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Gaza — When Israel announced in June, following its deadly interception of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, that it would ease its siege on the civilian population in the Gaza Strip, I almost let my hopes rise.
I am a Palestinian human rights lawyer living in Gaza. Earlier this year, I was accepted into the Master’s degree program in Human Rights and Democracy Studies at Birzeit University, located in the West Bank. Before the “easing” of the blockade, I tried repeatedly to persuade the Israeli authorities to allow me to leave Gaza and attend my classes, but was blocked at every turn. Would Israel’s new announcement mean that I’d finally be able to go to school this year?
This summer, backed by the Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations Gisha and Al Mezan, I petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to allow me to travel to my university. But the court accepted the Israeli military’s statement that the “easing” did nothing to change the policy in place since 2007 that only “exceptional humanitarian cases” would be granted permission to leave Gaza. Terminally ill patients, under certain circumstances — yes. Students looking for a good education — no.
Egypt initially cooperated with this policy at the Rafah border crossing it operates on Gaza’s southern border, but since June, it has allowed an increasing number of Palestinians — including students with foreign visas — to leave Gaza for travel abroad. But for students like me, who are enrolled in courses in the West Bank, this is of no help. Israel controls all access to the West Bank. Even if we were to travel via Egypt and Jordan, without crossing through Israel, Israel would still not allow us to enter the West Bank.
My program at Birzeit University is unique: no universities in Gaza, or indeed in any neighboring Arab country, offer a Master’s in human rights. Yet my inability to attend classes is far from an exception. Since 2000, Israel has imposed a blanket ban on all students from Gaza studying in the West Bank — a ban affecting those like me that even Israel acknowledges pose no security risk. In so doing, it denies thousands of students the ability to leave Gaza for programs in the West Bank that Gaza’s universities do not offer, such as dentistry, veterinary medicine, occupational therapy, medical engineering, and advanced environmental studies.
The higher education system in the West Bank and Gaza was planned as one, unified system, and the West Bank and Gaza are considered a single territorial unit by a series of international agreements, including the 1995 U.S-sponsored Oslo Interim Agreement (Oslo II) and the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, which the UN Security Council welcomed. Yet despite what would be a one-hour drive between Gaza and Ramallah, without checkpoints, I and other students from Gaza are denied our freedom of movement and our right to education — and all within our own land.
Israel, in a 2007 cabinet decision, said its travel restrictions were the result of Hamas’ taking power over the Gaza Strip, which turned Gaza into a “hostile entity.” But how do veterinary students, medical students, and human rights lawyers constitute legitimate military targets? Do Israeli government lawyers need to be reminded that collective punishment of a civilian population is a serious violation of the Geneva Conventions?
And do Israel’s political leaders need to be told the implications of prohibiting students from leaving a “hostile entity” to study, which will limit our access to information and to students and professors from other backgrounds? The denial of our right to education can only perpetuate Gaza’s isolation, making it ever-more difficult for Palestinians to develop the kind of stable, progressive society in Gaza that Israel and its allies claim to want.
Traveling to attend my studies in human rights will not threaten Israel’s security. And robbing Palestinians of our rights to education and development will not bring peace. Palestinians like me want to build an educated, human rights-conscious, civil society in the Gaza Strip. Ultimately, we want to counter the ongoing escalation in human rights violations not only by Israel, but also from within. If only Israel would let us.
Fatma al-Sharif is a human rights lawyer working in Gaza.