On the eve of the Golden Jubilee celebration of Bangladesh’s victory in the 1971 war of independence against the Pakistani occupation forces, Mr. Ilan Sztulman Starosta, Head of Mission of the Israeli Consulate in Dubai extended an exclusive interview to Muzaffar Ahmad Noori Bajwa, the editor-in-chief of The Eastern Herald. During the interview, Mr. Ilan Sztulman Starosta described Israel’s support towards the war of independence of Bangladesh and recognizing the newly-born country immediately after Bangali freedom fighters won the war against Pakistan, stating “We do recognize the struggle of the Bangali people. We know what it is to be a persecuted minority and how is to suffer the violence. So, we understood then and identified their struggle and supported them, and we do now too to go into the next stage that you have a state and we also have a state, let’s go forward and work together. I hope things will move in the right direction”.
Ilan Sztulman is a senior diplomat in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs with extensive experience in business, government, security, and strategic communications.
Sztulman grew up in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and made Aliya to Israel in 1978. He served in one of the Israel Defense Forces’ most elite units and achieved the rank of Major. In 1981, he received IDF’s Medal for Distinguished Service for bravery in combat operations.
Here is the transcript of the interview:
Muzaffar Ahmad Noori Bajwa: A number of Muslim nations, including the United Arab Emirates, have normalized relations with Israel, while there are indications of a few more Muslim nations following the suit. Considering the regional and global geopolitical scenarios and threats posed by terrorism and religious extremism as well as threats posed by Iran and its proxies, including Palestinian mega-terror outfit Hamas, shall Israel jointly confront such elements with its Muslim allies?
Ilan Sztulman Starosta: Yes, we are doing this, definitely. All the countries we signed diplomatic relations with countries like Muslim countries of course. But they don’t adhere to the extreme Islam that some countries do. That’s why we can have diplomatic relations and personal friendship relations as well. The only way today to fight terror internationally is through cooperation. No country however big it is can face this threat. So, the only way to do this is to cooperate, to share information to fight together. Definitely, we’re doing here with the UAE and all the other countries we signed agreements with.
Muzaffar Ahmad Noori Bajwa:: How important is the Muslim nation’s positive approach towards the State of Israel?
Ilan Sztulman Starosta: You know, we are after all cousins. We come from the same roots and we share pretty much the same values. The food laws are similar. In Israel Jews eat Kosher and Muslims eat Halal and both are very very similar. Some Muslims accept Kosher. If it’s Kosher meat they will eat. So, we culturally and even genetically are very close. Unfortunately, the political Islam developments in the last century divided us. If you take the history, the Jews lived with Muslims in Islamic countries for generations. The period in which Jews lived in Spain during the Muslim dynasty there, for us in Jewish history it is called the Golden area. Because Jewish literature and the Jewish community flourished in this time. We have these differences because of the end of the colonialism period and political Islam and Wahhabism but there is no reason why we shouldn’t be partners. There is another issue too that – Israel is the country of Jews but we do have a minority of almost 22 percent who are Muslims. We have ministers who are Muslims, we have members of the parliament who are Muslims. There are even more reasons for us to have diplomatic relations with all Muslim countries as well as Christian countries. We have to do this because of all the issues we’re facing specifically in the middle-east like Climate change, extreme terror. These cannot be resolved without working together. Desertification, lack of water, and climate change, they don’t know the political borders. They don’t know what is Lebanon and what is Israel. We have to work together and that’s the only way to move forward as a world. So yes, we see a lot of importance in these agreements. That’s why we are putting so much effort. We opened here two diplomatic representations, not just one. The first thing our foreign minister did, just two weeks after the government was formed in Israel, was come to Dubai. For us, this is very very important. It’s a game-changer in the middle-east, I think, the opening of the relationship with Muslim countries, and this is just the beginning, Insha’Allah.
Muzaffar Ahmad Noori Bajwa:: Israel is known for its advancements in technology, medical science, education, defense hardware, and security equipment. Can the allies of the Jewish State benefit from it?
Ilan Sztulman Starosta: Of course, that’s the whole point. I mean, in Judaism we have a value, it’s called Tikkun Olam which means fixing the world. It’s like a basic value of Judaism which means every Jew has a duty, a personal duty to his God and to his world to fix whatever the world is in need of. And it’s a religious thing. That’s why you see many Jews are doing so many revolutionary things. If you see the number of Jews having Nobel prizes is completely disproportionate to their number there in society. In Israel itself, we have 12 or 13 Nobel prizes in a country of nearly 9 million in seventy years. But, behind this, that drives us to do good things in the world. That’s why we call Israel the startup nation. Because there are so many ideas in agriculture, medicines, technology. Not just security, it is something we need at this time. We would be very happy if we didn’t need to develop the security but all the other ways, you can do anything. Concluding your question, we definitely think that the Arab countries we just signed and us too will develop because we also have a lot to learn. You’ve been to Dubai, you see here what they’ve done, the long-range planning and all this what they are doing. We’re learning from them and they’re learning from us that how to be creative and how to create the system. So, definitely, it’s a win-win situation. And we wish this to spread out to more countries as well.
Muzaffar Ahmad Noori Bajwa:: Israel has a lot of contributions in today’s world. We see innovations in almost every sector, somehow, connected with Israel.
Ilan Sztulman Starosta: Yes, I know, and it’s not an Israeli thing, it’s a Jewish thing. We have this in our religion. If you see in India, there was a Jew army officer Lieutenant General Jack Farj Rafael Jacob, who fought for the independence of Bangladesh.
Muzaffar Ahmad Noori Bajwa:: What are the immediate prospects of Israel-UAE relations in strengthening relations between the two countries?
Ilan Sztulman Starosta: We have a few layers of this cooperation. Cooperation between the countries is a very multi-layer complex. First of all strategically: we have the same enemies. Let’s put it this way: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. So, we have a country next to us which is a big threat to the world. I’m talking about Iran that is developing nuclear capabilities openly and defying all the civilized nations who tell them don’t do that we don’t need more nuclear weapons in the area and we don’t want to start a weapons race. Iran behaves in a very violent and underground and also supporting terror groups Hezbollah, Boko Haram, etc. Even Hamas which is not Shi’a also gets support from Iran. To stop this threat, we have to cooperate and that’s one of those reasons. Second is the economic layer: We have so much to gain in Business and we’re already, it’s been less than a year and we have almost $ 700’000 of trade between Israel and the UAE. And this is in the corona year when it was difficult to travel because of a lot of travel restrictions everywhere. Surprisingly, more than 270’000 Israelis came to Dubai during the COVID year so far. During this time when Dubai was hurting and no tourists were coming but then a surge of Israeli tourists are coming and now we have 8 Kosher restaurants in Dubai for Israelis. It’s amazing, it is really amazing. In a time when Israelis knew that if they go out they had to go for quarantine and even then they visited Dubai. It’s a dream come true. So, governments have to work together to fix our common problems. It doesn’t matter which country you’re from or which culture you belong to, what matters is we are all human and we have to live in harmony and learn from each other.
I wish that the Bangladesh government change its policy and recognize the state of Israel. This will benefit all of us. I think the Middle East is also changing. The kind of political Islam that lead to this extreme violent Islam and it is being recognized by everyone that this is not positive. This just brought ISIS [Daesh], Hezbollah, Al Shabab, and Jihadists, etc. — Ilan Sztulman Starosta
Muzaffar Ahmad Noori Bajwa:: On December 16, 2021, Bangladesh will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its victory in the War of Independence in 1971. What was Israel’s attitude towards the liberation war of Bengali people and a young Bangladesh? Was the relationship reciprocal?
Ilan Sztulman Starosta: No, we recognized Bangladesh. We offered a diplomatic relationship but they refused. And Palestinian whom they accept term them terrorists but we accept. In fact, in Israel, we celebrate Lieutenant General Jack Farj Rafael Jacob who was not an Israeli but a Jew and we have a square in Israel with his name and we recognize his efforts in the independence of Bangladesh. We do recognize the struggle of the Bangali people. We know what it is to be a persecuted minority and how is to suffer the violence. So, we understood then and identified their struggle and supported them, and we do now too to go into the next stage that you have a state and we also have a state, let’s go forward and work together. I hope things will move in the right direction.
Muzaffar Ahmad Noori Bajwa:: During the war of independence of Bangladesh, Palestinians, particularly Yasser Arafat, termed Bangladeshi freedom fighters as terrorists, and supported Pakistan owing to the warm relation between those two countries. The Palestinians termed the 1971 war as another Israel-Palestine conflict. After 50 years of independence of Bangladesh, Palestinians are making frantic bids of hiding their enmity with the liberation war of Bangladesh. But recently Bangladesh removed the words ‘Except Israel’ from its passport after 50 years of its independence. How do you see all this?
Ilan Sztulman Starosta: I wish that the Bangladesh government change its policy and recognize the state of Israel. This will benefit all of us. I think the Middle East is also changing. The kind of political Islam that lead to this extreme violent Islam and it is being recognized by everyone that this is not positive. This just brought ISIS [Daesh], Hezbollah, Al Shabab, and Jihadists, etc. Governments started to think now that as a world, as a humanity if we want to go forward, we have to stop this violence also political violence and military violence, the terror of killing people, and find what’s common not what is different. Eventually, as I told you before, how we believe that if we have to grow it’s only going through a system of cooperation with other countries because if we manufacture this and you don’t, and you produce something we don’t so, ok, no problem, lets exchange, let’s benefit each other. We don’t have oil but we have technology so, with trade with technology we show you how we do it and it’s basic. We hope that all the countries in the area will jump on this movement of cooperation and recognize each other and get down to the real. Because the populations are growing and we have to provide more services, more healthcare. The resources are getting fewer and fewer and if we don’t share those resources, we gonna be in trouble too. So, we have to work together. I don’t expect but I wish, because it’s the decision of the government of Bangladesh, that they would take a courageous step and recognize Israel and establish diplomatic relations. I’m sure that all of us will benefit from this step. But it is in their hand not in ours.
Muzaffar Ahmad Noori Bajwa:: Is India, being an ally of both nations, playing any role in establishing a relationship between Israel and Bangladesh?
Ilan Sztulman Starosta: India today is our closest ally, definitely. I spend my time here in Dubai but 30 percent of my time is spent with the Indian community here in Dubai which is a very significant community here. They have millions of Indians here and many of them are very very capable people. Even tonight I have dinner with some Indian friends. We’re looking for projects in different countries where India and Israel can cooperate in every field because India also has very good technology and they know how to market. Bangladesh could be a very important part of this triangle because we’re looking for new trade partners. The marriage between India and Israel is very very fruitful and now the UAE. Bangladesh could be a very important partner for us. Bangladesh has centers of innovation, a big population, resources, and [Bangladeshi] people understand that the next step in business is innovation as the old technologies are cold and spoiled and have a limited lifespan. We’re waiting for partnerships with Bangladeshi researchers, universities, companies, and I think that everybody in the region would benefit from this relationship. We also benefit from your way of thinking, it’s a must, I think. And we’re doing this, by the way, with countries with whom we don’t have diplomatic relations.
Bangladesh has centers of innovation, a big population, resources, and [Bangladeshi] people understand that the next step in business is innovation as the old technologies are cold and spoiled and have a limited lifespan. We’re waiting for partnerships with Bangladeshi researchers, universities, companies, and I think that everybody in the region would benefit from this relationship. — Ilan Sztulman Starosta
180 businessmen from Israel came and 150 from Dubai – Indians. We had a joint-day, started with speeches and etc., and then we divided into three groups – one dealt with agriculture, one dealt with IT, one dealt with health. They just sat together, Israelis and Indians, and talked. Next Monday, we have the Indian Global Forum. It’s a forum of India that every year they do in a different country. This year, it’s going to be here. There is going to be a session just for this cooperation – Israel, India, and Emirati. And also this week, a different organization is … it’s an organization of Indian businessmen from all over. It started with the States and it grew. They are also going to do an event in Dubai with the local Indian community, Israeli businessmen will be joining also. So the train of this relationship is leaving the station, and there are already many projects, and we also have many similarities in the way of thinking, the way of developing. And you could also say India is also a startup nation, but just a big nation. But we are very small. So, this marriage you could say will be very fruitful. The Emiratis understand this and are joining, Bangladesh could be a very important partner here, it is a very big country too, with a big population. You do have centers of innovation, so you have people who understand the next step in business is to innovate. Because old technologies in business are old and have a limited lifespan. And we are waiting for a partnership with Bangladeshi researchers, companies, universities, and I think that everybody in the region would benefit from this relationship.
Muzaffar Ahmad Noori Bajwa:: Definitely. This will be a good relation and Bangladesh will be benefitted the most from this.
Ilan Sztulman Starosta: You know when you do this sort of thing, both sides have to gain. Else it won’t work. We are also gaining, we have another big country with a big population, and I know you have very high capacity – universities and researchers. So, we also benefit from your way of thinking. Doing this is a must. And we are doing this, we are doing this with a country with which we do not have diplomatic relations, we just find other ways. Because businesses don’t see any borders, if we have products that can benefit a country, then that’s it.
Muzaffar Ahmad Noori Bajwa:: But this will happen, eventually. We are very much sure about it. What’s happening in Bangladesh right now, changing just one sentence ‘except Israel’ from passports. It just did not come overnight.
Ilan Sztulman Starosta: We are going for the next step now.
Muzaffar Ahmad Noori Bajwa:: Now there is a tough question for you. While Muslim media, in general, has an anti-Israel and anti-Semite bias, there is very little information in the Israeli and Jewish media about the dedication and suffering of the people supporting Israel, like the editor of Weekly Blitz [Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury], as well. Do you think the reason behind such ignorance, like ignoring someone who is fighting for the cause for no reason, ignoring this guy, or ignoring people who are fighting for this cause, is that because Israel or the Jewish people don’t have much value for what this man has been doing for decades, or is there some risk involved?
Ilan Sztulman Starosta: No, no, we do recognize him [Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury]. And we appreciate what he did. But you know, sometimes, in diplomacy especially, you work better backstage. Sometimes, it is better to not do things publicly. But we do recognize him. And you know the Indian officer who was very important in the war with Pakistan and Bangladesh’s liberation, was honored and we have a monument for him. We did an event with the Indian ambassador, the Israeli ambassador because we have diplomatic relations with India. We have embassies and consulates there. So I think when the day comes, and the light comes to this relationship and we establish diplomatic relationships and embassies, exchange ambassadors, I am sure he [Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury] will be publicly recognized in Israel as well.