WASHINGTON - While seven Palestinian Fulbright scholars now appear more likely to get their chance to study in the United States, hundreds of other university students who have received invitations to study abroad remain trapped at home by Israeli security restrictions, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and two national academic associations.
In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has played a key role in gaining Israel's apparent willingness to reconsider its denial of exit visas for the seven Fulbright recipients, the groups said Israel had allowed fewer than half of some 1,100 Gaza students invited to study abroad to leave the country last year and that no exit permits had been issued at all since mid-January.
"We urge you to take this opportunity to call on Israel to allow all students in Gaza, except where there are legitimate security concerns specific to particular individuals, to exercise their right to freedom of movement and access to education," said the letter, which was signed by the heads of HRW's Middle East and North Africa section, the Middle East Studies Association of North America, and the American Anthropological Association.
"At a minimum, the United States should clearly and publicly disassociate itself from Israel's policy of collective punishment as it affects students seeking to study abroad," the letter added.
The letter, which was sent to Rice Monday, was released Wednesday during the visit here this week of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for the annual policy conference of the powerful lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Olmert, who met with President George W. Bush and other senior administration officials at the White House Wednesday, has not yet spoken publicly about Fulbright scholars, although four of the seven reportedly were permitted to travel to Jerusalem Wednesday for their visa interviews with the U.S. consular officials there.
The plight of the seven scholars first came to light when they were informed by the State Department by letter late last week that their scholarships had been withdrawn because of Israel had denied them permission to leave Gaza. They were told their scholarships had been "redirect(ed)" to students on the West Bank and that they should apply against next year, according to the New York Times, which broke the story.
The denial of the visas appeared directly related to the punitive policies directed by both Israel and the U.S. against Gaza since Hamas effectively took it over after several days of fighting with rival Fatah units in June 2007, compared to the West Bank where Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas remain in control.
After the takeover by Hamas, which swept Palestinian elections in January 2006, Israel enforced a strict blockade on Gaza, permitting the passage only of humanitarian personnel and supplies. The Olmert government has argued that closure has been justified by the continuing rocket and other attacks that have been carried out by Gaza-based militants against nearby Israeli targets, including and especially the town of Sderot.
Human rights and peace groups -- both here and in Israel -- have strongly condemned the blockade, however, as a violation of international laws forbidding "collective punishment" of the civilian population, a point that was stressed in the letter to Rice.
"What is clear is that the policy has had a grave impact on the access of Gaza's civilian population to essential goods and services, including education, and violates Israel's obligation under the Fourth Geneva Convention on occupations to protect the rights of Palestinians to, among other things, freedom of movement and to secure access to education."
After publication of the Times story, Rice, a former provost of Stanford University, told reporters she had not been made aware of her department's decision to withdraw and divert the scholarships and that she disagreed with such a policy.
"If you cannot engage young people and give them a complete horizon to their expectations and to their dreams, then I don't know that there would be any future for Palestine," she said. On Jun. 1, the State Department announced it would reinstate the grants.
While the three groups praised Rice's actions, their letter strongly criticised the original decision, arguing that it "displayed a disturbing readiness on the part of the United States to actively support Israel's policy of strict closure on the Gaza Strip... Rather than accommodate Israel's unlawful restrictions, the United States should vigorously challenge at every opportunity."
In the last several days, some key Israeli officials have also spoken up against their government's decision to deny the exit permits. One Supreme Court justice, Elyakim Rubinstein, called for reconsidering the policy, noting that it "harms chances for some kind of co-existence", while the head of the Knesset's education committee, Rabbi Michael Malchior, called the restrictions against students "unwise and immoral".
Even some right-wing Israelis, notably former Soviet dissident Anatol Sharansky who is also attending the AIPAC conference here this week, were critical of the policy. "We correctly complain that the Palestinian Authority is not building civil society," he said, "but when we don't help build civil society, this plays into the hands of Hamas."
In their letter, the three groups stressed that educational opportunities in Gaza are currently "quite limited". Among the four universities there, for example, none offer undergraduate degrees in languages other than Arabic, English, and French, and no master's degrees in law, journalism, and information technology. No doctoral degrees are offered at all, and Israel only rarely permits professors and lecturers and from outside Gaza to enter to teach there.
According to Gisha, an Israeli human rights group, between one and two thousand students in Gaza seek to study abroad each year. Established in 1946, the Fulbright programme awards 7,000 scholarships each year to students in more than 150 countries.
© 2008 Inter Press Service