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One can see it as a private problem of four Gazan students – Bashar Abu Shahla, Walid Mahna, Mohammed Matar and Bashar Abu Salim. The four were about to complete their studies at the engineering department of Bir Zeit University this year. They were supposed to begin their last semester Sunday. But the Israel Defense Forces expelled them to Gaza in November.
Like the other 30 Gazans still studying at Bir Zeit (compared to some 350 in 2000), they had no opportunity to extend their residency permits in the West Bank. During the past four years, the Israeli authorities, which are in charge of granting transit and residency permits, agreed to handle only urgent “humanitarian” issues of Palestinians who asked permission to enter or leave Gaza. The right to study was not among them. Students who returned to Gaza during vacations did not receive permits from the IDF to return to the West Bank, and missed out on their studies.
When an international protest arose after the expulsion of the four students, the IDF suggested they sign a promise to return to Gaza upon completion of their studies. But in the interim, the IDF legal consultant liaison, who originally raised the suggestion, returned to civilian life. Perhaps in the final analysis, personal solutions will be found for these students. But the problem is not a personal one.
The problem is that without interference and without protest, Israel acted during the “Oslo years” in clear defiance of one of the only articles in the Oslo Accords that could be considered positive and promising for the Palestinian side: the article that determines that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are a single territorial entity. Long before Sharon launched the disengagement plan, the Likud government under Yitzhak Shamir followed by the Labor-Meretz government under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres laid the foundations for severing the Palestinian Gaza Strip from the Palestinian West Bank. This was done through a closure policy that began in 1991 and a draconian limitation of the right of the Palestinians to move between the two parts of the “single territorial entity.”
A particularly annoying expression of the severance policy was the freedom Israel assumed for itself to approve or prevent a “change of address” from Gaza to the West Bank in Palestinian ID cards.
It’s true that the interim agreement left final control over the Palestinian population registry and the decision as to who would become a citizen in Israel’s hands: Only in exceptional cases did Israel allow refugees from 1948 and 1967 to settle in the Palestinian Authority areas and to receive Palestinian citizenship and a Palestinian ID card. But according to the interim agreement, Palestinians were allowed to change their address from one district to another, and the PA was only supposed to report to Israel, the supreme sovereign, of the address change, for example, from Nablus to Ramallah.
But it soon became clear that Israel did not allow an automatic change of address from Gaza to the West Bank, and, in effect, prevented on the basis of unclear criteria an unknown number of Gazans – even those who had lived in the West Bank for many years – from changing their address. To seal any crack during the “Oslo years,” Israel forbade Gazans who had left the Gaza Strip via the Rafah crossing to return via the Allenby Bridge for fear they would settle in the West Bank. Today’s almost-hermetic closure of the West Bank to Gaza residents is only a qualitative, rather than qualitative, change based on a policy that began long ago.
The four students, who were asked to sign a promise that they will return to Gaza at the end of their studies, have, in effect, given up in advance their right to choose their place of residence within the PA, to look for work in the West Bank, to start a family there. For them this is a personal decision. But for Bir Zeit University, as a national institution, it is a matter of principle, and it’s no wonder that the university as an institution cannot agree to cooperate with the Israeli blow to basic human rights. It could be interpreted as giving a hand to Israel’s plan to bring about a final separation between the Gazans and their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank.