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Around 150 Palestinian students applied for an academic scholarship from Germany last year. Only six applicants made the cut, among them Luay Kfafi, 24, a student at Birzeit University in the West Bank and native of the al-Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. But Israel’s Shin Bet security service has barred him from traveling abroad.
Asked by Haaretz about Kfafi’s case, the Shin Bet said that “there is information allegedly linking him to terrorists,” and therefore “under the circumstances, his going abroad would appear to endanger national security.”
In the seven years he has lived in Ramallah, Kfafi has not been arrested, detained or summoned for questioning by the Shin Bet. Last June he even traveled to the Allenby Bridge, where the Shin Bet routinely arrests or detains anyone suspected of posing a risk to national security.
Kfafi was held up for hours, and told that a Gazan doesn’t have a chance of crossing and had better go to Gaza’s Rafah crossing. But he was not arrested, questioned or interrogated.
Kfafi enrolled in September 2000 to study mechanical engineering at Birzeit, before he turned 18, and has proved an excellent student. While studying for his master’s degree over the past two years, he also worked as a research assistant in the department and even taught several introductory classes.
Dr. Helga Baumgarten, a teacher at Birzeit and director of the German Academic Exchange Service information center, East Jerusalem, is impressed by Kfafi’s ability to excel at his studies under the toughest conditions. Not only is he one of many children in a refugee family that cannot afford to help him financially, but as a Gazan in the West Bank, he has been separated from his kin for seven years, on his own in a society that is based on family support.
He reached the West Bank through the safe passage, use of which was suspended when the intifada broke out in late September 2000. The Israeli authorities soon made it clear that any Gazans living in the West Bank were “illegal residents,” even if they had lived, worked and started families there. Hundreds were deported to Gaza, while the rest – like Kfafi – were careful not to move about more than necessary. For years Kfafi’s life was confined to the radius between his rented room in the town of Birzeit and the university.
Last May, Kfafi filed an initial request to leave through the Allenby Bridge. His request was rejected, with no explanation. The German embassy intervened, applying to the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories to permit Kfafi to leave. The embassy was told that Kfafi is an illegal resident in the West Bank and must leave through Rafah. But going to Gaza would have placed him in even more Kafkaesque situations, says attorney Noam Sela of Gisha – Center for the Legal Protection of Freedom of Movement.
Kfafi cannot travel through Israel without a permit. He cannot apply for that permit in the West Bank because he is considered an illegal resident. Even were he to wrangle a permit somehow, the Rafah terminal is closed for long periods and opens only for a few hours at a time. He might have been stranded in Gaza for months.
After Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in June shut down Rafah completely, the Germans intervened again. This time Kfafi was granted permission to leave, but it was retracted days later: The Shin Bet said Kfafi was barred for security reasons. As usual in these matters, Kfafi has no chance to disprove the allegations, so Gisha has taken up his case and plans to pursue it in court.