CAIRO: Rights groups are calling on both the Israeli authorities and the Egyptian government to allow the passage of hundreds of Palestinian students of foreign universities trapped in Gaza.
In a statement issued on Aug. 14, Amnesty International warned that Palestinian students denied passage out of Gaza may lose their university places and/or scholarships awarded to them. The authorities’ refusal to allow the students to pursue their education is, Amnesty says, a violation of Israel’s obligations under international law.
The siege imposed on Gaza by Israel has had a devastating effect on its 1.5 million inhabitants and is widely condemned by rights groups as a form of collective punishment.
In addition to barring the entry of food, medicine, fuel and other vital goods into Gaza, the restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities since 2007 have, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), led to the death of a total of 40 Palestinians, either because of their inability to seek medical treatment abroad or because of the absence of vital medicines within Gaza.
In January Palestinians blew up parts of the wall separating Egypt from Gaza at the Rafah crossing after Israel imposed a five-day total blockade of Gaza.
Thousands of Palestinians entered Egypt in order to seek vital supplies before Egypt eventually re-sealed the border.
In July, Egyptian police used water cannon against, and threw stones at, Palestinians gathered at the Rafah crossing hoping to enter Egypt.
PCHR states that since June 12, 2007, the Rafah crossing – Gaza’s only link to the outside world – has been closed for a total of 371 days.
Ten Egyptian NGOs last week condemned the continuing Israeli siege of Gaza imposed “in coordination with the Egyptian government.
The NGOs urge the Egyptian government to allow the trapped Palestinian students passage through Gaza, pointing out that the crossing has previously been opened for Palestinians needing medical treatment, and members of a Hamas delegation engaged in talks in Cairo.
Nevin Abutaima, a second year student of St. Lawrence University in New York herself spent two months in Arish, Egypt, waiting to cross into Gaza.
“When I was in high school in Gaza I won a scholarship to attend an international school in Italy, and after that I received another scholarship to study in the United States, Abutaima told Daily News Egypt.
“I spent a total of three years outside Gaza without seeing my family, and was only able to enter Gaza in July when they opened the crossing for a day.
Abutaima is meant to resume her studies on Aug. 25, but is currently stuck in Gaza.
“I have all my visas, all my papers are in order, but I can’t leave. I’m so scared that if I don’t go this time I’ll lose my scholarship, she continued.
“That would be a disaster. My family have pinned their hope on me. We’re a modest family from a refugee camp in Gaza and I’m the only one of my brothers and sisters who has been able to go abroad to study, despite the fact that some of my brothers and sisters won places in Algeria and Germany and elsewhere, Abutaima said.
Abutaima is one of hundreds in a similar bind.
“There are roughly 300 students with visas ready to leave who are being denied permission to go, Wael Daya told Daily News Egypt.
Daya is himself a PhD student of international finance at Bradford University, UK, who is being denied permission to leave Gaza.
He is involved in “Let Palestinians Study, a campaign launched in June 2008 by the British National Union of Students.
“Another 1,200 students’ visas have expired: they’ve missed their chance, Daya continued.
Daya explained that Palestinians in Gaza wishing to study abroad must enter into a three-step process.
“The embassy of the country the student wishes to study in must firstly contact COGAT [the Unit of Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories]. This body liaises between the Israeli authorities and international organisations such as consulates.
“After COGAT gives its approval, the student must obtain a permit from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) allowing him to travel through Israel to other countries. New rules were recently introduced stating that a consulate official must collect the student at the Gaza checkpoint and escort him through Israel.
“The final step is obtaining security clearance: you must prove that you are not related to anyone involved in terrorist groups in Gaza. The whole process takes between one and two months, Daya explained.
Despite having successfully completed this process, Daya was turned around at the Erez checkpoint.
“The woman at the checkpoint told me that according to their computer records, I don’t have permission to leave, Daya said, all despite the protests of the British Consulate official who met him at the checkpoint, and even with an IDF brigadier verifying his permission, he explained.
Under US pressure Israeli authorities allowed Fulbright scholars trapped in Gaza permission to leave earlier this year, but remain deaf to appeals to allow the other trapped students.
“We only need six hours or so to let out trapped students with visas to cross the border, Daya said.
“Egypt must take a step to help trapped students in Gaza,
“I would be really grateful if Egypt did something, if it opened its border to let us out or put pressure on Israel to let out students and sick people in Gaza.
“We need someone to do something: if everyone remains stubborn nothing will change and we’ll lose our futures, she pleaded.
Amnesty emphasizes in its statement that certain fields of study are not available in Gaza’s universities.
“By denying students permission to pursue their studies abroad, the Israeli authorities are ultimately denying the Palestinian community the benefit of their future contribution, the statement says.
Daya suggests that Israel are entirely aware of this, recalling a conversation with an IDF reporter who once told him that the Israeli authorities know that Palestinians who hold masters degrees or PhDs are the future leaders of Palestine.
“Trapped Palestinian students aren’t regarded as humanitarian causes: they’re seen as part of the war with Israel, he said.