The new electronic passports or e-passports will declare “This passport is valid for all countries of the world”. That’s what officials at the Department of Immigration and Passports are saying.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal says they are bringing the changes to ensure that the passports meet the “international standards”.
Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen was unavailable on the phone for comments on Saturday on whether this lifting of bar on Israel also reflects a change of heart in Bangladesh’s foreign policy towards the Jewish state.
But the home minister insists: “Our foreign policy has not changed.”
In the Israel-Palestine conflict of eight decades, Bangladesh has all along stridently supported the Palestinians’ cause.
It has never recognised the existence of Israel, and so the two countries do not have diplomatic relations.
The government has rather let Palestine set up its embassy in Dhaka.
Ever since the birth of Bangladesh, its handwritten passports had unequivocally stated the travel ban with the “except Israel” annotation.
It did not change when the government introduced machine-readable passports or MRPs a decade ago.
Now, the “except Israel” bar is being deleted from e-passports at a time when the Israel-Palestine conflict has exploded with devastating consequences for the Palestinians.
The changes to the passports are being brought in light of the government’s decision, offered Maj Gen Ayub Chowdhury, director general of the Department of Immigration and Passports.
The department runs under the home ministry.
Pressed on the changes, Home Minister Kamal was a little more forthcoming: “No country uses the words anymore, not even the Arab nations.”
Although the e-passports are being changed, the MRPs have been left untouched, according to him.
An official at the passports department also said the MRPs have the entire note unchanged. “But the process of dropping the words is ongoing,” he added, requesting anonymity, as he was not authorised to speak to the media on the issue.
Asked if dropping the words “except Israel” from the passports will allow Bangladeshis to travel to Israel, a home ministry official said: “A passport contains the identity of a person. But visa is required to travel to any country.”
“You must have diplomatic relations (for travel). And many people cannot travel to a country if they are refused visa even though diplomatic relations are there.”
M Humayun Kabir, who was Bangladesh’s former ambassador to the US, said passport is a travel document and it does not matter if a country does not recognise the independence of another.
He pointed out that many Bangladeshis are doing business with Taiwan, although it had been a forbidden country for Bangladeshis.
“Taiwan has political recognition, but no diplomatic acknowledgment. So trading with Taiwan is happening informally. China also does that. A paper is required to travel to Taiwan. It is available at their consulate in Singapore. But they don’t stamp (passports).”
An office representing Taiwan was opened in Dhaka in 2004. The Taiwanese foreign ministry closed it in June 2009.
“The question of diplomatic relations with Taiwan doesn’t arise because we consider it a part of China.”
“But Israel is an independent country and a member state of the United Nations. They (Israel and Taiwan) are different.”
The former diplomat said some Muslim countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, were normalising ties with Israel while some others like Turkey and Jordan already have diplomatic relations with Israel. In South Asia, India and Nepal have diplomatic ties with Israel.
“So it will depend on our political decision. We are always vocal about (the rights of) the Palestinians.”
Kabir, president of Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, said Bangladesh has always supported the Palestinians’ rights and Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.
“But we will have to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel if we want to establish relations with that country. Will we do that? Will it be politically prudent for us?”
And thirdly, Kabir said, being a Muslim-majority country overwhelmingly supporting Palestine, the government must consider whether to establish ties with Israel before the Arab nations and the Palestinians do so.
He added that such calculations are not required to bring changes to the passports.
“Shall we be able to ban a Bangladeshi from doing business with Israel? I don’t see a reason to object if they (Israel) accept our passport. It’s a different issue whether we will ban it officially. But writing this on the passport does not matter much in the relationship.”
“It could be that Bangladesh has people who can do business with Israel. But it does not mean we are establishing ties,” he said.
In his words, establishing ties with Israel will need diplomatic efforts, while bringing changes to the passports is an administrative decision.
“I don’t think it should be given much importance.”