October 15, 2017. Mohammed Awad, a student from Gaza, was accepted to a Master’s degree program in the United Kingdom. His application for an exit permit from Gaza was approved at the very last minute, following media coverage initiated by Gisha, and he managed to make his way out of the Strip to begin the journey of fulfilling his aspirations and potential.
Awad is one of many talented and outstanding young academics from Gaza to be accepted to esteemed programs in universities abroad. Once they have been accepted to Master’s degree programs, qualifying them to meet Israel’s severely limited criteria for travel out of Gaza, the protracted and emotionally arduous process of application for an exit permit begins. When Rafah Crossing into Egypt is closed, as it mostly has been since 2013, the sole option of travel from the Strip is through Erez Crossing into Israel, directly onto a shuttle to Allenby Bridge Crossing, and from Jordan to destinations abroad. The shuttle from Erez to Allenby Bridge leaves once a week, on Tuesdays. Residents of Gaza applying to travel abroad are largely dependent on the shuttle in order to travel abroad, and the shuttle schedule therefore dictates the possibilities available to them, often causing them to miss important events and opportunities.
If students’ applications don’t receive approval from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) on time to arrive and enroll at their prospective universities, they are at risk of losing their hard-earned places and scholarships. Losing a place at university has serious repercussions even for the most advantaged of students. For residents of Gaza, it can be downright catastrophic.
Three other students, all friends and clients of Gisha, recently faced the possibility of losing their places. All three, awarded special scholarships from Jordan, had to leave the Strip by early October to reach their universities in the UK on time for enrollment. One was accepted to study for an MSc in Geotechnical Engineering and Management at the University of Birmingham. The second was due to begin a Master’s degree program in Structural Steel Design at the Imperial College, London. The third was accepted for a Master’s in Business Management studies at the University of Edinburgh. Fully expecting to be able to exit the Strip in early October, one woman quit her job. Her two-year-old child and partner hoped to join her in the UK later.
On October 4, Israel imposed a full closure on Gaza and the West Bank for the Jewish Sukkot holiday, and travel out of Gaza was only to be renewed on October 14. Although no official notice was published by COGAT to suggest that the Tuesday, October 10th shuttle would be cancelled, it was clear that if the students were unable to leave Gaza before the full closure was imposed, they would lose their places at the academic institutions.
As of the morning of October 3, the three had not received a response from COGAT to their permit applications, rendering them effectively refused. At approximately 10:30 am, Gisha was informed that two of the three students had been approved for travel after all. The two were initially instructed to arrive at Erez within an hour and a half. They told us to please keep trying to get approval for their friend, as they dashed to say goodbyes to loved ones and finish packing half-packed bags they were already sure they wouldn’t get a chance to use. One even got a call while at work and literally had to drop all he was doing to try to take advantage of this rare opportunity. About an hour later, they were notified that there was no particular rush and they could arrive at Erez later that day, as another shuttle was arranged for last minute permit approvals.
After arriving at Erez as promptly as they possibly could, the two students were then told that the shuttle had already left Erez Crossing, and were instructed to return to the Strip. Determined to exit the Strip now that they had already obtained their permits, the two students spent the next few hours waiting with baited breath to see if they would be allowed to leave after all. At 21:30 p.m. that night, after a nightmarish wait and with the help of concerted efforts by Gisha’s legal department, the two finally arrived at Allenby Bridge Crossing. One can only imagine the excruciating pressure experienced by these individuals during the fate-sealing hours of suspense.
The third student didn’t receive a response to his request and was apparently still signed up for a later date, which far exceeded his deadline to get to class. Despite the full Sukkot closure, in an effort to make sure that he would not miss the unique opportunity of studying abroad and left with no other choice, Gisha petitioned the High Court on his behalf. An urgent hearing was scheduled for the very next morning, during which COGAT eventually caved in to the court’s pressure and allowed the young student to exit the Strip, on the condition that he undergo a short security “interview.” It is incomprehensible that such a straightforward request should have to reach the High Court before receiving the state’s attention, especially when the solution eventually found was one that could have been reached weeks in advance had COGAT processed his application appropriately.