Bangladesh has removed the clause "except Israel" from its new e-passport, fueling debates on whether the country might normalize ties with Israel and pave the way for Bangladeshi nationals to visit the Middle Eastern country.
Older Bangladeshi passports contained the sentence, "This passport is valid for all the countries of the world except Israel."
But six months ago, when Bangladesh rolled out the electronic-chip e-passport, the "except Israel" clause was omitted without public announcement.
News of the change spread when two Bangladeshi nationals claimed two weeks ago they received passports with "this passport is valid for all countries of the world" written on them.
Bangladesh's Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal soon after acknowledged the change, saying that his government removed the words "except Israel" to ensure that the passports meet "international standards."
Ruth Zakh, the head of the Public Inquiries Division at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, hailed the move.
"Israel welcomes the removal of the words 'except Israel' from Bangladeshi passports," Zakh told DW.
Gilad Cohen, deputy director-general for Asia and the Pacific with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, also welcomed the change and called on the Bangladeshi government to move forward and establish diplomatic ties with Israel.
Dhaka denies plans to normalize ties
The news about the passport came as a surprise to many, as Bangladesh does not recognize Israel as a state and has kept citizens from visiting for decades.
Since Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan in 1971 following a bloody liberation war, the country has recognized only Palestine as a state.
Bangladesh has stated that it would not recognize Israel until there is an independent Palestine.
Dhaka said it supports "the two-state solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict in light of the UN resolutions recognizing pre-1967 borders and East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine."
The Palestinian enclave of Gaza was battered this month by Israeli airstrikes in 11 days of violence between the Jewish state and Hamas, an armed Palestinian militant group that is classified as a terrorist organization by the EU and US, among others.
The fighting, the worst between the two sides since a 50-day war in 2014, was halted by an Egypt-brokered cease-fire on May 21.
Yousef Ramadan, the Palestinian Authority's ambassador in Dhaka, told local media that he was "saddened" by Bangladesh's move to not single out Israel in its passports.
"It cannot be acceptable for us," he said.
But Dhaka has denied plans to normalize ties with Israel, saying its foreign policy towards the country hasn't changed and that a travel ban remains in place.
"No one from Bangladesh can visit Israel" and if anyone does, "legal action will be taken against that person," Bangladesh's Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told a media briefing last Wednesday.
Momen said the change to the new e-passport was only to "maintain international standards."
"A 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 (founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) time. We don’t recognize Israel," the minister said.
Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan, Bangladesh's ambassador to Germany, said the clause "except Israel" was removed from Bangladeshi passports a year ago, "But that doesn't mean that we are going to establish a diplomatic relationship with Israel."
"Our policy toward it remains unchanged," Bhuiyan told DW, adding that "nearly 100,000 passports have already been issued," which are "valid for all countries of the world."
Passport change leaves many confused
Dhaka's decision to remove the clause from e-passports has left many feeling baffled regarding the government's stance on travel to Israel.
"There needs to be more clarity in Dhaka's messaging. If these new passports no longer say Israel is a banned destination, how can you insist it still is? It's quite bizarre," Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW.
Dhaka-based social activist Shahidul Alam says a travel ban is "illogical" when it's no longer outlined in a passport.
"It's illogical to provide such a document, allowing a person to travel and then to stipulate that such travel is not permitted," Alam told DW.
Can Bangladesh impose a ban on traveling to Israel?
Citing immigration officials who did not want to be named, the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news outlet reported that after the change, Bangladeshi nationals could now travel to Israel from a third country if they can obtain a visa.
None of the 17 legal acts governing Bangladesh’s immigration rules can impose a ban on traveling to Israel, contradicting Momen’s assertion of legal action, Al Jazeera reported, adding that a passport alone was not enough to visit a country and that visas must be issued.
Zakh said Bangladeshi citizens could still visit Israel.
"Bangladeshi citizens could visit Israel even with the old passport. We always ignored the words 'except Israel' when it appeared in other countries' passports," she told DW.
"Tens of thousands of tourists and pilgrims bearing passports stained with 'except Israel' visited Israel every year and were warmly welcomed," she said.
Ali Riaz, a political science professor at Illinois State University, told DW that "a person who can secure a visa to visit Israel cannot be stopped or prosecuted for a trip."
"There is no known law that will preclude one to visit," Riaz said.
"However, whether the government uses other laws to prosecute and deter people from traveling to Israel is a different matter altogether," he added.
Israel open to building relations
Zakh told DW that Israel was willing to build relations with Bangladesh.
"The policy of Israel since its establishment 73 years ago was to reach out to every nation on Earth and to establish relations with all of them," she said. "Bangladesh is no exception, and Israel was among the first countries to recognize Bangladesh's independence soon after it was declared."
In 2017, Israel approached Bangladeshi authorities asking for permission to provide humanitarian and medical assistance to the Rohingya refugees who fled from neighboring Myanmar, Zakh said.
"First, we were ignored, and then we were denied. The offer is still on the table," she added.
The World Bank's World Integrated Trade Solution database shows that trade still takes place between Bangladesh and Israel despite the absence of any diplomatic ties.
According to the database, Israel imported products worth approximately $333.74 million (€273.57 million) from Bangladesh between 2010 and 2018, via third countries.