Friday, July 11, 2008

... and the saga in Gaza continues ...

Gaza Fulbright scholars denied access to Israel meet US visa officials at Gaza border
Jordan Times 11 July 2008


EREZ CROSSING, Gaza Strip (AP) - US visa officials drove to the Gaza border Thursday to meet with three Fulbright scholars from Gaza - going to unusual lengths to work around an Israeli travel ban that jeopardized their prestigious US government scholarships.

Israel had denied entry to the three Palestinian university students, thus preventing them from travelling to the US consulate in Jerusalem to apply for their visas.

Instead, US officials, carrying fingerprinting equipment for the visa applications, drove to the Erez Crossing on the Israel-Gaza border Thursday and met with the Gaza students.

Students cannot apply for US visas in Gaza because Washington does not recognise the territory’s Hamas government.

Thursday’s complex procedure highlighted the difficulties faced by Gaza students who have been accepted at universities abroad, but cannot leave because of Israeli and Egyptian travel bans, imposed after the violent Hamas takeover of Gaza last year.

The US has been pushing to get the Fulbright students - in all a group of seven - out of Gaza, but prospects appear dim for those without powerful allies.

The Israeli human rights group Gisha estimates that hundreds of students registered at foreign universities are stuck in Gaza. It called on Israel to lift all restrictions on students. “The fact that the US has to jump through so many hoops to get seven students out of Gaza shows how draconian the closure policy is,” said Israeli human rights activist Sari Bashi. “The US should use its influence to change the policy, not just let a few lucky students out.” US Consulate officials and Israeli military officials were not available for comment Thursday.

The plight of Gaza’s university students made headlines in May, after US officials announced they revoked the Fulbright scholarships of seven Gazans because of the Israeli travel ban. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got involved, and four of the Fulbright scholars have since been able to apply for their visas in Jerusalem. The travel ban on the remaining three - those who met with the US officials at the border Thursday - remained in effect.

Israel’s restrictions on the students have drawn widespread international criticism.

Israeli officials said at the time that as part of Israel’s policy towards Hamas, only humanitarian hardship cases would be allowed to leave Gaza, and that students didn’t fall into that category.

However, Maj. Peter Lerner, an Israeli spokesman, said at the time that the cases of some students would be reviewed, and that priority would be given to recipients of foreign government scholarships. Late last year, Israel had let out several hundred students in special convoys.

The journey of the three Gaza students - Zuhair Abu Shaaban, Fidaa Abed and Osama Daoud - began Thursday morning in Gaza City. They got into a van for the 30-minute ride to the Erez crossing. They got out at the last Palestinian checkpoint, several hundred metres away from the Erez terminal, built into the wall-and-fence complex ringing Gaza.

After Israeli officials gave the go-ahead to their Palestinian counterparts via walkie talkie, the students - along with a few other travellers - walked along a destroyed road to the terminal and after security checks reached the Israeli side. There, sitting on plastic chairs in the terminal building, they were called one by one for their visa interviews.

Once the visas are approved, they will be allowed to travel through Israel under US escort to catch flights from Jordan.

Abed, 23, smiled after emerging from his interview, saying he was told he’d receive word on his visa in coming days.

Abed is headed to the University of California at San Diego for a graduate degree in computer science. Abu Shaaban, 24, plans to study electrical engineering at the University of Connecticut and Daoud, 25, is seeking a doctorate in civil engineering at Utah State University in Salt Lake City.

Daoud said that after his degree, he hopes to return to Gaza to teach at a university and work to solve in Gaza’s environmental problems.

Article that appeared in the Jordan Times today, 11 July 2008

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