They squander their days watching TV and surfing the web instead of studying, but it’s not for lack of discipline: Gaza students accepted at foreign universities are stuck at home because Israel and Egypt won’t let them leave the blockaded territory.The students’ plight made headlines last week when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice interceded with Israel on behalf of seven students with prestigious Fulbright scholarships awarded by the U.S. government. But hundreds without such powerful allies will likely lose their shot at a good education, given Gaza’s sparse offerings.
The blockade, imposed after Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza a year ago, is meant to bring down the Islamic militants and inspire Gazans to opt for a more moderate leadership. But critics say the closure, backed by the international community, is accomplishing the opposite.
Hamas has become more entrenched and Gazans are growing more angry at the West as isolation worsens the strip’s poverty, say the critics, who include both Israelis and Palestinians. They add that Gaza is also being robbed of future leaders — the trapped students — because they can’t get the necessary training.
“I feel that I’m lost,” said Ahmed Nasrallah, who studied computer programming in London, but has been stuck in Gaza since a summer visit home last year. “I am a victim of a battle that I am not part of.”
The uproar over the Fulbright students touched only on a small part of what human rights groups consider collective punishment of Gaza’s population. “This is not about seven students, it’s about hundreds of students, 1.5 million people and the future of Gaza,” said Sari Bashi, head of the Israeli human rights group Gisha, which is taking the government to court over the travel ban.
Israel says it’s sticking to the principle of only letting out humanitarian hardship cases, such as patients requiring urgent medical treatment. “Students are not humanitarian cases,” Sagi Krispin, a legal adviser to Israel’s Defence Ministry, told a parliamentary committee last week. Israel has not been consistent in this approach, though. In December, some 1,100 students applied for exit permits and of those 480 left on special shuttle buses, Gisha said.
Since January, just a few students have been able to get out, hundreds remain stuck and Israel has stopped taking requests altogether, Gisha said. A Palestinian border official, Mohammed Arafat, estimated Saturday that more than 1,000 Gaza students want to leave the territory.
The high-profile Fulbright flap and diplomatic pressure appear to have softened Israel’s position. Earlier this week, Germany’s visiting foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, talked to his Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni, about stranded Gazans with scholarships at German universities, German diplomats said.
Maj. Peter Lerner, an Israeli spokesman, said Friday that the cases of some of the students would be reviewed, and that priority would be given to recipients of foreign government scholarships. He said he expected several dozen exit permits to be granted, but not hundreds.
In another sign of a possible exit, Hamas announced Saturday that students, along with medical patients and those with residency abroad, should register with the Gaza government. In the past, such registration preceded a temporary opening of the Gaza-Egypt border, though there was no word from Egypt and from Hamas that the border would open soon.
Gaza’s most promising young people traditionally sought an education abroad. Gaza’s universities only offer limited undergraduate programs, and even fewer graduate courses. Europe, the United States and Arab countries have been favoured destinations, with foreign governments often offering scholarships.
Travel in and out of Gaza became increasingly difficult after the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in 2000. The situation got worse after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which was followed by militant attacks from the evacuated territory, increased border closures and a bloody power struggle between Hamas and its Fatah rivals.
The stranglehold on Gaza was imposed last June, after Hamas ousted the forces of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and took control. Israel and Egypt immediately snapped shut their borders with Gaza.
Israel later scaled back the few openings it had allowed when Palestinian attacks against Israel’s Gaza border crossings increased, along with the number of rockets fired from the strip at nearby Israeli towns.
The persistent attacks are one reason students are stuck in Gaza, the Defence Ministry adviser, Krispin, told the Israeli parliament’s education committee last week.
“The cabinet decided not to endanger soldiers and civilians at border crossings, and to allow passage of people from Gaza to Israel for humanitarian reasons only,” he said, according to a committee statement.
However, the education committee asked the government to rethink its policy and to allow those who don’t pose a security risk to attend foreign universities. The current sweeping ban “does not measure up to international standards and to the values of the Jewish people, a people that has been denied access to education (in the past),” said committee chairman Rabbi Michael Melchior.
Among the trapped students are dozens who had been accepted at European universities, including several with Erasmus Mundus scholarships, the European equivalent of Fulbright grants. Of seven Fulbright students, four were permitted last week to enter Israel to apply for U.S. visas, but the fate of the others remains unclear.
For the students staying behind in Gaza, the future looks grim.
Suzanne Khalil, 24, who studied medicine in Moscow, returned for what she thought was a two-week visit in May 2007. She has been spending the last year in Gaza, chatting on the Internet, sitting in her room or sleeping.
“I dream every night that the border has opened and that I am back in class in my white uniform,” said Khalil, who has one year left in her program.
Nasrallah, the former student of computer programming at Millennium City Academy, a private college in London, said he’s spent the last year sleeping late, watching TV and hanging out with friends at night.
At one point, he registered at a Gaza university. When Hamas tore down Gaza’s southern border wall in January, he fled to Egypt hoping to fly to London, but Egyptian authorities blocked him because he had entered Egypt illegally. After two weeks of waiting, he returned to Gaza, but learned that he had missed the exams at the local university.
“I have lost this year, but I am not planning to give up and to try to get out when I can,” he said. “I will not give up my dream.”
– With a report from CP. Karin Laub contributed to this report from Ramallah, West Bank.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.