake out a principled position for Indonesia on Palestine but also recognise the potential repercussions on his country.
Julia Lau is a Senior Fellow and Co-Coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme, and Editor, Fulcrum at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.