KUALA LUMPUR, May 15 — Malaysia is risking sanctions from Western countries that are known to be critical against those it sees as being friendly with Hamas, the Palestinian political party they label as terrorists, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported today.

The Hong Kong newspaper cited several international relations observers saying Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s meeting with Hamas leaders during his recent visit to Qatar might provoke further scrutiny from the US and potentially lead to punitive actions against the South-east Asian nation.

University of Nottingham Malaysia foreign policy and security expert Julia Roknifard said while Malaysia has been consistent about its long-standing policy on Hamas, it was unwise to provoke the West.

“Rather than deliberately provoking anyone, Malaysia still wants to play that active role in settling the conflict and be seen in the leadership role of sorts as this mediator between the parties as a remote nation without a direct interest in the conflict or its resolution,” she was quoted as saying.

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Anwar’s visit to Qatar two days ago, and his subsequent meeting with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and its former chairman Khaled Mashal came a week after the US Treasury Department sent envoys to Kuala Lumpur to flag its concerns that the Palestinian party is raising funds through Malaysia.

Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior vice-president Jonathan Schanzer told SCMP that US lobby groups felt the Malaysian government was “playing a dangerous game”.

“Attention from the US government over alleged illicit money flows is often a precursor to harsher measures if remediation is not quick and clear,” he was quoted as saying, referring to the US Treasury Department visit.

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“The Malaysian government’s open embrace of Iran and Hamas has not only led to the assassination of several Hamas operatives on Malaysian soil. It may soon lead to sanctions or other punitive measures.”

The US Treasury Department has already imposed sanctions on four Malaysia-based companies it accused of helping Iran’s production of drones last December.

Former Malaysian envoy to Canada Dennis Ignatius said that Anwar’s open display of support for Hamas was pushing Malaysia away from its long-standing image as a moderate Muslim-majority country and into uncharted territory.

“If we are going to find common cause with the likes of Hamas, we had better get used to acerbic comments being thrown at us,” Dennis said on his personal website on April 30.

“We can’t expect to hold on to our so-called moderate Islamic country image if we embrace the likes of Hamas, ” he was quoted as saying.

Anwar has acknowledged that his visit and meeting with Ismail and Khaled was causing anxiety among allies and other Malaysians but justified his action as supporting peace efforts in the Gaza Strip.

Citing Qatar as an example, he said the peninsular Arab country had used its good ties with Hamas in negotiations with Israel, which resulted in the release of 109 captured Palestinians.

Malaysia has been seen as a consistent supporter of Palestinian causes.

Hamas leaders Haniyeh and Mashal have visited Malaysia in recent years and were hosted by two-time former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.