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Trapped in Gaza

Israel's policy of not allowing Palestinians with scholarships to study abroad is ill-advised.

June 03, 2008

The Fulbright scholarships that were stripped from seven students living in Gaza because Israel's blockade prevented them from leaving to take part in the prestigious program have now been reinstated. But the United States and Israel should still be red-faced. At a time when both countries place enormous emphasis on cultivating and nurturing Palestinian moderates, denying young people access to Western education is unbelievably shortsighted.

Shame and outcry came to the aid of the Fulbright scholars -- it's not clear that the U.S. State Department, which administers the program, ever discussed the travel hitch with Israel before withdrawing the scholarships or exerted what should be its considerable influence in the matter. But it would be disingenuous for Israel to feign ignorance; the government has kept hundreds of other students with scholarships to study abroad trapped in Gaza.

Since Hamas outmuscled the more secular Fatah party to take power over Gaza in 2006, Israel has confined 1.5 million Palestinians, including the 51% who did not vote for the Sunni militant organization, to the narrow strip of land on the shores of the Mediterranean. The blockade is intended to foster enough dissatisfaction to weaken Hamas from within and also to put an end to the group's suicide bombings and routine missile attacks on Israeli towns -- both of which are laudable goals. An unintended byproduct, however, is that the teeming slums and refugee camps are providing Hamas with disillusioned young Palestinians vulnerable to radical ideology. And Israel's policy of denying some of the brightest, most motivated Palestinian students the chance to study abroad is calculated to further alienate them.

According to Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization that works on behalf of Palestinians, Israel gave exit permits to fewer than half of the 1,000 Gazan students who applied to leave during the 2007-2008 academic year, and it stopped all permission in January. Israel's Supreme Court is scheduled this week to hear appeals by three scholarship students challenging the government's policy, and we hope the court shows better judgment than it has in the past. Last year, Khaled al-Mudallal, who had lived in Britain for six years and was working toward his bachelor's degree at the Bradford School of Management there, went home to visit family in Gaza and pick up his fiancee. When he tried to return to Britain, Israel refused to let him leave, and the Supreme Court rejected his appeal.

Thankfully, Israelis are leading the effort to change this impolitic and inhumane policy, reminding their government that oppression of the many for the deeds of a few is indefensible. "This could be interpreted as collective punishment," said Rabbi Michael Melchior, chairman of the parliament's education committee. "This policy is not in keeping with international standards or with the moral standards of Jews, who have been subjected to the deprivation of higher education in the past. Even in war, there were rules." We couldn't have said it better.

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