MESA – Middle East Studies Association Grants Academic Freedom Award to Israeli NGO Defending Palestinians’ Right to Study

Award recognizes Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement for helping Palestinian students in the Gaza Strip exercise their rights to access education and freedom of movement.

MESA Executive Director Amy Newhall: "Allowing young people access to education is critical to building a better future in the region."

Sun., November 23, 2008 – The Middle East Studies Association of North American tonight granted its annual Academic Freedom Award to the Israeli human rights organization Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, in recognition of Gisha’s work promoting freedom of movement for Palestinian students and scholars, especially from the nearly hermetically sealed Gaza Strip. Gisha Director Sari Bashi accepted the award on behalf of the organization during MESA’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

The MESA award followed an ongoing campaign by Gisha to enable Palestinian students from the Gaza Strip to reach the academic institutions in which they were enrolled throughout the world. Gaza Strip’s borders have been closed since June 2007, preventing its 1.5 million residents from exercising their basic right to freedom of movement and denying them opportunities to study in degree programs not available in Gaza.

The right of Gaza’s students to reach their academic studies abroad received international recognition last June when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked Israel to allow U.S.-bound Fulbright scholars from Gaza to leave the Strip for study abroad, declaring her support for giving Palestinian young people "a complete horizon to their expectations and their dreams". In response, Israel allowed exceptions to its ban on allowing students from Gaza to reach their studies abroad, granting permits for a few dozen students bound mainly for Western universities. However, the overall ban remained in place, and hundreds more students remained trapped. Many have already lost their places at universities abroad.

The ban on students and research scholars leaving Gaza is particularly difficult for those seeking to reach U.S. universities, because Israel generally does not grant permits for Gaza residents seeking to attend visa interviews at the U.S. consulate in east Jerusalem.

The MESA Board of Directors and Committee on Academic Freedom awarding the prize said today: "The Middle East Studies Association of North America is pleased to give the 2008 MESA Academic Freedom Award to Gisha for its courageous and principled representation of Palestinian students in Israeli administrative proceedings and courts in support of those students’ rights to education and freedom of movement."

Accepting the award on behalf of Gisha, Executive Director Sari Bashi said today: "I am grateful to MESA for recognizing the universality of the right to access education – and the importance of that right in giving hope to students and scholars in Gaza suffering the effects of a closure that is stifling the dreams of 1.5 million people and preventing them from receiving even basic goods. Two of our clients from Gaza have been trying for months to reach their studies at a university in Virginia, just 30 miles from here. They – and all Palestinian residents – have the right to travel, in order to pursue a better future."

Gaza’s borders have been closed nearly hermetically since the Hamas takeover of internal control in June 2007. In the wake of an escalation in violence beginning November 5, 2008 Israel cut off Gaza from supplies of food and fuel, causing power outages throughout the Strip, disruptions in water supply and sewage treatment, and shortages of basic humanitarian supplies.

For more information on the difficulties in accessing education experienced by students from Gaza, see Gisha’s Frequently Asked Questions: Students Trapped in Gaza.

The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is a private, non-profit, non-political learned society that brings together scholars, educators and those interested in the study of the region from all over the world. From its inception in 1966 with 50 founding members, MESA has increased its membership to more than 3,000 and now serves as an umbrella organization for more than 60 institutional members and 39 affiliated organizations.

MESA sponsors an annual meeting that is a leading international forum for scholarship, intellectual exchange and pedagogical innovation, during which it grants its annual Academic Freedom Award to an individual or an organization chosen by MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom and MESA’s board of directors.

Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement is an Israeli human rights organization founded in 2005, whose goal is to protect the freedom of movement of Palestinian residents of the occupied territories. Gisha, whose Hebrew name means both "access" and "approach", promotes rights guaranteed by international and Israeli law, using legal assistance and public advocacy. Because freedom of movement is a precondition for exercising other basic rights, Gisha’s work has a multiplier effect in helping residents of the occupied territories access education, jobs, family members and medical care.