Najib Visits Hamas-Run Gaza Strip as Malaysia Election Nears

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak arrived in the Gaza Strip in the first visit to the Palestinian enclave by a leader of the Muslim-majority Southeast Asian nation, which comes months before he must call elections.

Najib, who was in neighboring Egypt on an official trip, is scheduled to meet Palestinian members of parliament and visit the site of a new office for Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to replace one destroyed during Israeli bombing in November, according to Bernama, Malaysia’s state news service.

“It is an emotive issue for Malaysians,” Joseph Chinyong Liow, associate dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “This visit certainly won’t be a game-changer, but as far as the Muslim vote is concerned -- and that tends to be the constituency that is most sympathetic and drawn to the issue of Palestine -- it would capture their attention.”

Najib, whose approval rating fell to the lowest level in 16 months in December, must call an election by April 28. In the last vote in 2008, the governing National Front coalition led by his party lost the two-thirds majority in parliament that it had held for four decades.

Najib’s approval was at 63 percent in December, down from 65 percent in November, the lowest since he received 59 percent support in August 2011, the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research said Jan. 10. The survey included 1,018 voters and had a margin of error of about 3 percent.

Qatar, Egypt

“I came here to express my solidarity with the Palestinian people,” Najib said in a joint press conference with Haniyeh. “This is a humanitarian visit to express our deep concern with what is happening to the Palestinian people in Gaza.”

Qatar’s Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani in October became the first head of state to visit Gaza since its takeover by Hamas in 2007. In a show of support, Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi sent his prime minister, Hisham Qandil, to Gaza in November during an eight-day conflict between Israel and Hamas.

The U.S.-backed Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas have been at odds since the Islamic group ousted Abbas’s forces from Gaza a year after winning parliamentary elections. Abbas now rules the West Bank. Several attempts at reconciliation have failed.

Political Dimensions

Palestinian Authority Minister of Religious Affairs Mahmoud al-Habash said the visit increases divisions between Fatah and Hamas and will negatively affect Palestinian reconciliation efforts, according to Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency. “We are not against any humanitarian visit to the Gaza Strip, but when the visit has political dimensions, then it must come within the state protocols,” MENA cited him as saying.

Israel, which dismantled its Gaza settlements in 2005, has fought a war with Hamas since the group’s takeover of the strip, invading the enclave in early 2009 in response to rocket attacks. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.

Israelis are voting today in elections, with polls forecasting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will win another term.

Najib is traveling with his wife, Rosmah Mansor, Bernama reported. They’re scheduled to visit a Malaysian-funded school, the news service said.

An Israeli naval patrol boat fired warning shots at a ship chartered by Malaysia carrying aid to Gaza in 2011 after it failed to respond to calls, the Israeli army said at the time.

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