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 prompted 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, with many questioning the decision that follows the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians 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 the 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 lifted 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 its 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.
The change to the new e-passport was only to “maintain international standard”, Abdul Momen 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 (the founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) time. We don’t recognise Israel,” the minister said.
No actual legal bars
However, after the change, Bangladeshi nationals can now travel to Israel from a third country if they can obtain a visa, immigration officials, who did not want to be named, told Al Jazeera.
None of 17 Legal Acts governing Bangladesh’s immigration rules, which Al Jazeera checked, can impose a bar on travelling to Israel, contradicting Abdul Momen’s assertion of legal action.
Al Jazeera spoke to several 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 the passport and immigration acts could not stop a Bangladeshi 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 was 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 visa in a third country, Chowdhury did not respond.
But former Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Md Touhid Hossain told Al Jazeera that he did not think any Bangladeshi with an e-passport would have “any trouble visiting there” once they obtained a visa.
Bangladesh had also previously barred its nationals from visiting apartheid South Africa – a decision that changed once white minority rule ended in 1994.
Taiwan was also a destination which older Bangladeshi passport-holders were barred from travelling to, Hossain said, but it was dropped from the banned list in 2004.
“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 the 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 United States, said in his view, the change was 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 could not have been made without considering its implications. “I don’t think the Bangladeshi foreign ministry is so naïve,” he said, adding that the question was whether this was done to signal a policy shift, or as a result of being influenced by a global or regional power.
Even though Bangladesh has no formal diplomatic relations with Israel, the country, under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, 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, several 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 called Is Bangladesh moving to normalize relations with Israel? published in Nikkei Asia, Arafat Kabir, a Bangladeshi research intern at the 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 lawyer 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 piece in the same newspaper called For Bangladesh, Not Recognizing Israel is a Moral Choice.
He wrote that Israel is emblematic of what Pakistan would have looked like had it been able to stop Bangladesh’s fight for independence, a struggle which 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.
“Since its inception, Bangladesh opposed recognising 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.”
Ahasan said Bangladesh’s passports previously contained 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 characterisation of Israel is gaining more traction than ever.”
He said contrary to what the Bangladesh foreign ministry had said, its e-passports did 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 said.