The rescue mission that tested burgeoning Israel-Indonesia relations

Jerusalem and Jakarta worked together to get Indonesians out of Gaza, leaving the door open for establishing diplomatic relations even after a planned announcement was suspended

On Oct. 6, 2023, Abdillah “Bang” Onim, the Indonesian founder of Nusantara Palestina Center, an organization providing humanitarian aid, distributed new sneakers to boys and girls dressed in school uniforms in Gaza.

A day later, when Hamas invaded southern Israel, murdering 1,200 people and taking 240 hostages to Gaza, Onim turned to Instagram to fundraise, updating his over 1 million followers that the Gaza Health Ministry is asking locals to donate blood. 

On Oct. 8, Onim posted a video of trucks funded by Indonesian donors delivering clean drinking water to Gazans on his YouTube channel with almost 2 million followers.

In a subsequent video, Onim published a selfie video from Gaza after an Israeli Air Force strike. “NEED ACCESS AND HUMANITARIAN ACTION!! HUMANITY APPEAL,” the video’s title states. Its description says: “Gaza no good. No [electricity]. No water. No medicine. No fuel. Border its close [sic] and bombarded. Severe war, tragic, tragedy, massacre, more tragic than the war in Afghanistan.”

Onim posted that video on Oct. 14, 2023 – one day after what had been the target date for Israel and Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, to announce diplomatic relations, in the form of exchanging trade offices. 

Over several months, Jerusalem and Jakarta had been working on a normalization agreement, including meetings in third countries, culminating with a visit to Jerusalem by Andi Widjajanto, an adviser to Indonesia’s president. The sides drafted a memorandum of understanding on Sept. 21, obtained by Jewish Insider, to open trade offices and allow for more Israelis to get visas to visit the Southeast Asian state on business. A different aide to Indonesia’s president denied the report.

The back channel of communication between Widjajanto and then director-general of the Foreign Ministry, Ronen “Maoz” Levy, who played a key role in the Abraham Accords, was through New York-based businessman Joey Allaham.

Just over two weeks after the sides agreed on a text for the MOU, Israel-Indonesia normalization was shelved and that back channel was set to be used for a new purpose: to rescue Indonesians trapped in Gaza.

The continued mediated contacts between Jakarta and Jerusalem have left the door open to establishing diplomatic relations in conjunction with Indonesia seeking to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).


In WhatsApp messages obtained by Jewish Insider from Oct. 12, Judha Nugraha, director for the Protection of Citizens at the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, sent Allaham a list of Indonesians seeking to evacuate Gaza, including Onim, his wife, his 12-year-old daughter, 10-year-old son and 7-year-old son, and two of his wife’s relatives, on the instructions of Widjajanto.

The list also included Muhamad Husein, the founder of an NGO International Networking for Humanitarian, who runs a YouTube channel called “Muhammad Husein Gaza” with over 1.2 million followers, who sought to leave Gaza with his wife and two children, ages 9 and 4. Another three volunteers at the NGO-run Indonesian Hospital in Gaza were on the list, though they decided to stay.

Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), a civilian-military body that, among other things, coordinates the humanitarian aid in Gaza, was going to be involved in helping the Indonesians leave Gaza, but Nugraha asked that any Israelis in contact with Indonesians identify themselves as U.N. staff because the matter is “politically sensitive.”

The Rafah border crossing on Nov. 9

COGAT declined to comment on its role in the matter, but a senior Israeli diplomatic source confirmed Israel’s involvement in evacuating Indonesians from Gaza.

Husein published his “Last message from Gaza!!” – or so he thought – on his YouTube channel on Oct. 12.

Thus began a nearly monthlong saga, with repeated attempts by the Indonesians to leave Gaza thwarted by Egyptian border guards, Hamas shootings and IAF bombing.

Early on Oct. 14, Allaham passed on a message from COGAT that anyone on the preapproved list could proceed toward Rafah, near the border with Egypt, but two hours later told everyone to leave the area immediately “due to concerning information we received” – a possible Hamas attack on the border crossing. That day, Onim posted his video about the lack of electricity and water in Gaza.

As the days passed without Egypt allowing foreigners through the Rafah crossing, Nugraha wrote on Oct. 16: “I need to maintain spirit and patience of Indonesian evacuees.” 

Days later, Allaham explained to Nugraha that Hamas “shoot[s] anyone on their way to the gates…I think tomorrow [the IDF] will be on the ground to guard the foreigners leaving. There are Americans who can’t leave.” 

Onim texted: “Scared Indonesian boys want to get out…We feel panic.” 

On social media, however, Onim was posting as usual: “Here is one of the ways that Mr. Onim cheers up the orphans in Gaza, by having a picnic, eating,” read the caption of his Oct. 18 video.

Five days later, Onim sent videos of the windows in his house broken from a missile that hit nearby.

Nugraha provided Onim and Husein’s locations – in Gaza City and Khan Younis – as well as the Indonesian Hospital, for Allaham to send to his main point of contact in Israel – Levy, the Foreign Ministry official – to ensure the Indonesians’ safe passage once the crossing reopened.

“Are they able to secure [the hospital] to make sure [there are] no rocket launchers?” Allaham asked. Nugraha responded in the affirmative – which would ultimately turn out to be false.

Nugraha wondered if Indonesia could try to bargain with Egypt to allow its citizens to evacuate, but Allaham explained that Cairo was primarily concerned about its security if large numbers of Palestinians crossed the border.

“Many bombing,” Onim wrote on Oct. 31. “Please we want go from Gaza. In my house all Indonesia children.”

That day, Secretary of State Tony Blinken said in a Senate hearing that Hamas was preventing 400 U.S. citizens from fleeing Gaza.

Hours later, Nugraha received confirmation from Egypt that Onim and his family could leave.

Husein’s wife and children were left off of Egypt’s list, however, and he was unwilling to leave them. After seven hours of frantic contacts between Jerursalem, Jakarta and Cairo, Israeli contacts informed Husein, via intermediaries, that his family could evacuate Gaza.

However, Onim and Husein did not have internet access for hours and did not know to drive towards the Rafah crossing.

Eventually, Nugraha was able to pass on instructions Allaham gave for the Indonesians: “If any interaction [with IDF soldiers] put his hands up. Tell him to wear a t-shirt only. Say Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and his assistant Maoz gave the permission to leave.” 

Onim, however, wrote that bombs were dropped near his home and could not leave. Husein’s neighbor, who was going to drive him to the crossing, also said he was too afraid to leave. 

“The trip from Gaza City to South Gaza failed,” Onim posted on Instagram. 

Allaham noted that the director of the Indonesian Hospital in Gaza admitted to providing fuel to Hamas after being threatened by the terror group.

The following morning, Onim wrote: “Praise Allah, I am on my way to Cairo.”

Onim told his Instagram followers: “God willing, tomorrow Onim Bang and his wife and children will go to Indonesia…Come back later.” He promised that he had a team on the ground in Gaza who could continue to distribute aid.

Husein’s wife looks out of the window of his car on Nov. 9. The photo was sent to the IDF to allow passage out of Gaza.

In the following days, Onim posted videos from the Cairo International Airport ahead of his flight home, and Indonesian news channels featured his family upon their arrival in Jakarta. 

On Nov. 2, Husein was on the move — though Nugraha and Allaham warned him Rafah was not open yet, and then were unable to reach him. 

A day later, the Rafah crossing was closed again because of attempts by Hamas to smuggle people out of Gaza, the messages indicated.

Husein assured his YouTube followers that he is still alive, responding to false reports in Indonesia, while spreading some disinformation of his own with a claim that “dozens of US Marines and I5r43Ls” – his code for Israelis – died that day.

On Nov. 5, Allaham asked Nugraha and Onim about tunnels the IDF found under the Indonesian hospital, in which rockets and fuel were stored. “Did you have an idea?”

“Didn’t have tunnel in Indonesia Hospital,” Onim insisted.

“I have no idea about it,” Nugraha said. “Indonesian volunteers have no idea also…They are only volunteers, they don’t have access to the details of hospital operations.” 

Meanwhile, Husein claimed on YouTube that “Israel wants to drop a nuclear bomb on Gaza. It comes from the mouths of people who have the DNA of genocide perpetrators,” he said of the people who were working to rescue him.

“Husein doesn’t believe us anymore,” Nugraha lamented on Nov. 7. Meanwhile, the Egyptian authorities had flagged Husein’s identity as stolen, a situation that Nugraha and Allaham had to clear up.

After several more days of back-and-forth, with Allaham speaking to Israeli Foreign Ministry officials and passing messages on to Nugraha and Husein, the latter drove to Rafah on Nov. 9.

Husein sent photos from the Rafah crossing and watched as ambulances and aid trucks entered Gaza, until finally he wrote: “It’s now open. We’re entering [Egypt].” 

Husein at the Rafah crossing on Nov. 10, 2023.

And then – another disappointment. Despite promises from COGAT, Husein was not on the list. 

The next morning, the Rafah crossing was not open “because the bombings don’t stop,” Husein wrote. 

On Nov. 12, Allaham wrote to Nugraha and Husein: “Brother, tell them to leave now! Hussein, you have to move!”

Six hours later Husein responded: “Praise Allah. On the way to Cairo. Thanks to everyone.” 

Husein later told an Indonesian news site that the car he drove to the border was using cooking oil as fuel.

In the ensuing days, Husein continued to post videos online, making it appear that he was still in Gaza, decrying the “Zionist military aggression.”

In late November, Nugraha asked if there was a way to evacuate the Indonesian hospital, and Allaham told him the three volunteers must leave, even suggesting that Nugraha tell their parents that they’re in danger.

Throughout the period in which he was trying to extract Indonesians from Gaza, Nugraha expressed concern about unrest in his country. On Nov. 21, he lamented the “humanitarian disaster” in Gaza and said that if the IDF “will kill another civilian and children, I cannot imagine the reaction from Indonesia’s public…Attacking Indonesian Hospital and targeting civilian[s] will put my FM in [a] difficult position and cannot play a role as you expect before.” 

A day later, on Nov. 22, Indonesian news sites, citing sources in Gaza, reported that the volunteers were arrested by Israeli soldiers in Gaza.

Nugraha, however, said “the three Indonesians are safe and not being arrested by IDF. They are waiting for evacuation.”

After several days in which Rafah crossing was closed to foreign citizens, the volunteers were able to leave, as well.

The IDF raided the Indonesian Hospital, finding Hamas tunnels, weapons and a hostage’s car on the premises. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi condemned the operation as “a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law,” taking part in a pro-Palestinian demonstration attended by 100,000 in Jakarta that day. 

Indonesia joined South Africa’s suit at the International Court of Justice in January, claiming Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians – even though Jakarta is not a party to the 1948 Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.


Despite the rhetoric against Israel from Jakarta, there have been new indications of a possible warming of ties in recent weeks.

But in December, Israel blocked Indonesia from joining the OECD, the organization of the world’s wealthiest countries.

As Nugraha said videos of civilian suffering in Gaza “create anger and hatred among the Indonesian public and mak[e] thing[s] more complicated,” Levy sent him a note via an intermediary pushing Indonesia to move towards normalization with Israel.

“OECD members are like-minded countries,” Levy wrote. “There is no precedent within the OECD for members who do not have full diplomatic relations with any of the other members. We do not want to create such a precedent.” 

“Therefore, we need to have the certainty prior to any launching of a roadmap to [the] accession process, that any new candidate maintains full diplomatic relations with all current member states,” the note reads. “We wish we could welcome the launching of [Indonesia’s] roadmap to accession process to the OECD, but for that, we need to have a clear action in the right direction.”

The process of joining the OECD requires the consensus of all current member states, and Israel said it will not approve Indonesia’s accession to the organization without full diplomatic relations.

Indonesia held its presidential election in mid-February, electing Prabowo Subianto, the country’s defense minister, to the presidency. Subianto has quietly supported normalization with Israel and met with Israeli officials.

The following week, Israel removed its veto on Indonesia after OECD Secretary-General Matthias Cormann said that the OECD would only allow the Southeast Asian archipelago state to join once it recognizes Israel, a diplomatic source confirmed to JI, saying that the solution was Jerusalem’s suggestion. 

The OECD accession process is likely to take more than a year, such that even with the added incentive for Indonesia, the possible normalization with Israel would only take place after the war in Gaza winds down.

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