Israel Still Preventing at least 625 Students from leaving Gaza

Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement has asked the Supreme Court to protect the students’ right to leave Gaza and access higher education. “Israel’s closure policies violate the fundamental principle of international law which prohibits collective punishment,” Gisha claims.

Tue., January 1, 2008 –  Israel is still preventing some 625 students from leaving Gaza to pursue higher education in the USA, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and other places around the world. Despite pledging to allow university students to leave Gaza as a “political gesture,” Israel has let out fewer than half, and now refuses to let the others go.

After letting some 484 students and family members leave Gaza in early December, as of December 11, Israel has stopped permitting student departures from Gaza. The “gesture” that allowed partial exit came after Gisha petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court in October, asking that the students be let out. Now Israel says that the “gesture” is over.

After Israel prevented him from reaching an interview at Tel Aviv University for a PhD program in environmental studies, as part of a ban on Gaza residents studying in Israel, Wissam Madhun, a married father of three, was successfully accepted into an environmental studies PhD program in Malaysia. “I’m still waiting for my name to appear on the list of those leaving Gaza. But there are no updated lists because no one is leaving. I don’t really understand the political logic of adding to the frustration of the residents of Gaza.”

Wissam Mussa, one of the petitioners, and her three children were supposed to travel to Germany for Wissam’s computer engineering studies, but their visas expired during the long months that they were trapped in Gaza. They were among the "lucky" ones, given 12 hours to pack up and leave Gaza – but their passports had been sent to the German consulate for visa renewal and were returned only after the 12 hours expired. Now, the military has refused their requests to reschedule their exit. “There is a feeling that they control your life in every sense,” says Mussa. “I cannot plan my professional future. Things are forced on me from above, or more precisely, from the north, by Israel.”

Gisha’s Executive Director Sari Bashi., said: “Israel, which controls Gaza’s borders, must allow students to reach their studies. Allowing these talented young people to access education is vital to Gaza’s future – and to Israel’s future, too.”

Appendix to News Release

The 625 students trapped in Gaza are just some of the thousands of people who have been stuck in Gaza since the closure of the Rafah crossing (between Gaza and Egypt) on June 9, 2007. Israel, which has indirect control over Rafah, is exercising a veto power over the opening of the crossing and also prevents exit by sea or air, where it has absolute control.

Since the Rafah crossing was closed, Israel has allowed only a trickle of individuals to cross to the outside world via the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel. In late August and early September 2007, Israel operated four shuttle services out of Gaza via the Erez crossing and then through the Egyptian border.[1] However, in a September 19, 2007 Cabinet decision calling Gaza “hostile territory,” Israel approved punitive measures against the residents of Gaza, including restricting the movement of people. The shuttle services stopped, operated again in December 2007 – but allowed exit for fewer than half the students seeking to leave.
These restrictions severely infringe upon the freedom of movement and right to education of young Palestinians from Gaza who seek to pursue higher education. Israel’s policies prevent all Palestinian students from leaving to study abroad.

The options for Gaza residents to pursue higher education within the Palestinian Authority’s territories – Gaza and the West Bank – are extremely limited, due, among other things, to Israeli control there: even when Gaza’s borders are open, Israel does not allow Gaza residents to study in the West Bank, where most of the Palestinian universities are located, and does not allow foreign lecturers and experts, especially from Arab countries, to enter the Gaza Strip.

At Gaza’s three universities, a limited range of subjects are offered at the undergraduate level and fewer at the graduate level. Certain key disciplines – such as occupational therapy, speech therapy, dentistry, and physical therapy – are not taught in the Strip at all. Moreover, there is no opportunity for doctoral study anywhere in the Palestinian Authority’s territory. The movement restrictions have prevented and continue to prevent university faculty from Gaza from pursuing advanced studies, and attending conferences and seminars around the world. The opportunities to conduct joint research and to cooperate with colleagues at other academic institutions worldwide are likewise extremely limited.

Gisha petitioned the High Court in October demanding that the students of Gaza be allowed to leave to pursue their studies abroad. Following the submission of that petition, Israel pledged to allow the students to leave in what it call a “gesture” to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. On December 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, and 11, Israel operated transports via the Erez crossing to the Egyptian border, and granted preliminary permission for some 1,200 Gaza residents to exit,[2] among them 484 students and their families.[3] However, some 625 additional students and their families are still waiting.[4]

Testimonies

Since Wissam Abu Ajwa, 28, obtained his bachelor’s degree in Chemistry at the Islamic University in Gaza, almost eight years ago, he has sought to further his studies. He aspires to establish an environmental research and study institute in the Gaza Strip for the benefit of local residents and the entire region.
Abu Ajwa has made four attempts to leave Gaza to pursue a Master’s Degree in environmental sciences, but Israel has blocked his path each time. The Israeli “gesture,” that allowed a few hundred students to leave Gaza on a one-time basis, came too late for him. He has once again lost his place in a Master’s program in environmental sciences, this time in England. He also forfeited the scholarship that he had won.
“I have almost despaired of being able to go abroad to study,” he says. “But I am not taking it too personally – Israel is punishing all of us Gaza residents. Maybe they want to punish Hamas, but we are the ones who are paying the price.”

In theory, Mona Bkheet, 26, is a doctoral student at Southern Illinois University in the U.S. She returned to Gaza from her studies to renew her passport and upgrade her U.S. visa – but was trapped. She has already missed the first semester, which began in August 2007, and now the second semester, beginning this month, is at risk. "The second semester begins in January 2008. I am a PhD student with a scholarship, and I have a teaching assistant job. The university has been very patient with me these past months, but I risk losing my scholarship if my arrival continues to be delayed … as a Palestinian woman from Gaza, it was not easy to become a doctoral student. I had to overcome a lot of obstacles of mentality and culture. But I am not sure that I will have the strength to overcome the obstacles that Israel is putting between me and my aspirations."
For a list of the students seeking to leave, by country in which they are enrolled to study, please see the table on the next page.

For more information, see Gisha’s report, "Israel Undermines Higher Education – and Its Own Best Interest – in Gaza", October 2007

Number of Students Country:

Algeria – 18 
Australia – 1
Bahrain – 1
Belgium – 1
Belarus – 2
Canada – 1
Czech Republic – 1
China – 6
Cuba – 2
Cyprus – 8
Denmark – 1
Egypt – 376
France – 5
Germany –  18
Great Britain – 8
Holland – 2 
India – 4
Italy – 2
Jordan – 21
Kazakhstan – 1
Malaysia – 14
Malta – 1
Mauritania – 1
Morocco – 6
Pakistan – 1
Qatar – 1
Romania – 7
Russia – 8 
Saudi Arabia – 4
Spain – 8
Sudan – 2
Sweden –  2
Switzerland – 1
Syria – 11
Tunisia – 1
Turkey – 17
Ukraine – 12
United Arab Emirates – 19
United States – 14
Venezuela – 2
Yemen – 13
Unknown destination – 1
Total – 625

Total students and family members who signed up to leave Gaza as of December 2007: 1,109
Total students and family members approved to leave in December 2007: 484
Total students and family members still trapped in Gaza: 625

——————————————————————————–

[1]Approximately 550 people left Gaza via the transports in August and September, 2007.
[2]According to the lists published by the civil committee in Gaza, that is operated by the Palestinian Authority. The number of people that actually left is smaller since some were turned back by Israel or the Egyptians even after receiving preliminary permission to leave. The number does not include a few isolated individuals who were permitted to leave but whose names were not published by the Palestinian Civil Committee.
[3]According to the records of the Palestinian Civil Committee. This refers to the number of students who received exit permits. Despite receiving preliminary approval to leave, approximately 19 students were returned by Israel, and approximately 82 were returned by Egypt. In many cases, the students’ travel documents expired during the long months of wait, and so border officials returned them to Gaza.
[4]As of December 24, 2007. This number does not include those who have not yet completed their registration at the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee in Gaza.