Dhaka, Bangladesh – A decision by the government of Bangladesh to remove a clause from its e-passport that barred its nationals from visiting Israel has given birth to speculation that the country might be looking to normalise ties with Israel.
The move to remove the “except Israel” clause from its e-passport has shocked people in the South Asian country of 160 million, many questioning the decision that comes at a time when hundreds of Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip.
Older Bangladeshi passports used to bear the sentence: “This passport is valid for all the countries of the world except Israel.” Six months ago, when the South Asian country rolled out its new e-passport, the “except Israel” phrase was removed without any public announcement.
Bangladesh was the first country in South Asia and 119th in the world to introduce the e-passport – a travel document with a small integrated circuit, or “chip”, embedded in the cover or pages – in January last year.
That information came to light after Gilad Cohen, deputy director-general for Asia and the Pacific at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted last week that Bangladesh had removed its travel ban on Israel.
“Great news! Bangladesh has removed a travel ban to Israel. This is a welcome step and I call on the Bangladeshi government to move forward and establish diplomatic ties with Israel so both our peoples could benefit and prosper,” he tweeted.
The Bangladesh government, however, vehemently denied plans to establish any ties with Israel and said their position towards Israel remains the same.
AK Abdul Momen, the country’s foreign minister, on Wednesday told a media briefing attended by Al Jazeera that Bangladesh has not changed its position towards Israel. “No one from Bangladesh can visit Israel” and if anyone does, “legal action will be taken against that person,” the minister said.
Abdul Momen informed that the change is brought into the new e-passport only to “maintain international standard”, he said without elaborating.
“Passport is just an identity and it doesn’t reflect the foreign policy of a country. The foreign policy of Bangladesh remains the same as it was during Bangabandhu’s (founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) time. We don’t recognize Israel,” the minister asserted.
No actual legal bars
But after the change, Bangladeshi nationals can now travel to Israel from a third country if they manage to get a visa, immigration officials, who did not want to be named, told Al Jazeera.
None of a set of 17 Legal Acts governing Bangladesh’s immigration rules, which Al Jazeera checked, can impose a bar on travelling to Israel, contradicting Momen’s assertion of legal action.
Al Jazeera spoke to at least two senior officials from the Immigration and Passports departments, none of whom could clarify whether a legal impediment to visiting Israel exists. One official, who preferred anonymity, told Al Jazeera that none of the passport and immigration acts can stop a Bangladeshi person from visiting Israel after the change.
Major General Ayub Chowdhury, director-general of the Department of Immigration and Passports of Bangladesh, told Al Jazeera that a passport alone is not enough to visit a country.
“You also need visa. If the country you want to visit doesn’t give you visa, you can’t visit the country,” he said.
Asked whether there would be anything to stop a Bangladeshi passport holder from visiting Israel if they were able to receive an Israeli in a third country, Chowdhury did not respond.
Bangladesh previously barred its nationals from visiting apartheid South Africa – a decision that changed once white minority rule ended in South Africa in 1994.
Former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh Md Touhid Hossain told Al Jazeera that he doesn’t think any Bangladeshi with an e-passport would have “any trouble visiting there” once they have a visa.
Taiwan and South Africa were also mentioned as countries the older Bangladeshi passports were not valid for travel to, essentially barring Bangladeshis from visiting those countries. Later, Bangladesh established diplomatic relationship with South Africa in 1994 and the name of Taiwan was also omitted in 2004, according to Hossain.
“We still don’t recognise Taiwan but there is no legal bar in visiting Taiwan. Bangladeshi people go there for various business purposes,” he said adding that same could now happen in the case of Israel.
Not just a simple omission
Ali Riaz, distinguished professor of politics and government at Illinois State University in the US, believes that this is not just a simple omission but “a deliberate choice” made by the Bangladeshi government.
“The rationale provided by the government that it was to make it consistent with international standard is very weak at its best, unacceptable at its worst,” said Riaz.
He said a decision of this magnitude cannot be made without considering its implications. “I don’t think the Bangladeshi foreign ministry is so naïve,” he said, adding that the question is whether this was done to signal a policy shift, or as a result of being prodded by a global or regional power.
Even though Bangladesh has no formal diplomatic relations with Israel, the South Asian nation under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has bought Israeli-made surveillance equipment through a middleman last year, according to an Al Jazeera investigation. The mass spying tools can hack and monitor the phones of hundreds of people simultaneously.
Also in the past few months, a number of op-eds have surfaced in international media, arguing in favour of Bangladesh normalising relations with Israel and the “myriad benefits” it would bring.
In an opinion piece titled: Is Bangladesh moving to normalize relations with Israel? published in Nikkei Asia, Arafat Kabir, a Bangladeshi political science graduate and a research intern at Washington, DC-based Quincy Institute opined that “Increased cooperation offers clear benefits for both countries.”
In another article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Dhaka-based lawyers Umran Chowdhury wrote, “Israel offered to recognize newly-founded Bangladesh in 1972. Despite similar independence struggles, the logic of a strategic relationship, and the lack of direct hostilities, they still have no economic, defence or diplomatic ties. It’s time for change.”
‘An immoral choice’
Bangladeshi journalist Nazmul Ahasan, arguing against Chowdhury’s stance, wrote an opinion in the same newspaper titled: For Bangladesh, Recognizing Israel is an Immoral Choice.
He wrote that Israel is emblematic of what Pakistan would have looked like had it been able to silence Bangladesh’s quest for freedom, referring to the liberation struggle that culminated with Bangladesh seceding from Pakistan in 1971 after a bloody war.
“Just as Pakistan called Bengali nationalists ‘terrorists,’ so Israel calls Palestinian freedom fighters ‘terrorists.’ We therefore, rightly find Palestinian struggle more analogous to our historical experience, except that ours has already achieved success,” he wrote in that article.
“Since its inception, Bangladesh opposed recognizing Israel unless a Palestinian state is established alongside. Israel did not comply with this prerequisite and also abandoned the goal altogether,” Ahasan told Al Jazeera.
“Since we did not accept what Israel did in the 1970s, why should we accept it now? If anything, we should set the bar higher 50 years later,” he said.
He said Bangladesh’s passports used to contain a similar “except” clause against the South African apartheid regime. “It is, therefore, regrettable that Bangladesh has decided to remove the phrase at a time when the apartheid characterization of Israel is gaining more traction than ever.”
He also said contrary to what Bangladesh foreign ministry is saying, its e-passports do not require repealing such a clause to be of “international standards”.
Malaysia, which was among the first countries to introduce e-passports, retains the “except Israel” caveat, Ahasan told Al Jazeera.