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Scholars accepted to grad school, but stuck in Gaza

Three Fulbright scholars are waiting to see if Israel will allow them to leave Gaza to study in the United States.

By Rafael D. FrankelCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 12, 2008

Fidaah Abed (L) and Zohair Abu Shaban (R).

Rafael D. Frankel

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Gaza City, Gaza

Zohair Abu Shaban graduated at the top of his 2007 class in electrical engineering at the Islamic University here and after a lengthy application process, he was awarded the US State Department's prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to study in Connecticut.

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But first Mr. Abu Shaban has to get out of Gaza. So far, that's a feat even high-level American intervention has not yet achieved.

Since the Islamist militant group Hamas seized Gaza by force a year ago, Israel has declared the coastal territory a "hostile entity" and denied exit to its people, except in the most extreme cases.

While the blockade is meant to increase pressure on Hamas and turn Gazans against its rule, Israel's tight control of the strip's borders is seen here as collective punishment that is especially damaging to promising young Palestinians who have a rare chance to study outside Gaza's crumbling education system.

Hundreds of students here are in danger of losing postings to universities across the world if they are not granted exit permits in the next two months, says Sari Bashi, director of the Israeli human rights group Gisha, which focuses on freedom of movement issues. Since January, she says, no students have been permitted to leave Gaza.

"Certainly, preventing young people from obtaining the skills they need to build a better future is bad for Palestinian society, but it's bad for Israel as well," Ms. Bashi says. "Trapping students is against our interests in terms of allowing our neighbors to build a peaceful society. At the end of the day we have to live side by side with the Palestinians."

Like six other students from Gaza, Abu Shaban saw his chances to pursue a Fulbright vanish and then reappear. The US canceled the scholarships for the Gazans two weeks ago, when Israel would not grant the seven recipients exit permits. US political pressure seemed to bend Israel, however, and the scholarships were reinstated.

Nonetheless, when Abu Shaban went with his Fulbright colleagues last week to the Erez crossing point on their way to Jerusalem for interviews at the US Consulate, he was detained for two hours, searched, and interrogated by Israeli security personnel about his affiliations with Hamas. He was eventually sent back to Gaza.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Israeli agency that coordinates activities in the Palestinian territories said that a decision was made to refuse exit permits to Abu Shaban and two other students, Fidaah Abed and Osama Dawoud, due to "individual security concerns." Their only recourse may be to file a petition with the Israeli High Court of Justice.

Mr. Abed and Abu Shaban suspect that their denial is related to having studied at Islamic University, where many of the professors and administrators are affiliated with Hamas.

"This is collective punishment to treat everyone at this university as Hamas people," Abed says, adding that there are no other universities in Gaza which offer degrees in their engineering fields.

According to a spokesperson with the US consulate in Jerusalem, which is working to obtain exit visas for the three remaining students, the US and Israeli governments are still working to resolve the issue.

While the Israeli internal security service, the Shin Bet, makes a recommendation about whether a certain person should be given an exit permit, it is the military that ultimately decides whether to grant it.