The counterintuitive decision that the government has taken regarding the endorsement in Bangladeshi passports of travel to Israel demands clear answers. The news of removing the "except Israel" clause from the e-passport—come as it did in the midst of the unprecedented Israeli violence on Gaza which is tantamount to genocide—has caused surprise and shock to the people of Bangladesh in general, since the word "Palestine" strikes a very sensitive chord in the hearts of many Bangladeshis.
The decision to remove the clause, which prevented Bangladeshi nationals from visiting Israel, has provoked conjectures, and one cannot be faulted for inferring that Bangladesh might be looking to make a shift from its heretofore held policy on Israel. I believe that the matter is considerably more significant than some in the policy circles would have us believe. It cannot be dismissed out of hand as being an administrative decision rather than a diplomatic one, as some erudite diplomats aver.
The situation has raised several questions regarding the decision-making process insofar as it relates to issues of national interest and security. The equivocal comments from the two ministers of home and foreign affairs have far wider consequences and graver implications than the comments suggest. It also, regrettably, betrays the absence of a coordinated thought process or a cogent policy in the realms of our foreign relations. Further, it conveys to even the most casual observer of foreign relations that Bangladesh might be under some pressure to readjust its position on Israel.
Let me explain why the two ministerial statements are contradictory and self-defeating. According to the home minister, the changes are being made to ensure that our passports meet the "international standards". Pray tell us, Mr. Minister, what are the "international standards" that you are talking about? Since when has this requirement to conform to the so-called international standards become mandatory? And which international organisation has made this mandatory? How did we manage to carry on so long without meeting the newly revealed "international standards"? What should one make of the home minister's comment that "no country uses these words any more"? Are we dictated by what other countries do, or by our own policies and principled stand?
The changes to the passports are being brought in light of the government's decision, according to the DG of the Department of Immigration and Passports. What we demand to know is, how was the decision taken to effect the change? Was it a decision taken by the government at the highest level, by the cabinet? Apparently, the foreign ministry was not in the loop, if we are to believe the BBC report about the foreign ministry calling the home minister about the matter after it came to light, only to be told that the decision had been taken six months ago… so much for our decision-making mechanism. He and the nation came to know of it only after a tweet from an official in the Israeli foreign ministry (with a hopeful expectation from the Bangladesh government) came to our notice. If the matter is so innocuous, why wasn't the public informed of the decision when it was taken?
Something must be awry when the foreign minister is unaware of a decision involving a very sensitive foreign policy issue. Issuing passports may be the prerogative of the home ministry but our passports have long carried endorsements regarding the travel embargo on certain countries, which reflect our diplomatic position regarding those countries. And certain objective conditions merited the stand that we had taken. The recent changes, therefore, are bound to raise eyebrows and cause consternation, and carry the wrong message abroad and at home.
The foreign minister's comments have added to the confusion. To paraphrase what he said: dropping the endorsement in e-passport is inconsequential, that travel to Israel remains forbidden, and that anyone doing so, without permission, shall have to face punishment. What that means is, although travel to Israel is barred, one could visit that country "with permission". How does one reconcile the contradiction? And how can a Bangladeshi be prevented from travelling to Israel now that the caveat has been removed? Does it stand up to legal norms? Reportedly, none of the several acts related to Bangladesh's immigration can put a bar on travelling to Israel. These stand in contradiction to the foreign minister's threat of legal action against those traveling to Israel "without permission".
Admittedly, pressure has been building up on certain Muslim countries to normalise relations with Israel after four Muslim (Arab League) countries—Bahrain, the UAE, Sudan and Morocco—signed agreements in 2020 establishing diplomatic relations with that country. The Pakistani prime minister even went on record as saying that his country was under pressure to recognise Israel, without naming the source(s) of the threat.
Bangladesh has been a diplomatically coveted country for Israel since February 4, 1972 when it recognised the newly-born country, which was, very promptly and rightly, rejected by the Bangladesh government. Normalisation of relations with the third-largest Muslim country would be a feather in Israel's diplomatic cap. Such a development would extend the Trump-led push to persuade Arab and Middle Eastern countries to recognise Israel, and add to the tally of four Muslim countries that capitulated, falling for the US promise of diplomatic largesse and supply of defence weapons.
We believe that Bangladesh remains committed to its Palestine policy. The matter of removing the embargo on traveling to another country may have been an innocuous issue, were it not related to Israel. For Bangladesh, it is a moral issue, which cannot be overridden by the need to overcome any "administrative inconvenience". A decision such as this should be informed by the likely pros and cons of it, and its impact on our diplomatic positions, particularly those that relate to a people who have been under subjugation and fighting for their homeland for the last 70 years, much like what we did for nine months.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd), is a former Associate Editor of The Daily Star.