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Door shut on foreign study for Gazans

Times Staff Writer

As the academic year gears up around the world, hundreds of college and graduate students here are growing increasingly desperate. Israel’s decision to virtually seal off the Gaza Strip after the militant group Hamas took control last summer has made the students partners in frustrated ambitions and pawns in a larger political struggle.

The case of seven Gazan Fulbright scholars who were not being allowed to leave the enclave attracted a flurry of international media attention; four of them got out in June after the U.S. intervened. But very few Gazans are allowed out anymore, except in extreme medical cases.

“I think I’m going to lose [my scholarship] and then I’m going to check right into the asylum,” said Wael Hamdi al Daya, who was accepted to the doctoral program in international finance at the University of Bradford in Britain. “It’s a long struggle just to obtain a scholarship. So to do all that and gain it, and then lose it. . . .”

Individual students -- 58 so far this summer, according to Israel -- have been permitted to leave to study overseas. But Daya, the coordinator of Gaza’s trapped student committee, estimates that at least 600 have been accepted to foreign universities. That number, he said, is probably low and doesn’t take into account a new dynamic: students with ambitions to study abroad who didn’t bother to apply.

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The plight of Gaza’s students drew unusually direct comments from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in May.

“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.

After Rice’s comments, Israeli policy shifted slightly. A June 7 letter from Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to a lawmaker states that “a few exceptions were approved” after the request of “international actors.”

According to the letter, an excerpt of which was provided to The Times, Israel would begin “responding positively to requests from friendly countries.”

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But for the students stuck in Gaza, talk is cheap and time is running out.

“It’s not yet too late, but it’s getting close,” said Sari Bashi, executive director of the Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, a private Israeli group that has lobbied on behalf of several Palestinian students and against the closure policy. “The problem is urgent right now and the response offered is woefully inadequate.”

Students here describe a maddening waiting game.

“I can’t commit to a job here. I’m reluctant to furnish my house because I’m always saying, ‘Next month I might travel. Next month I might travel,’ ” said Rami Abdou, who was accepted to a doctoral program at Manchester Metropolitan University.

For months, Said al Madhoun’s daughters would wake him every time they saw on Al Jazeera television that the Rafah crossing into Egypt might open. Madhoun received a scholarship last year to study international law at American University in Washington, D.C. He should have started in September 2007, but in June of that year Hamas’ unity government with Fatah collapsed and it routed the rival faction and took control of the Gaza Strip.

Israel, with U.S. backing and Egyptian assistance, virtually sealed off the narrow coastal ribbon, allowing in only limited humanitarian aid.

Trapped in Gaza, Madhoun secured a deferral and spent the last year working toward his journey. At the end of July, he and several other students were permitted to cross through the Erez checkpoint into Israel. From there, a military escort delivered them to the Jordanian border.

Now settling into Washington, Madhoun described the border restrictions as crippling to the development of Gaza’s only real asset.

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“In Gaza, we don’t have oil or natural resources. We only have human resources,” he said.

The various loopholes in the closure policy have created a kind of caste system: the free and the trapped. Anyone with any leverage -- a Western government’s backing, or high-level connections in Cairo or to the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority in the West Bank -- is using it to get out. Residents say the disparity creates resentment and corrodes Gazan unity.

“It splits the society,” Madhoun said.

Madhoun’s example is the exception that proves the harshness of the current rules, Bashi said. With a scholarship from the Open Societies Institute and an acceptance to a well-known U.S. university, Madhoun was one of the few with the necessary qualifications and backing.

“They’re trying to get rid of the high-profile cases to deflect from the larger policy,” Bashi said. “The U.S. students are, for the most part, going through. And sometimes, if you make enough noise, you can get out anyway.”

Students also feel betrayed by Egypt. It is bound by treaty in its handling of the Rafah border crossing. But there’s nothing to prevent it from unilaterally opening the border, something it has done in emergency medical cases.

Every year, Egypt lets in thousands of Israeli tourists, the students say. Senior Hamas leaders seemingly come and go through Rafah every week, but not a few hundred graduate students.

“There’s no formal rules,” Daya said. “I just want to understand the policy. What is the policy?”

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On Saturday, Egypt opened the Rafah crossing as a goodwill gesture before Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. An unknown number of students were among those eligible to cross.

Maj. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli military, confirmed that students with prestigious scholarships for study in Western countries are the only ones even being considered for travel.

The overall Israeli policy, Lerner said, is to “allow a minimum” of people out of Gaza, usually in cases of extreme humanitarian need. Graduate students “are not people who need humanitarian aid,” he said.

The students know the political score. They describe themselves as hostages whose captivity no one really cares about.

Israel has said the virtual closure of Gaza is meant to pressure Hamas to release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

“Shalit is the key to the door at Rafah,” said Sayed Ismail, a journalism student at an Algerian university who was in Gaza last summer on break and has been trapped since.

But Hamas’ leadership doesn’t appear to feel any urgency to act. The group has proved that Gaza can subsist on the trickle of humanitarian shipments.

“Israel hopes or expects that the popular support [for Hamas] will decline due to the suffering of the people. It’s obvious to me and many others that this is not working,” said Robert Pastor, a professor of international relations at American University who helped lobby for Madhoun. “Whatever animosity Gazans feel, it’s not being directed at Hamas. It’s being directed at Israel.”

And the plight of the students, though potentially devastating to Gaza’s future, actually might work in the militant group’s favor.

“Hamas needs these stories for journalists to write about,” said one student, who requested anonymity for fear of antagonizing the territory’s rulers.

With time running out and another lost year looming, Gaza’s students have little to look forward to. Several predicted a drift into radicalism.

“If I’m sitting here jobless, with no chance for education and employment, I might as well grow a beard and join the others,” Ismail said.

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com


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