The South Asian nation of Bangladesh announced on Saturday that its passports will no longer bear the text “valid for all countries of the world except Israel,” essentially lifting a decades-long travel ban.
Senior officials announced that the new ruling does not mark a change in its Middle East policy, however. Bangladesh does not recognize the existence of Israel and Bangladeshi citizens attempting to travel to Israel have been subject to arrest and imprisonment.
In one high profile incident, former Weekly Blitz editor Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury was sentenced to an extended jail sentence after attempting to travel to Israel in order to attend a conference.
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Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told reporters on Saturday that the text singling out Israel was being made in order to comply with “international standards,” insisting that “our foreign policy has not changed,” Bangladesh news website BDNews24 reported.
“No country uses the words anymore, not even the Arab nations,” he explained, adding that a “visa is required to travel to any country."
Bangladesh harshly condemned Israel during its most recent conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, with its Permanent Representative to the United Nations denouncing what she called "the abhorrent acts of violence against innocent civilians of Palestine, including women and children."
According to the Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry's Facebook page, Ambassador Rabab Fatima demanded an end to the "senseless cycles of violence and atrocities by the occupying Israeli forces."
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Local media outlets speculated that the move will open up economic ties between Dhaka and Jerusalem, citing the precedent of Taiwan. Bangladesh does not recognize Taiwan but ties improved after a similar clause stating “except Taiwan” was removed from its passports.
“Great news! #Bangladesh has removed travel ban to Israel,” tweeted Gilad Cohen, Israeli Foreign Ministry Deputy Director General for Asia and the Pacific. “This is a welcome step & I call on the Bangladeshi government to move forward and establish diplomatic ties with #Israel so both our peoples could benefit & prosper.”
“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,” former Bangladeshi diplomat M. Humayun Kabir told BDNews24.
“It could be that Bangladesh has people who can do business with Israel. But it does not mean we are establishing ties," Kabir added.
Despite the official hostility between the two countries, earlier this year an investigation by Al Jazeera revealed that the Muslim country purchased surveillance technology produced by an Israeli company.
Al Jazeera’s investigative unit obtained documents showing the sale of "passive" cell phone monitoring and interception systems made by the Israeli cyber-surveillance firm PicSix to the Bangladesh army. The documents show that despite the fact that the company is registered in Israel, Israel is not the country of origin for the sale, but rather Hungary.
Al Jazeera’s report detailed how the sale was orchestrated through a middleman in Thailand. In a recording, the broker is caught admitting that the so-called P6 Interception system is actually Israeli-made.
A source claimed that representatives from the Israeli company met with those from Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Forces Intelligence in Hungary, where they "illegally intercepted calls" to demonstrate the technology’s abilities.
In an interview with the BBC, Bangladesh’s foreign minister denied the sale, as did its army.
Haaretz subsequently reported that a human rights lawyer had filed court documents alleging that that Israeli phone-hacking firm Cellebrite sold its technology to Bangladesh’s notorious paramilitary unit the Rapid Action Battalion, which has been called a “death squad” by rights groups and has faced allegations of extrajudicial killings, disappearances and torturing civilians and journalists.
Pakistan is now the last remaining country whose passports read 'this passport is valid for all countries of the world except Israel.'