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WHEN THE Israeli government some weeks ago denied permission to seven Fulbright scholars to leave Gaza to take up their scholarships in US universities, the US department of state, with regret, but with immediate effect, cancelled their awards.
These two extraordinary decisions by the Israeli and US governments were met with worldwide outcries and protests, and nowhere stronger than within Israel.
Sari Bashi, the director of the Israeli organisation Gisha, whose mission is the promotion of freedom of movement of Palestinians, led the protests, saying the ban on Palestinians leaving Gaza region “…is part of a policy of closure and collective punishment that is trapping 1.5 million civilians”.
Moreover, noting that in addition to the Fulbright scholars, there are many hundreds of other Palestinian students in Gaza who have been accepted for graduate studies in US and EU universities, but have been prevented from leaving, she added: “…Gisha calls on Israel to allow all Palestinian students accepted to universities abroad, to exercise their right to leave Gaza and access education in order to obtain the tools they need to build a better future for the region”.
Following Gisha’s petition to the Israeli Supreme Court on behalf of two other students who had been accepted by universities in Germany and the UK, the Israeli justices criticised the military’s refusal to let any students leave Gaza and demanded clarifications within two weeks. The military’s reply is still awaited.
The chairman of Israel’s parliamentary committee on education, Rabbi Michael Malchion, also criticised the government’s policy saying that “…we are a nation that for years was prevented from studying. How can we do the same thing to another people – trapping hundreds of students in Gaza is both immoral and unwise”.
Even US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice joined in the protests saying: “If you cannot engage young people and allow complete horizons to their expectations…I don’t know that there would be any future for Palestine.”
The executive director of the Fulbright Association in Washington DC, Jane Anderson, also spoke out against the ban on student movement out of Gaza
“Students in Gaza who have earned scholarships to pursue their education abroad…deserve the opportunity to take their studies so that they can contribute to their society and to the world,” she said.
This deluge of protests came from almost every country worldwide, especially from those countries such as Ireland which are participants in the Fulbright programme and it appears to have had some effect. The US government reinstated the scholarships and negotiated with the Israeli government to allow the seven to have their exit visas.
The visa allocation in Israel is controlled by the military and it seems that they were initially unwilling to grant visas to the three engineering Fulbright scholars who had graduated from the Islamic University in Gaza.
Zohair Abu Shaban graduated at the top of his class in electrical engineering and following the rigorous assessment process of the Palestinian Fulbright Commission, he was awarded the scholarship to pursue graduate studies in the University of Connecticut.
However, when Abu Shaban and the other six Fulbright scholars presented themselves at the Erez crossing checkpoint on their way to a meeting in the US consulate in Jerusalem, he and his two engineering colleagues, Fidaah Abed and Osama Dawoud, were refused exit permits and sent back to Gaza.
They were given no explanation, as is the custom at Israeli checkpoints, but they suspect that their refusal was because they were graduates from the Islamic University, where the professors and student body are said to be sympathetic to Hamas. It is reported that they have subsequently been granted exit visas and are making final arrangements to travel to the USA.
Meanwhile, the situation of the many hundreds of other students who have been accepted for graduate studies in universities throughout the world is still unchanged and they are not permitted to travel out of Gaza by the Israeli military.
It is hardly necessary to stress that the international mobility of students across the universities as promoted by the Fulbright Association, the EU Erasmus and other such programmes is contributing to world peace.
It is difficult to understand why the Israeli government does not support young Palestinians to participate in these programmes so that on their return they will be the ones who will spearhead development of a peaceful and prosperous Palestine.
What right indeed has the Israeli government to stop them? The imprisonment of those hundreds of Palestinian scholars in Gaza can have only one outcome, a disastrous one that will not serve the interests of either community.
Prof John Kelly is a former executive director of the Irish Fulbright Commission and is chairman of the Friends of Bethlehem University in Ireland