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May 27, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 279

Bangladesh Removes Israel Exclusion From Its Passport, Tells Palestinian Ambassador: 'We Are A Sovereign Country; We Will Decide What To Do'

May 27, 2021 | By Tufail Ahmad*
Palestine | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 279

On May 23, 2021, the government of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina confirmed that it had removed the words "except Israel" from the Bangladeshi passport.[1] In practical terms, this means that Bangladesh has, albeit theoretically, lifted a bar on its citizens from travelling to Israel. Prime Minister Hasina, who was in office from 1996 to 2001 and has now been in office since 2009, is currently in a strong position, with the political opposition at its weakest, the Islamist religious opposition tamed, and Bangladesh forging ahead of its giant neighbor India in terms of per capita income. In 2007, Bangladesh's per capita income was half of that of India, but in 2021 it is $2,227 compared with India's $1,947.[2]

The landmark decision by the Hasina government is being seen in the context of a number of Islamic countries – notably the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco – having moved in the direction of normalization of diplomatic relations with Israel in recent years. Even in Pakistan, some eminent Islamic scholars have spoken publicly in favor of normalization of ties with Israel.[3] According to the Department of Immigration and Passports, new Bangladeshi passports will now declare: "This passport is valid for all countries of the world" – with the last two words "except Israel" being dropped."[4]


Inside cover of the old Bangladeshi passport now being phased out

Bangladesh being an Islamic country, some questions will certainly be asked of the government regarding any policy change involving Israel. Mirza Fakhrul Islam, the secretary general of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), criticized the Hasina government for the passport decision. "[The government] has decided to remove the word 'except Israel' from the new passport. There's a consensus among our people that Israel is our enemy as they've destroyed human rights," Mirza Fakhrul Islam said.[5]

Mirza Fakhrul Islam added: "Israel is a threat not only to the Middle East but also to the entire world. Why's the Bangladesh government going to build a loving relationship with Israel?"[6] He reiterated his party's position: "We would like to make it clear BNP has no link with Israel. We have an anti-Israel stance. We've always been against Israel."[7]

Brushing aside such criticism, Bangladesh's Interior Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said that the decision will ensure that Bangladeshi passports meet the "international standards."[8] To manage any likely protests from religious circles, the Hasina government has, for now, said that the decision to remove "except Israel" does not mean that Bangladeshi citizens can travel to Israel. Dr. A.K. Abdul Momen, the foreign minister of Bangladesh, said that Bangladesh still does not recognize Israel and there is no change in this position.[9]


Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh

Reacting immediately after the news emerged, the Palestinian ambassador to Dhaka Yousef S.Y. Ramadan urged the Bangladeshi government to reverse its decision. "Bangladesh is a sovereign country and it has the right to do whatever it wants regarding its passport, but we would like to request that the Bangladesh government reverse the decision," Ramadan said.[10] "Personally, I feel that this move is not acceptable to the people of Palestine," he said.[11]

Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Momen, responding to the Palestinian envoy's remarks, asserted that Dhaka is making its own independent decision. "Who said what on our decision is totally irrelevant to me. We maintain our foreign policy. We are a sovereign country. We will decide what to do," Momen told reporters.[12] Bangladesh's foreign ministry said in a statement that the removal of the words "except Israel" does not imply any change of Bangladesh's foreign policy toward the Middle East."[13]

However, the Palestinian ambassador – according to a media report – "disagreed with Bangladesh's explanation" on the change in its passport, saying that the global standard that was mentioned is not correct and added that the Malaysian passport ranks 20th globally, but still contains the travel ban to Israel.[14] "I don't know what reason was behind the change in the passport of Bangladesh. I think a few people have been involved in this," Ambassador Ramadan said, adding that the passport change came at a time "when atrocities were underway in Gaza and its neighboring areas" and "the change in Bangladeshi passport has turned into a gift for Israel."[15]


Pakistani passport bans travel to Israel

Due to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a number of Islamic countries in the past had disallowed their citizens from visiting Israel. However, this does not mean that Muslims from such Islamic countries do not visit Israel. Given the unique boycott of Israel by Islamic countries and other similar reasons, Israel maintains a practice of not stamping the passports of its foreign visitors.

For example, Pakistan and Israel do not have diplomatic ties. The Pakistani passport also reads: "This passport is valid for all countries of the world except Israel." Despite this, Pakistani citizens have visited Israel purely for religious and tourism purposes.[16] Most Muslims in Pakistan who oppose, in the name of the Palestinians, the very existence of Israel, conveniently forget that it was Brigadier Zia-ul-Haq, who later became Pakistan Army chief and dictator, who was responsible for butchering Palestinians during Black September when he commanded a military division in Jordan in 1970.[17]

In Bangladesh, a Palestine-like issue has developed in recent years. In 2004, a representative office of Taiwan was opened in Dhaka to facilitate trade relations between Bangladesh and Taiwan. However, Beijing later exerted pressure, forcing the closure of the Taiwanese office. M. Humayun Kabir, who served as Bangladesh's ambassador to the U.S., said that despite these issues, Bangladeshis are doing business with Taiwan.[18]

"But Israel is an independent country and a member state of the United Nations. They (Israel and Taiwan) are different," Kabir noted in support of the view that Bangladesh should establish diplomatic ties with Israel.[19] The former Bangladeshi ambassador pointed out that Islamic countries like the United Arab Emirates are normalizing ties with Israel while others like Turkey and Jordan already have diplomatic relations with Israel.[20]

* Tufail Ahmad is a Senior Fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] BDNews24.com (Bangladesh), May 23, 2021.

[2] News18.com (India), May 23, 2021.

[4] BDNews24.com (Bangladesh), May 23, 2021.

[5] DhakaTribune.com (Bangladesh), May 23, 2021.

[6] DhakaTribune.com (Bangladesh), May 23, 2021.

[7] DhakaTribune.com (Bangladesh), May 23, 2021.

[8] BDNews24.com (Bangladesh), May 23, 2021.

[9] DhakaTribune.com (Bangladesh), May 23, 2021.

[10] TheFinancialExpress.com.bd (Bangladesh), May 24, 2021.

[11] TheFinancialExpress.com.bd (Bangladesh), May 24, 2021.

[12] TheDailyStar.net (Bangladesh), May 25, 2021.

[13] TheDailyStar.net (Bangladesh), May 25, 2021.

[14] ProthoMalo.com (Bangladesh), May 25, 2021.

[15] ProthoMalo.com (Bangladesh), May 25, 2021.

[16] Further reading on this aspect of the issue: Narendra Modi in Tel Aviv today: It is time Muslims rethink their idea of Israel , FirstPost.com (India), July 5, 2017.

[17] Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 64, No. 2 (June 2020), Cia.gov (U.S.), accessed May 27, 2021.

[18] BDNews24.com (Bangladesh), May 23, 2021.

[19] BDNews24.com (Bangladesh), May 23, 2021.

[20] BDNews24.com (Bangladesh), May 23, 2021.

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