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Time to Lift Travel Ban to Israel

Time to Lift Travel Ban to Israel

Dr. Richard L. Benkin writes from USA

In April 2005, I participated in a meeting between Bangladeshi Ambassador Shamsher M. Chowdhury and US Congressman Mark Kirk in Kirk’s Washington office.  During the meeting, Shamsher announced unambiguously that “Bangladesh’s ban on travel to Israel has been lifted.”  Obviously, that was not the case.  Yet, the Ambassador obviously believed that doing so would be a positive step for Bangladesh’s relations with the United States.  While it is impossible to know if Shamsher Chowdhury was misinformed or dishonest with the statement, the Congressman became aware of the duplicity.  Several top officials from the previous government continued to make ongoing promises of the travel ban’s imminent removal.  None turned out to be true.

Were they truthful and the ban to be lifted, the people of Bangladesh would benefit considerably.  To begin with, for Bangladesh’s actual and potential economic partners, the travel ban to Israel groups it with the wrong set of countries.  Would Bangladesh rather be associated with Iran and Syria (ban travel to Israel) or with Egypt and Jordan (no travel ban)?  Among the SAARC nations, Bangladesh is the only country with a strictly enforced travel ban.  (Pakistan formally bars such travel, but its citizens can go there anyway by obtaining “no objection” certificates before leaving the country.)  Regionally, Bangladesh is almost isolated in this position.  India and Myanmar, the two nations bordering Bangladesh, as well as China, Nepal, and all of Southeast Asia except Malaysia not only have no travel ban but have relations with Israel as well.  All of their people enjoy the benefits that such relations bring.  And even while Pakistan has no relations, the flurry of diplomatic activity between Israel and Pakistan of late exposed extensive business and other interactions between the two countries.

Israelis are known for their unexcelled leadership in the fields of medicine, agriculture, security, and in high tech fields and citizens of other countries are benefiting from it.  Bangladesh has had its chances recently, too.  In 2006, I conveyed an offer for Israeli doctors to set up eye clinics in Bangladesh, clinics which in developing countries all over the world and have bring sight to many sightless people—especially children.  The Israelis do this free of charge.  The BNP government rejected it.  The Israelis also offered to provide a number of Bangladeshis free training in its agricultural schools in Israel, training courses that are sought after because of their excellence, and are otherwise quite costly.  Again, the BNP turned it down.  Why in the world would the BNP turn down these services to its people without even consulting them about it?

The public rationale is that maintaining the strict ban is done in “solidarity with the Palestinian people”—a ridiculous claim even on the surface.  First of all, those Palestinian Arabs themselves travel to Israel proper every day where they receive gainful employment and other benefits.  The citizens of two of the three states that fought the most wars with Israel now travel there without restriction; Egyptians and Jordanians do, Syrians do not.  Syria lags far behind the other two on every indicator of citizen satisfaction.  By trying to be more Palestinian than the Palestinians, Bangladesh marginalizes itself with regard to any possible influence on Middle East events.  Bangladesh, it will be recalled was barred from sending peacekeeping troops to Lebanon for that very reason.  And that is a shame, as I pointed out in my 2003 article, “Dear Bangladesh,” Bangladesh is uniquely situated to play a key role in the Middle East.  Unfortunately, it has thus far shunned such a productive role with previous governments preferring showy displays—such as the travel ban—over substance.  The Cairo-based Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies noted the same, adding “many Arab countries have prohibited their citizens from traveling to Israel, a practice which actually benefits the Israelis above all else.”  The Center’s point is that nations that maintain travel bans out of some sense of political correctness are actually hurting the cause they purport to support.

Fortunately, the new atmosphere in Bangladesh since the events of January 11, 2007, appears to have freed many Bangladeshis from previous fetters preventing an expression of support for removing the travel ban.  One diplomatic source said that the new government has a “much more practical perspective on international relations” enabling it to see clearly actions that are in the best interests of the Bangladeshi people.

Recently, the growing movement to lift the travel ban found support from what might be considered an unlikely source:  a Fundamentalist Muslim organization publicly critical of Israel and supportive of the Arab Palestinians.  That group, Khalefat Andolin, petitioned Chief Advisor, Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed to lift the travel ban in a February 12 letter, stating “there is no wisdom quarreling with Israel.”  The group of pious and religious Muslims noted that the travel ban has no religious basis; that is, the ban is purely political.  Instead of such intransigence, Khalefat Andolin calls for “face-to-face debate and dialogue between those who defend the Rights of the Palestinians and those who defend the Rights of the Jews & Israel.”  Khalefat Andolin has already been engaged in open dialogue with various religious groups in an effort to reduce suspicion and increase understanding.  The group also noted that as long as the travel ban is in effect, pious Muslims from Bangladesh were being prohibited by their own government from visiting Al Aqsa and other Muslim holy sites; thus the ban actually is anti-Islam by preventing these religious ministrations.

And understanding is the key.  An Egyptian-born woman who is active in building bridges with Israel told me that she was raised with a constant barrage of anti-Israeli vitriol.  She was told that the people were evil and that they treated Muslims badly.  Her father, in fact, is considered a shahid as he was killed in a war with Israel.  One day, her brother had a stroke while in Gaza.  Having been told by colleagues at the time that he could be airlifted to the finest hospital in Cairo, or “if he really wanted to survive,” they could take him to Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem; he chose the latter.  Some time later, her brother called her to say that the Israelis were nothing like what they had been told.  Arabs and Israelis, Muslims and Jews receive the same excellent care and dignified treatment; moreover, the people are very friendly toward him.

Consider again the benefits in international relations removing the travel ban would bring.  Since 2005, the case of Weekly Blitz editor Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury has become the principle driver in US-Bangladesh relations.  One of the issues involved in the case was Shoaib’s desire to visit Israel, which became the immediate excuse for his arrest.  Thus, the ban has become a noted issue in the larger matter.  When I asked one Congressional source what the reaction might be if Bangladesh dropped its ban on travel to Israel, he became visibly excited and called it a “very significant deliverable.”  He also asked me to make sure to let him know as soon as I could confirm that it had been done.

The public rationale for the ban was noted above, but several top officials of the BNP government privately told me that the real reason was that they were afraid that if they did, the nation’s Islamic radicals would leave their coalition and react angrily.  Bangladesh’s new government has made it clear that it has abandoned previous governments’ policy of appeasement and maintains an anti-radical agenda.  Having cast aside that destructive inheritance from its BNP and Awami League predecessors, the new government is now free to cast aside another:  the ban on travel to Israel, which hurts Bangladesh every day that it remains in force.


Weekly Blitz 2007
Posted on 27 Feb 2007 by Root


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