What are the prospects for Israel-Bangladesh relations?

We cannot expect things to change overnight, but the removal of the travel restrictions against Israel hints at the prospects of future diplomatic relations.

 A boy poses under a massive Bangladeshi flag in front of the parliamentary building in Dhaka, celebrating the country’s 50th Victory Day anniversary. (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMMAD PONIR HOSSAIN)
A boy poses under a massive Bangladeshi flag in front of the parliamentary building in Dhaka, celebrating the country’s 50th Victory Day anniversary.
(photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMMAD PONIR HOSSAIN)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

On December 16, Bangladesh celebrated the Golden Jubilee of its victory against Pakistani occupation forces in 1971. People from around the world are asking me as a pro-Israel journalist: what role did the State of Israel play, and what was the role of the Palestinians?

First of all, it is important for everyone in the world to know, especially the younger generation in Bangladesh, that Israel was one of the first countries to recognize the newly born Bangladesh. It actively aided Bangladeshis during the liberation war, and even supplied arms and logistics to the Bangladeshi freedom fighters through India.

Meanwhile, Palestinians, particularly former PLO chief Yasser Arafat, termed Bangladeshi freedom fighters as “terrorists,” and supported Pakistan owing to the warm relation between the Palestinians and Islamabad. The Palestinians termed Bangladesh’s war of independence as “another Israel-Palestine conflict.” Meaning, Arafat and his cronies in the PLO were projecting Bangladesh as another Israel, with Pakistan as Palestine. They went even further by stating the war was between Muslims and Hindus.

However, after the victory of Bangladesh, then-foreign minister Mushtaque Ahmed – who later became one of the masterminds of the assassination of Bangladesh’s father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – denied Israel’s recognition and declined to reciprocate.

Instead, the country supported the Palestinians, despite the Palestinians declining any sort of Bangladeshi help following Bangladesh’s liberation, as the Palestinians did not recognize our country. The passports that were issued following independence barred our citizens from traveling to Israel, Taiwan and South Africa. However, the ban on South Africa and Taiwan was subsequently removed, and the travel bans were lifted, too. Recently, the government also removed the words “except Israel” from our passports, which is a positive sign.

Vendors sell Bangladesh national flags in Dhaka (credit: REUTERS)Vendors sell Bangladesh national flags in Dhaka (credit: REUTERS)
Bangladesh, a flashback

Even before the British left the Indian subcontinent, a Bengali identity was already forged. There was a movement in Bengal prior to the partition of India in 1947 to make Bengal an independent state – neither a part of India, nor a part of Pakistan.

However, subsequent communal violence between Hindus and Muslims led to Bengal being divided between India and East Pakistan. Right before the partition, a famine in Bengal, widely considered to be artificially created, led to millions of deaths. Subsequently, the partition led to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

In 1952, the flame of Bengali nationalism rekindled during the Language Movement, as Bengalis faced persecution and discrimination in Pakistan, despite being the majority. This eventually led to Bangladesh breaking away from Pakistan on March 26, 1971. The then-Pakistani government targeted the intellectuals in our nation, as a part of the genocide that left three million dead.

So the Bengali identity is not something new or young. It has been there for hundreds of years. Bengalis faced multiple genocides and endless persecution at the hands of foreign powers. Our struggle for forging an independent nation, which lasted for hundreds of years and culminated in 1971, when Bangladesh, against all odds, was born.

Here we need to mention a very important point. During the war of independence of Bangladesh, a Jewish officer of the Indian Army, Lieutenant General Jack Farj Rafael Jacob (popularly known as General Jacob), was not only a Jew who had deep and warm ties with the State of Israel, but had fought against the Pakistani occupation forces hand-in-hand with Bangladeshi freedom fighters – the Mukti Bahini. General Jacob is respected by every individual in Bangladesh as a hero, and we are eternally grateful to him for his contributions.

Still, I doubt if anyone in Bangladesh knows much about his warm ties with Israel. Despite this, antisemitic forces have greatly influenced our society. The majority of the newspapers in Bangladesh – except for my newspaper, Weekly Blitz – are engaged in demonizing Israel, Jews and even Judaism.

My support for the State of Israel

Ever since I was a child, my father has taught me to respect all religions and treat people from every faith equally. I grew up in a tolerant environment at home, which was very much an exception in the society where I grew up, which is heavily marred with antisemitic hatred and demonization of Israel and Jews.

When I worked for TASS in the 1990s, I had rapport with many Jewish colleagues who were extremely friendly. During my career as a journalist, I got to know about Israel’s unconditional support for Bangladeshis during the 1971 war – a fact still very much unknown to most Bangladeshis. The media in Bangladesh, despite knowing about Israeli aid during 1971, lives in a sphere of antisemitic hatred, like the media of the rest of the Muslim world, portraying Israel as a demonic nation and equating Jews with dogs and pigs. Many in Bangladesh do not know the truth about Israel, and are brainwashed by the Bangladeshi media, and the antisemitic propaganda that is widespread in madrassas, schools, mosques and media.

I had decided that it was my mission to at least let our people know the truth about Israel and Jews. That is when I launched Blitz. In 2003, however, I was arrested for supporting Israel, and was tried for blasphemy and sedition. I was accused of hurting the sentiments of Muslims of this country by supporting Israel. I was jailed for seven years and served a rigorous imprisonment during those years. I have also received –and still receive – endless death threats from Islamist groups in Bangladesh. My office was bombed in July 2006, and I virtually had no one to protect me from these nefarious forces. However, I never gave in, ever.

Bangladesh is not a radical Muslim nation

Bangladeshi people consider Islam as a religion, but not as a political force. Therefore, most people can be described as being religious in the sense that they pray in mosques regularly, but do not really care about any political opinion the Imam may have to offer. To Bangladeshis, Imams are no more than clergymen whose jurisdiction is very much restricted within the mosque. However, people do hear hate speech in mosques on a regular basis, and eventually are victims of incessant antisemitic propaganda. And when a lie is repeated many times over, people involuntarily start believing in them.

Bangladesh as an economic star

Bangladesh’s economic miracle has made particularly big headlines this pandemic year. It has not only overtaken Pakistan – in the IMF’s latest Economic Outlook, Bangladesh has also overtaken India in GDP per capita. Life expectancy has increased by seven years since 2000. The secret of Bangladesh’s tremendous economic growth is the magnanimous statesmanship of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The second reason is political stability, which is a key factor for any of the foreign investors. Some of our critics say Bangladesh’s excessive dependence on exporting ready-made garments and textile products is the double-edged sword of the economy, but it is important to mention here that Bangladesh’s economy is gradually being expanded with the exporting of newer items as well as highly-skilled labor, especially IT sector professionals.

Within the next 25 years, Bangladesh’s foreign exchange earnings from the export of newer items and manpower will be double the amount of what it receives from apparel export.

Considering the economic achievements of Bangladesh in the last decade, if Bangladesh does not give in to the Islamist forces, it will surely emerge as a developed nation in the next 25 years. I believe Bangladesh should normalize relations with Israel before that, as it can benefit immensely from Israeli technology when Dhaka establishes official ties with Jerusalem.

In my opinion, the visible key obstacle has been removed. It was forbidden for any Bangladeshi to travel to Israel with a Bangladeshi passport, and that restriction is no longer there.

However, Bangladesh has had no diplomatic relations with Israel since it was a part of Pakistan, and this has been ongoing since the very birth of Israel. We cannot expect things to change overnight. However, I strongly believe the removal of the “except Israel” phrase was a major step that hints at the prospects of future diplomatic relations. With the recent change of attitude of many Middle Eastern nations toward Israel, I really believe the landscape in Bangladesh will soon be changing, too. Normalizing relations between Bangladesh and Israel now is just a matter of time.  ■

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is a multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, research-scholar, counterterrorism specialist and editor of Weekly Blitz. Follow him on Twitter @salah_shoaib