JERUSALEM - More than 400 would-be university students remain trapped in the Gaza Strip, unable to leave for studies abroad - including one accepted at Ryerson University - and now the Israel Broadcasting Authority is refusing to accept paid advertisements calling attention to their plight.
"There's a clause in the broadcasting authority's rules that allows them to refuse a paid ad if the issue is `politically or ideologically controversial,'" said Sari Bashi, executive director of Gisha, an Israeli organization advocating freedom of movement for Palestinians.
"But it's not a controversial statement to say that everybody, including Gazans, deserves an education."
Gisha (which means "access" or "approach" in Hebrew) has appealed the IBA's decision, and yesterday a committee listened to the group's complaints but did not make a ruling either to uphold or reverse its refusal to accept the ads.
Bashi said a ruling might be announced as early as Sunday. She did not seem optimistic it would go in favour of the Gazan students.
Several of the stranded students intend to enrol in Canadian universities, Bashi said, including at least one who is hoping to study at Ryerson.
Bashi believes Israel's refusal to allow the students to leave is part of a strategy aimed at punishing all Gazans for the acts of a few.
Since the radical Islamist group Hamas took power in Gaza more than a year ago, Israel has sought to isolate the territory and its 1.5 million people, limiting fuel, food, and other supplies while sharply restricting the movement of people in or out of the narrow coastal strip.
Israel's critics decry the policy as a form of "collective punishment" that fails to distinguish armed Palestinian militants from the vast majority of Gaza's residents who are innocent of any wrongdoing.
"There is no allegation that these students have done anything wrong," said Bashi.
This past May, Israel suffered international embarrassment when the U.S. State Department withdrew Fulbright scholarships it had previously granted to seven Gazan students, explaining Israel would not allow them to leave.
The scholarships were later reinstated, and Israel subsequently granted exit visas to a small number of Gazan students bent on study abroad. Previously, there had been what Bashi calls a "blanket ban" on such permits, but the government not long ago clarified its position, saying it would grant exit visas for international study only to Gazans who can show they have been granted a "recognized scholarship."
According to Bashi, this still leaves more than 400 Gaza students in an untenable situation, including Riham Al-Nahhal, the student who hoped to attend Ryerson.
"Israel is preventing the very people it should be encouraging," she said. "Israel is not only denying Palestinian rights. It is also hurting its own interests."
To heighten awareness of the issue among Israelis, Gisha recently prepared a series of three radio spots, in which famous Israelis call on the government to reverse itself and allow the students to leave.
But the IBA - a government body that operates several TV channels as well as seven radio stations - refused to accept the ads, citing a provision in its charter that prohibits the airing of controversial material.
A spokesperson for the broadcasting authority declined yesterday to comment on the dispute.
Meanwhile, Mark Regev, spokesperson for the Israeli prime minister's office, defended the government's denial of exit visas to most of Gaza's prospective international students.
"Students in Gaza who have achieved a position at a university in Western countries - we support that, and we will facilitate their studies," he said. "That is in our interest. We want to see more Palestinians study in Canada, the U.S. and Europe."
But he rejected the position taken by many of Israel's critics who say this country should give a green light to all those in Gaza who have the resources and the desire to study at universities abroad.
"We say no," he said. "That's simply not realistic."
Regev said many such students might end up attending madrassas in Pakistan - where they could become steeped in extremist Islamist thought - or studying chemistry in Iran, acquiring knowledge that could prove useful, for example, in the fabrication of explosives.
"You could have hundreds of Palestinians studying in Tehran tomorrow," he said.
But Bashi insists Israel's policy is dashing the hopes of Gazan youths who pose no security threat.
She gave the example of Azhar Al-Boraey, who wants to earn a master's degree in architectural preservation studies and has been accepted this academic year at a university in Germany. She lost her place at a Chinese institution last year because she was not permitted to leave. Now, Israel is again refusing to let Al-Boraey go, a decision Gisha is appealing to Israel's High Court of Justice.
"There is no allegation she's a security risk," said Bashi. "She's an example of the ridiculousness of this policy."