GAZA: The State Department has withdrawn all Fulbright grants to Palestinian students in Gaza hoping to pursue advanced degrees at American institutions this fall because Israel has not granted permission for the students to leave Gaza.
Israel's restriction is in keeping with its policy of isolating this coastal strip, which is run by the militant group Hamas.
The United States consulate in Jerusalem said the grant money had been "redirected" because of concern that if the students were forced to remain in Gaza the grant money would go to waste. A letter was sent by e-mail to the students Thursday telling them of the cancellation.
Abdulrahman Abdullah, one of the seven Gazans who received the letter, was in shock.
"If we are talking about peace and mutual understanding, it means investing in people who will later contribute to Palestinian society," he said. "I am against Hamas. Their acts and policies are wrong. Israel talks about a Palestinian state. But who will build that state if we can get no training?"
Israel's closure of Gaza leads to U.S. withdrawal of Fulbright scholarships
The State Department Web site describes the Fulbright, the U.S. government's flagship program in international educational exchange, as "an integral part of U.S. foreign relations." It adds, "the Fulbright Program creates a context to provide a better understanding of U.S. views and values, promotes more effective binational cooperation and nurtures open-minded, thoughtful leaders, both in the U.S. and abroad, who can work together to address common concerns."
Some Israeli lawmakers, who held a hearing on the issue of student movement out of Gaza on Wednesday, expressed anger that their government was failing to promote educational and civil development in a future Palestine.
"This could be interpreted as collective punishment," said Rabbi Michael Melchior, chairman of the Education Committee in Parliament, during the hearing. "This policy is not in keeping with international standards or with the moral standards of Jews, who have been subjected to the deprivation of higher education in the past. Even in war, there are rules." Melchior is a member of Meimad, a small party allied to the Labor Party.
The committee asked the government and military to reconsider the policy and get back to them within two weeks. But even if the policy is changed, the Fulbright scholars in Gaza are out of luck for this year. Their letters urged them to reapply next year.
Israel's policy appears to be in flux. At the parliamentary hearing Wednesday, a Defense Ministry official recalled that the cabinet had declared Gaza "hostile territory" and decided that the safety of Israeli soldiers and civilians should be risked only for humanitarian concerns. Higher education, he said, was not a humanitarian concern.
But when a query about the canceled Fulbright grants was made to the prime minister's office Thursday, senior officials said that they did consider study abroad to be a humanitarian necessity and that when cases were appealed to them, they did everything they could to facilitate them. They suggested that American officials had not brought the Fulbright cases to their attention.
Still, despite their contention, they argued that the policy of isolating Gaza was working and that Palestinians there were starting to lose faith in the ability of Hamas to govern.
Since Hamas, a radical Islamist group that opposes Israel's existence, carried out what amounted to a coup in Gaza one year ago against the more secular Fatah party, hundreds of rockets and mortars have been launched from there at Israel and numerous attempts to kidnap Israeli soldiers have taken place.
While Hamas says the rockets are in response to Israeli military incursions into Gaza, it also says it will never recognize Israel.
"We are using the rockets to shake the conscience of the world about Israeli aggression," Ahmed Yusef, political adviser to the Hamas foreign minister, said in an interview. "All our rockets are a reaction to Israeli aggression."
The Israeli closure on Gaza has added markedly to the difficulty of daily life here, with long lines for cooking gas and a sense across the population of living under siege. Israel sends in about 70 truckloads per day of wheat, dairy products and medical equipment as well as some fuel, and permits patients to exit in the case of medical emergencies.
But Israel's stated goal is to bolster moderates among the Palestinians so that Hamas will lose power and even some security-conscious hard-liners said the policy of barring students with grants abroad was counter-productive.
"We correctly complain that the Palestinian Authority is not building civil society but when we don't help build civil society this plays into the hands of Hamas," said Natan Sharansky, a former conservative government official. "The Fulbright is administered independently and people are chosen for it due to their talents."
Sari Bashi, who directs Gisha, an Israeli organization devoted to monitoring and increasing free movement of Palestinians, said, "The fact that the U.S. cannot even get taxpayer-funded Fulbright students out of Gaza demonstrates the injustice and short-sightedness of a closure policy that arbitrarily traps 1.5 million people including hundreds of Palestinian students accepted to universities abroad."
She said that their education was good not just for Palestinian society, but for Israel as well.