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“In the summer of 2007, during the vacation between finishing my Masters and starting my doctorate at the University of Illinois, I went to visit my family in the Gaza Strip after not seeing them for two and a half years. I found myself stuck here. I missed the first and second semesters…All my plans for my future and the efforts that I have invested in my studies in recent years-everything fell apart at the moment I entered Gaza. The closure is suffocating our spirit, our dreams, our lives and our future. It is causing a sense of hopelessness among the people of Gaza Â– especially the children and young people.” (Mona Bkheet, 28, Nuseirat refugee camp)
When Noga and Itamar of Gisha-Legal Center for Freedom of Movement asked me to record a service advertisement protesting the confinement of the students in Gaza, I immediately consented. Usually I do not hurry to contribute my voice to anyone for free, but there are injustices to which one cannot remain silent. As of now, both Yossi Sarid and Alona Kimhi have agreed in principle to participate in the service advertisement, which is neither inflammatory nor political: “The right to education is a fundamental right. No country in the world may deny this right; Israel also may not deny this right. However, the State of Israel is preventing hundreds of Palestinians from leaving Gaza for studies abroad. In so doing, the government is preventing these young people from becoming all they can and have the right to be. We all need to learn; Gaza students included.”
IBA Director General Motti Shklar has not permitted us to broadcast this text, since “the subject matter of the campaign is politically and ideologically controversial and because the data provided in the commercial are not unequivocal.” In this column, I will try to explain to his highness the director general why this is an issue that is neither ideological nor political, but rather human. And even if a law was passed in the Knesset by a large majority banning such ads, it should be changed, to preserve the vestiges of humanity that still remain in our relations with our neighbors in the Gaza Strip. It will also not hurt our relations with the free world, incidentally, where all human rights organizations are fighting for freedom of movement for the Palestinians or other persecuted peoples.
After 41 years of collective punishment, 1.5 million civilians in the Gaza Strip are not permitted to leave for medical treatments, family unification, and higher education studies abroad. It is not enough that we control their territorial waters, their airspace, their land crossings and a considerable portion of their power supply-after having darkened the region, we are also darkening the young minds, by pinpointed targeting of the education to which they aspire.
These are young people who thirst for education, who live on a different planet-the planet of poverty, humiliation and total detachment from the world beyond the refugee camps and the occupation policy. In Gaza, there are no doctoral tracks of studies, and gifted students who have been accepted into universities abroad are grounded for no reason in this conflicted land. After all, if our education system is in a dreadful state, why should we give them proper education? And if we have a brain drain, let’s make sure to darken the minds of the young people in the Gaza Strip.
This is the second academic year that Wael al-Daya, a resident of Gaza City, has tried to reach his doctoral studies in business administration, after being accepted into the University of Bradford in Britain. “My research deals with ways to properly manage the donation funds reaching the Palestinian Authority from the countries of the world-funds that the Gaza Strip is completely dependent on,” says Wael, “I don’t understand why Israel insists on obstructing every effort to improve the situation in Gaza.”
The world views us as an occupying, cruel and obtuse country, which by the strength of its advanced army prevents young people from broadening their education. A senior source in the British Education Ministry says what we should have understood on our own long ago: “We believe that quality higher education for the residents of Gaza is in Israel’s interest, since the Israelis and the Palestinians will eventually need to learn to live side by side…We were very angry when we learned that a young Gaza resident to whom we had awarded a scholarship for graduate studies was unable to leave…We deplore all attempts to silence the talented young residents of Gaza and oppose the policies preventing them from exercising their basic right to pursue higher education and make use of it to help develop their society and communities.”
Zainab Zomlot, 30, lives near Gaza City. She was accepted into a doctoral program in water supply engineering at the Free University in Brussels, but was told repeatedly that it was impossible for her to leave her neighborhood. “My studies were supposed to begin in August 2008,” she relates, “I also contacted the Belgian Consulate in East Jerusalem, but they couldn’t help me. The university that accepted me in Brussels approached the delegation of the European Union, but nothing has come of that so far.”
In the last academic year, after an arduous bureaucratic ordeal, Israel permitted less than half of the registrants and scholarship recipients to leave for studies abroad. Most of them missed the first semester of their studies, and now do not know what to do. According to a Defense Ministry source, the Israeli government does not intend to permit students who are Gaza Strip residents to leave in order to pursue their education overseas: “This is our policy-having Palestinians leave for studies abroad is far beyond the humanitarian standard that the State of Israel is obligated to uphold.”
Indeed, there is a limit to humanism. After all, it is known that in the context of the Palestinians and the battered residents of the Gaza Strip, “humanity” is the State of Israel’s middle name.
Just don’t be surprised if these young people, who have nowhere to escape in order to educate themselves and their people, will go insane with frustration, rage and humiliation. One day they may join the radical Islamic movements, put on bomb belts and fire Kassam rockets at us-just to take revenge and kill us indiscriminately, which is usually what humiliated people with darkened minds do when they take leave of their senses.
And we will continue our foolish policy-instead of sending them to study and develop themselves, we will imprison hundreds and thousands of them. And perhaps, who knows, in 20 years, we will have enough uneducated detainees that we will be able to return-dead or alive-and get back Gilad Shalit.