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Israel stymies Gaza students

The U.S. reconsiders withdrawing Fulbright grants and asks the Jewish state to let the scholars study abroad.

May 31, 2008|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Confined by Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, two Palestinian sisters who dreamed of postgraduate studies abroad got their chance in January when Gaza militants destroyed part of a wall along the Egyptian border.

Yasmin Abukwaik, 22, joined the thousands who fled Gaza before the breach was sealed and now studies X-ray technology in the United Arab Emirates. Her sister Hadeel, a 23-year-old software engineering instructor, took a risk and stayed so she could qualify for one of the few Fulbright grants for Gaza residents to study this fall in the United States.

The young women's divergent paths illustrate the increasingly slim odds for Gazans seeking Israeli clearance to study abroad. Few succeed. The rest, including hundreds who have earned scholarships in the West, are frustrated by Israel's policy of isolating the coastal enclave, which is run by the militant group Hamas.

On Thursday the elder Abukwaik sister was told that her gamble had not paid off. The U.S. State Department notified her and six other Palestinians that it was withdrawing their Fulbright grants because Israel had not given them permission to leave Gaza.

But the news took Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by surprise, and Friday the State Department said it was reviewing the decision and urging Israel to allow the seven students to travel to the United States. The Fulbright is the U.S. government's leading program in international educational exchange.

"I have sacrificed a lot for my dream," Hadeel Abukwaik said in a telephone interview from Gaza City. "I am troubled, angry, confused. If this decision is not changed, what will I do? Wait in Gaza another year with no guarantee of getting out?"

Since Hamas seized control of Gaza from the more secular Fatah party last June, Israel has all but closed its Gaza border crossings in an attempt to weaken the group and end frequent rocket barrages aimed at Israeli towns. Egypt, Gaza's other neighbor, has cooperated with Israel to keep 1.5 million Palestinians enclosed in the tiny, impoverished strip.

Of the more than 1,000 Gazans who applied, Israel allowed 480 to leave for study abroad during the 2007-08 academic year, according to Gisha, an Israeli organization that advocates freer movement of Palestinians. Israel stopped granting such permissions altogether in January.

At a hearing this week by the parliament's Education Committee, Defense Ministry lawyer Sagi Krispin explained that the Cabinet had declared Gaza "hostile territory" and decided that movement out of Gaza for humanitarian concerns would be limited to people seeking emergency medical treatment. Higher education, he said, is not a humanitarian concern.

That policy is under attack on two fronts in Israel.

Several lawmakers at Wednesday's hearing berated the government for denying bright young Palestinians the opportunity to acquire skills needed to modernize their society, saying such a policy will not contribute to peace.

"This could be interpreted as collective punishment," said Rabbi Michael Melchior, chairman of the 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 are rules."

The committee asked the government and the military to reconsider the policy and report back within two weeks.

Meanwhile, Israel's Supreme Court next week is to hear appeals by three Gaza scholarship students challenging the government's assertion that it has no legal obligation to allow them to travel abroad.

One of the plaintiffs, Wissam abu Ajwa, has been denied an exit visa five times. He said he and many other Gaza scholarship candidates wanted to return home after completing their studies and build a democratic Palestinian state.

"We are a valuable asset," said the 31-year-old chemistry graduate, who has been accepted to study environmental sciences at Nottingham University in England. Israeli and Western officials often emphasize the need for a modern economy in the Palestinian territories, he said, "but who will contribute to it? Are you just going to borrow expertise from Europe? It won't work."

An Israeli official said the government was reluctant to adopt a blanket policy allowing Palestinians to leave Gaza to study for fear that Hamas would use the opening to send loyalists to the West Bank and create university-based cells to undermine the more moderate Fatah administration there.

But the official said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had been receptive to special appeals by governments on behalf of Gazans seeking to study in the U.S. and Europe. The official said American diplomats had made no such appeal on behalf of the Fulbright scholars as of Friday afternoon.

That changed after Rice learned of the State Department's decision to "redirect" all seven scholarships set aside for the Gazans to Palestinian students elsewhere. Speaking to reporters in Iceland, she said she would look into the situation. By evening, U.S. diplomats were making calls to Israeli officials, a department official said.

Fulbright scholar Abdulrahman Abdullah, 29, said he viewed the late-hour U.S. lobbying as a small test of American influence over the Jewish state.

"The United States government is saying it will push Israel to allow us to create a Palestinian state by the end of this year," he said, referring to the goal of peace negotiations begun in November. "Am I to believe this if the Americans cannot even get Israel to grant me a permit to leave Gaza?"

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Ashraf Khalil in Jerusalem and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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