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The High Court of Justice recently upheld a government policy prohibiting a group of five Gazan women’s rights activists from majoring in gender studies at Bir Zeit University north of Ramallah.
The women had been offered the opportunity to go to university through a US-sponsored scholarship program.
The ruling was noteworthy since in two previous hearings the court had issued two interim orders seemingly demanding that the state allow the women to use their scholarships and study for their degree.
The court had previously noted both that the state offered no specific security objection to any of the women themselves (although there were concerns regarding certain students’ family members) and that they were mostly in their late 30s, older than the profiled “security risk” age group security agencies worry about the most.
The court and the petitioners had also noted that the state had recently departed from its policy in the past allowing Gazan students to study at West Bank Universities.
As recent as summer of 2010, the government permitted a group of Gazans to accept their US scholarships and study in the West Bank.
Besides that specific approval under similar circumstances, according to the Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, Israel approves travel from Gaza to the West Bank for about 4,000 people a month, despite a general ban on travel.
The court’s final ruling did not endorse the state policy, but by declining to intervene, the court effectively left the Gazan women no way to overcome the policy – and study at the gender studies program.
There is no gender studies program in Gaza, where Hamas is in control and is not particularly sensitive to women’s rights.
Israel controls any possible manner of travel between Gaza and the West Bank so even if the Fatah and Hamas authorities approve travel between the areas, it can ultimately veto any travel.
At the hearings before the court and in legal briefs submitted to prevent the Gazan women from traveling to the West Bank to study there, the state argued that it has both security and political reasons for banning the students from traveling.
From a security perspective, even if the particular students have not been involved in terror, the state regards West Bank universities as potentially problematic, claiming that some students are radicalized into involvement with terror during their studies.
Politically, the state says that its ban on travel is designed to weaken Hamas, which regularly fires rockets at Israeli civilians, fought a war with Israel from December 2008 to January 2009, promotes other terrorist attacks and is publicly committed to Israel’s destruction.
The state claimed that the 5,000 Gazans allowed to visit the West Bank are almost all medical and humanitarian cases and that each individual is at the state’s discretion.
The state explained that its “exception” to the ban on travel other than for humanitarian purposes – when it allowed students to accept US scholarships to study in the West Bank in 2010 – was done for undefined foreign policy reasons, also at the state’s discretion.
Following the court’s final ruling, the Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement said that the US had pulled the funding for the scholarships, presumably because Israel’s policy made it impossible for the scholarship money to actually be used by Gazan students.
However, a representative of the US Consulate said “there have been no canceled scholarships.”
The implication was that while there had been a program for the Gazan students to apply to, no scholarships were actually granted for the current year – as opposed to some past years – and so no scholarships could have been canceled.
Asked if the US had applied any pressure on Israel to remove its ban to allow the Gazan women to attend the gender studies program in the West Bank, the US Consulate representative referred all inquiries to the Israeli authorities.