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TEL AVIV // Ghadir Abu Rokba has become one of the latest victims of Israel’s years-long bid to separate the Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
The 18-year-old from Gaza’s Jabalya refugee camp last spring applied for a US-sponsored scholarship to study mathematics at Birzeit University in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The two-year-old scholarship programme for academically talented but financially strapped Palestinians has become the sole opportunity for Gaza youth to enrol in West Bank universities, which are viewed to have more highly-qualified teachers and better facilities than those in Gaza, and offer more study programmes.
Palestinians from Gaza have not been allowed to study in the West Bank since 2000, except for three students who won the US scholarship programme when it began in 2010.
So when scholarship officials who interviewed Ms Abu Rokba indicated she had been accepted, she bought new clothes and told her family and friends about her departure from Gaza.
In August, however, programme officials quietly shelved applications from Gazans and granted all 36 scholarships only to West Bank candidates after Israel refused to allow any applicant from Gaza to cross its territory and enter the West Bank.
Ms Abu Rokba only found out about the programme’s cancellation when she called the US scholarship officials, wondering why she did not hear from them for several months.
She said the news was a crushing disappointment. “I was pretty sure I got in, so it was shocking,” she said.
“We have a right to go to the other part of our country. Students like us have nothing to do with politics.”
Ms Abu Rokba, who aspired to becoming a mathematics teacher in Gaza with her degree, is now studying English literature at Gaza’s Al Aqsa University.
The cancellation of the US programme for Gazans effectively limits them to study in Gaza or to pursue studies in other countries, to which they would be able to travel through Gaza’s Rafah crossing that borders Egypt and is run by Cairo. Israel’s refusal to allow Gaza students to study in the West Bank has been blasted by rights groups as violating their rights for access to higher education at all Palestinian institutions and their freedom of movement.
Nevertheless, Israel’s supreme court last month upheld the blanket ban that has been in place since the second Palestinian Intifada broke out in 2000. The court ruling came following a petition by the Israeli rights group Gisha and the Gaza organisation Al Mezan arguing that Gaza and the West Bank are a single territorial entity in which people keep familial, economic and educational ties. They demanded that Israel subject Gazans wanting to go to the West Bank to individual security checks rather than employ a general ban.
Israel controls all the border crossings into the West Bank, territory it has occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It also controls all the border crossings of Gaza except for Rafah and allows almost no one to leave. The only exceptions include owners of large businesses and patients seeking medical care.
Israel has bolstered restrictions on Gazans since 2007, when the Islamic group Hamas, which it views as an enemy, violently took over the strip from the secular Fatah movement that holds sway in the West Bank.
Since then, it has implemented a so-called separation policy between Gaza and the West Bank to pressure Hamas to stop firing rockets on Israeli territory. Activists have blasted the separation as collective punishment that especially hurts families, smaller businesses and students.
Still, Israel has insisted that students are a “high-risk” group and that West Bank universities are “terrorist hotbeds” that could be used for the recruitment of students. US officials said last week that it was Israel’s refusal to grant travel permits to Gaza students that prompted them to grant West Bank students all the scholarships. The scholarships were sponsored by the non-profit US group Amideast and paid for full tuition, books and travel.
The cancellation has spurred resentment and fury among some of the programme’s applicants in Gaza.
Mohammed Al Naqlah, an 18-year-old who had planned to study English literature in the West Bank, had been counting on the scholarship.
“It made me feel sad. My family doesn’t have money to pay for my studies. Also, the universities here are not so good and in the West Bank they are very good,” he said.
Basel Bashir, an 18-year-old from the Gaza town of Deir El Balah who had visited the West Bank only once for a few hours en route to a summer camp in Egypt in 2007, had planned to study law at Birzeit University.
“It was a chance to go to the West Bank and get to know different ways of living and of teaching and to meet new people,” he said.
He added that he had little hope the scholarships would be offered again for Gazans.
“I love Gaza and I had been planning to return. But the schools are not as good in Gaza and if I study here I will not help Gaza. It makes you more than angry,” he said.