Bangladesh and Israel’s trade and security cooperation are growing despite not having formal ties

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (left), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right).

Since the signing of the Abraham Accords, there has been a remarkable shift in Israel’s relations with the Muslim world. New reports have emerged of the possibility of further breakthroughs in diplomatic ties with former foes like Saudi Arabia (the birthplace of Islam), Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

Bangladesh does not appear to have antisemitic views in local media. However, despite the absence of any diplomatic ties, the trade relations between Bangladesh and Israel are slowly growing.

One of Bangladesh’s most revered war heroes was Jewish. After the independence of Bangladesh, the newly formed country was quickly recognized by Israel on 7 February 1972.

Choudhury noted that Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad, Bangladesh’s first foreign minister, was responsible for turning Israel away. Ahmad later took part in a plot that led to the assassination of Bangladesh’s first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1975. Following the assassination, Ahmad immediately took control of the government and declared himself president.

Bangladesh removes ‘except Israel’ from passport

Bangladesh’s rapid development has not gone unnoticed by Israeli officials, who publicly welcomed the removal of Israel’s printed exclusion on Bangladesh passports and have openly called for warmer ties over the years. Bangladesh has a $409 billion economy, and its government structure is quite liberal. Women have led the country for nearly all of the last 20 years, and the current prime minister, parliament speaker, and opposition leader are all women.

From now on, Bangladesh’s passport is ‘valid for all countries of the world.’ Even a few months ago, the passport contained the words ‘valid for all countries of the world, except Israel.’ Dropping the words ‘except Israel’ might lead many to believe that the government has decided to change its policy towards the ‘pariah’ state on the Middle East scene.

Another large Muslim country observers say could normalize ties with Israel is Bangladesh. While Bangladesh and Israel have no formal ties, there have been reports of unofficial economic and military cooperation between the countries. Although travel to Israel is forbidden, the Muslim country also dropped a key restriction on travel to Israel earlier this year, fueling speculation that normalization may be on the horizon.

As the news, revealed by local and international media outlets, sparked debates, ministers concerned came up with their own explanations on the matter. The home ministry, responsible for issuing passports, argued that it is done to enhance the international standard of Bangladesh passports.

The foreign ministry clarified that there has been no shift in the country’s foreign policy, especially towards Israel. The country will continue to support the rights and freedom struggle of the Palestinian people. The foreign minister further mentioned that even after dropping the ‘except Israel’, travel to the Zionist country is still illegal for any Bangladeshi passport holder. Bangladesh is yet to recognize Israel or establish diplomatic relations with it officially.

The foreign ministry clarified that there has been no shift in the country’s foreign policy, especially towards Israel. The country will continue to support the rights and freedom struggle of the Palestinian people. Bangladesh has yet to recognize Israel or establish diplomatic relations with it officially.

Bangladesh purchased Israeli military-grade security products

Surprisingly, Bangladesh gained more than a few things by developing a working relationship with Israel. Al-Jazeera reported that the country’s military intelligence is already using the passive cellphone monitoring and interception systems developed by the Israeli cyber-surveillance company PicSix. Whether it is being used to monitor the opposition parties’ movements or the myriad security threats that the South Asian country faces due to its geographic location, Israeli technology can meet Dhaka’s strategic needs.

While Bangladesh has denied its association with Israel, it did not rebuff suggestions that it possessed the P6 Interception tool, which is essentially an international mobile subscriber identity-catcher, or IMSI-catcher, and which is, again, made by the said Israeli company based in Even Yehuda. How and why Dhaka uses this surveillance system can only be answered by the Bangladeshi government, but it does not minimize the significance of the fact that Bangladesh felt compelled to resort to a technology domain that which Israel is arguably the world leader.

Trades between Bangladesh-Israel

Economic and military cooperation is believed to be ongoing between the two countries, regardless of official diplomatic status. Multiple media reports indicate that Bangladesh has purchased Israeli military-grade technology, and the World Bank’s World Integrated Trade Solution database showed that between 2010 and 2018, Israel imported products worth around $333.74 million that originated in Bangladesh. WITS data shows that $3.67 million worth of Israeli exports eventually made their way to Bangladesh between 2009 and 2015.

Bangladesh has exported a small number of goods to Israel in the last few years. The latest official statistics released by the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB), showed that in FY20, Bangladesh exported goods worth about $333.74 to Israel. The figure doesn’t tally with data available with EPB. One reason may be Israel records the imports done through a third country from the country of origin.

The highest amount of goods worth $110 million was exported in FY19, while the lowest annual exports were recorded at $2 million only in FY14. Textile, ready-made garments (RMG) and pharmaceuticals are major exportable items to Israel.

Again, WITS data shows that Israeli exports to Bangladesh stood at $3.67 million between 2009 and 2015. No data is available after 2015 in the WITS system. Bangladesh Bank data also doesn’t mention Bangladesh’s imports from Israel. Therefore, it is necessary to get some explanation on the bilateral trade with Israel.

Now a pertinent question is: how can exports take place when there is no diplomatic relations? It is learnt that Bangladeshi products generally landed in Israel through a third country like Singapore, Turkey, Malaysia or the United Arab Emirates. For instance, Bangladeshi manufacturers and exporters shipped the products to Singapore and received due payments from the island state.

So, the total transaction is recorded as Bangladesh-Singapore trade. The products are transhipped from Singapore to a mother vessel bound for Haifa seaport in Israel. In this process, Bangladeshi products ultimately enter the Israeli market. A representative or liaison office of Israeli importers in Singapore and Turkey conducts the whole deal.

It appears that in the age of globalization, it is not possible to contain trade flow, especially when there is a demand. If the direct trade route is blocked, the traders will go for diversion using a well-recognized third country. Israel is also trading with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries using third countries. 2018 Israeli exports to the GCC bloc were around $1.0 billion. Though Qatar and Oman had linked trade relations with Israel since 1996, Doha severed it in 2009. Israeli exports to the GCC market are sometimes channelled through Jordan or Turkey, but primarily via European and other non-Middle-East and North African (MENA) countries. In 2020, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Bahrain signed agreements with Israel for normalization of relations.

Trade through third countries also gradually opens a window of further normalization of relations. Indonesia is an example of this connection: trading with Israel by third countries. Bilateral trade between these two countries reached around $500 million. Indonesian citizens can now visit Israel-issued visas from a third country, such as Thailand. Israeli official statistics showed that in 2019, some 38,700 Indonesians travelled to Israel and occupied Palestinian territory. Similarly, travellers from Malaysia to Israel numbered 14,700, although Malaysian passport mentioned that it is ‘valid for all countries of the world, except Israel.’

By dropping ‘except Israel’ from Bangladesh passport, the travel document may not be restrictive for Bangladeshi citizens to visit Israel. Like Malaysians and Indonesians, they may now collect the required visa from Israeli foreign mission in Bangkok or New Delhi. Israel now issues a `loose-leaf’ visa which is not attached as a sticker on the passport page.

Again, Israeli border control officials no more stamp in passport page of a traveller. Instead, they issue a permit in a separate paper, which travellers have to retain until they exit the country. Thus, there is no seal or sign in the travellers’ passports showing that they have visited the Zionist country. Israel adopts the method to attract more tourists from countries with whom it has no diplomatic affiliation. As tourism is an essential source of Israel’s economy, contributing around 6.0 per cent to the country’s GDP, it needs more tourists to come in. Moreover, an incrementally higher flow of tourists from Muslim-dominated countries is a boon for Israel to enhance its image against the backdrop of repression of the Palestinians, who get wide Muslim supports.

Did Bangladeshi nationals visit Israel?

According to a report by the Al Jazeera investigative unit, Bangladeshi intelligence officers were trained by the Israeli security company either in Israel or in Hungary.

Questions remained about how Bangladesh’s intelligence agency knows how to use Israeli products if they were not trained in Israel or a third country. It is unknown whether a few Bangladesh nationals and government employees earlier visited Israel by acquiring a visa from a third country. Bangladesh government never acknowledged that Israeli companies trained Bangladeshi nationals.

Bangladesh needs to counter Myanmar by acquiring Israeli weapons

Dhaka has a genuine interest in learning more about Israel’s arms trade with Myanmar because that country poses the principal threat to Bangladesh’s physical security. According to a U.N. fact-finding mission, Israel was among the seven countries that supplied Myanmar’s military with launched a series of attacks in 2017 against the Rohingya Muslims, forcing around one million refugees to flee across the border into Bangladesh. State-owned Israel Aerospace Industries delivered two attack frigates to Myanmar shortly after Bangladesh purchased and commissioned two Chinese-made submarines.

Drone shot of Cox’s Bazar with Rohingya refugee camp in Cox Bazar, Bangladesh.

That puts Dhaka in the awkward position of gathering intelligence about Israeli activities in Myanmar while furnishing counteroffers to dissuade Tel Aviv from engaging with the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s armed forces are known.

One way to accomplish this is through backchannel diplomacy with Israel. After all, Bangladesh’s recognition of Israel would constitute a major diplomatic victory for the country that is actively recruiting support from other Muslim-majority countries.

Following recent gains according to various economic and social indexes, Bangladesh is emerging as a leader in the Muslim world and must be an increasingly attractive partner for Israel.

An easier path toward greater bilateral cooperation might be in the agriculture sector, where Israel has established itself as a leading exporter of irrigation, desalination, cyber security and water treatment technology.

The pernicious effects of climate change, compounded by a population of over 160 million people crammed inside a landmass smaller than New York state, has significantly affected Bangladesh’s food security.

In collaboration with Israel, Bangladesh can develop solutions to problems created by its unique topography. Trade may continue growing with Israel as Bangladesh seeks new markets. Ready-made garments and textiles are two sectors that could eventually lead to the normalization of diplomatic ties between Bangladesh and Israel.

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