GAZA CITY - The letter of acceptance that 28-year-old Hazem Hussain got for a business graduate programme in a Californian university once brought joy. Now he does not know what to do with it.
He has admission, and a visa to the U.S., but the Israelis will not let him leave.
"I have tried to get out through every means possible for a year now," he says. "But I am not able to go." The semester started some weeks ago.
Twenty-two-year old Saed Badawi got admission to a German university, but he too is stuck. "I am devastated by this -- getting my visa renewed will take a long time, with all the new procedures and requirements."
Eighteen-year-old Juliet Al-Tork, accepted in Jordan's Al-Yarmouk University for a translations course, is among the hundreds not being allowed by Israel to leave. "All young people are given the chance to study, and I am not."
"Israel is preventing the very people it should be encouraging," says Sari Bashi, executive director of the Gisha Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement, a human rights Israeli group lobbying on behalf of Palestinian students against the closure policy. "Israel is not just denying Palestinian rights, it is also hurting its own interests." Bashi says that close to a thousand students attempt to leave Gaza each year to pursue higher education; universities in Gaza offer only undergraduate degrees. This year about a third of them were allowed out.
"By letting out a few people, Israel has been able to deflect attention from the hundreds of students and 1.5 million people still trapped in Gaza," Bashi says. "Punishing innocent civilians for the behaviour of political leaders violates international prohibitions, and qualifies as collective punishment."
Egypt's complicity has been especially troubling for the students. Egypt could well let these students through its Rafah border crossing. It does let in students from Gaza to its own universities. And, students say, if Hamas leaders can go into Egypt, why not they.
Israeli security has on occasion pursued students even after they have left. A Fulbright scholar had his visa revoked upon arrival in Washington DC after Israel tagged him with an unspecified security warning.
The official Israeli explanation is summed up in a Jul. 7, 2008 letter from then Knesset member and Israeli minister for foreign affairs, Tsippi Livni: "The policy of not permitting exit abroad for students from Gaza is part of the Security Cabinet decision from 19.09.07 which defined Gaza as a hostile entity and placed restrictions on the borders for passage of goods and movement of people from the Strip and to it except for humanitarian cases."
Israel declared Gaza a "hostile entity" after failing to overthrow the elected government in an attempted coup with the help of U.S.-trained Fatah fighters during the summer of 2007.
There is now a Stranded Students Committee. Its representative Murad Bahloul says members are planning to erect a tent close to the Rafah border in protest. "All students have agreed to go on hunger strike until we are let out and allowed to attend our universities," he says.
Bahloul was accepted by a British university last year but was never allowed by the Israelis to leave. This year a Malaysian university granted him a place to study construction management, and he fears this opportunity will be missed too.
With every passing day, futures fade. "I feel so disappointed, Hazem Hussein says. "I can't continue my education. I can't cross, and this keeps me away from the free world." If he cannot leave soon, he loses another year - at least.