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‘If you steal education from the youth, I don’t know what future there is’, Zohair Abu Shaban dreams of fulfilling his potential as a professor, but to achieve his goal he must first escape his homeland.
Born into a place of poverty and conflict, Zohair Abu Shaban, 24, has one clear ambition that would raise him above the hardship around him: he wants to be a professor of electrical engineering.
|A pupil takes notes at the al-Majida Waseela School in Gaza. Talented students, even those with scholarships from universities abroad, find it almost impossible to get permission to leave. Photograph: Martin Godwin|
For most young men born and raised in Gaza City, in the heart of the apparently intractable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, this might seen an impossible dream. No university in Gaza offers any degree above undergraduate level and only the strip’s top university, the Islamic University, runs an electrical engineering course.
Abu Shaban, a well-mannered and diligent young man, took the course and graduated top in his year. He won awards for his work, which included a project to allow heart patients to be monitored at home through an internet link to their local hospital.
He applied to continue his studies abroad and won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to study for a masters at the University of Connecticut, in the United States. But to take up his place he had first to get out of Gaza, and that long and difficult challenge has all but undone his dream.
Last year, Israel declared Gaza a “hostile entity” after Hamas, the Islamist movement that won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, seized full control of the strip. Israel closed the crossings out of Gaza and students such as Abu Shaban were unable to leave. In May, the US state department told the seven Fulbright scholars from Gaza that their scholarships had been cancelled, before an embarrassed Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, intervened.
In the end, three of the seven reached the US and began studying. A fourth had his US visa revoked on arrival in Washington, apparently because Israel had passed on unspecified security warnings, and two others, including Abu Shaban, remained in Gaza with their US visas cancelled, again for unspecified reasons.
Abu Shaban has no political affiliations, no criminal record. Frustrated but not deterred, he won a place to begin a masters degree at Imperial College in London and has been told to arrive for his course by next Saturday. He won another full scholarship, this time from the Hani Qaddumi Foundation, a Palestinian group that supports bright young students, and he obtained a British visa.
However, Israel still refuses to allow him to cross out of Gaza through Erez, the only crossing for people into Israel. Rafah, which is on the Egyptian border and is the only other non-commercial crossing out of Gaza, is closed.
“Students are the future of this country and if you don’t give them the chance to learn, this country will have no future,” he said. “Peace only comes from education and if you steal education from the youth, I don’t know what future there is.”
Rafah has been closed since June last year because of Egyptian concerns over Hamas and pressure from others, including both Israel and the Palestinian government in the West Bank, the rival to Hamas. Hamas has called for Rafah to be reopened and has said it will allow European border monitors to return, but insists Israel should not have a veto over the crossing’s opening, as it did in the past under a US-negotiated agreement.
Since last year, Rafah has opened only occasionally and briefly, because the Egyptians are anxious to avoid a repeat of scenes earlier this year when Hamas effectively brought down the border fence and tens of thousands of Gazans streamed across into northern Egypt.
Last weekend, during one of those brief openings, Abu Shaban and many others like him rushed to the crossing. He spent 26 hours on a bus with other students before being turned away. “My bag is still packed and I have hope it might open again,” he said. There is no guarantee Rafah will open again, or that he and the other students will make it out if it does.
He said his parents were “heartbroken” at what had happened and his younger brother, in his third year of a university civil engineering course in Gaza, had given up on his own ambitions to study abroad.
After the Fulbright case in May, Israel allowed around 70 students to leave through Erez. Another 100 crossed out of Rafah in August, during one of its brief openings, and about 60 Gazans – students and their families – got out last weekend through Rafah.
Yigal Palmor, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, said the restrictions on movement would remain as long as Gaza was ruled by Hamas. “It is not really about the individual potential of each and every person, the question here is what do you do when there is a territorial entity ruled by a terrorist group that defies you violently by principle and refuses to maintain normal relations with you,” he said.
Some political analysts say that rather than weakening Hamas, Israel’s restrictions have strengthened the group. Hamas has broadened its control over many areas of life in Gaza and its leaders are able to leave and re-enter through the Rafah crossing. They appear to obtain funding from abroad, including from Iran, with little difficulty. A ceasefire between Hamas and Israel that began in June this year has held, apart from occasional violations, but it has brought little respite to the tough economic blockade on Gaza.
Hundreds more students remain stuck in Gaza, said Sari Bashi, the head of the Israeli rights group Gisha, which campaigns on behalf of the students. Each year, more than 1,000 Gazan students are enrolled in universities abroad and try to leave Gaza to study.
“By letting out a few people, Israel has been able to deflect attention from the hundreds of students and 1.5m people still trapped in Gaza,” Bashi said. “Punishing innocent civilians for the behaviour of militants or political leaders violates international prohibitions against collective punishment.”