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Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Israel's Supreme Court Chides Government for Ban on Study Abroad

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

By MATTHEW KALMAN

Jerusalem

Israel's Supreme Court joined a chorus of dismay over an Israeli army
policy that bans Palestinian students from leaving Gaza to study
abroad and asked the government on Monday to "reconsider the policy."
Israel imposed the ban after the Islamist group Hamas took control of
the Gaza Strip in a violent uprising last year.

Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein told Israel's state attorney
at a hearing that the ban seems "no less harmful to the Israeli
interest because we have to live with the Palestinians in the future,
too." Mr. Rubinstein said that denying Palestinians access to
education "harms chances for some kind of coexistence."

Mr. Rubinstein demanded a response from the government lawyers within
two weeks and strongly hinted that he expected them to modify the ban.

Israel's Supreme Court has often taken a tough line on human-rights
abuses by Israel's security branches, pushing them to modify their
behavior and overruling them when they fail to act on their own
accord.

After the hearing, an Israeli government spokesman told The Chronicle
that the entire policy on student mobility was now under review.

Unable to Leave Gaza

The judge was considering a petition brought by Gisha, an Israeli
human-rights group that campaigns for academic freedom of movement, on
behalf of two Palestinian students from Gaza who have been prevented
from taking their places at colleges in Britain and Germany.

Coincidentally, the hearing was held the day after the Israeli
government apparently reversed an earlier decision not to allow seven
Fulbright scholars to leave Gaza. Israel's earlier stance had prompted
the U.S. State Department last week to suspend the scholarships (The
Chronicle, June 2).

After the intervention of senior State Department officials and a
public dressing-down by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli
authorities agreed to process the Fulbright scholars' applications,
the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem informed the students on
Sunday.

But, according to Gisha, several hundred more Palestinian students
have been refused permission to leave for foreign study under a
blanket ban imposed by Israel on any Palestinian's leaving the Gaza
Strip except for urgent humanitarian cases.

Monday's petition was filed on behalf of two of those students, Wissam
Abuajwa, 31, who has a full scholarship for a master's program in
environmental science at Nottingham University, in Britain, and Nibal
Nayef, 27, who has a full scholarship for a doctoral program in
computer engineering at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern, in
Germany. Neither course of study is available in Gaza.

"Universities in Gaza don't have a track for environmental studies,
and my dream is to return from my studies abroad and to establish an
environmental-research and study institute here," Mr. Abuajwa said in
a written statement. "In Gaza there is an urgent need for
environmental experts, especially because of the recent deterioration
in the infrastructure and quality of life of the residents."

Ms. Nayef said that even if Israel allowed her to leave in two weeks'
time, she would arrive in Germany already behind in her studies.

"My classes have already begun while I'm still stuck here in Gaza,
unable to attend them. It's so important to me to reach my studies as
soon as possible," she said in a written statement.

Growing Criticism

Last Wednesday the Knesset Education Committee heard testimony from an
18-year-old Palestinian student who was banned from leaving Gaza to
study engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Rabbi Michael Melchior, chairperson of the legislative committee,
described the travel ban as "immoral and unwise."

The mounting criticism appears finally to be having some effect.

"Clearly it would be a problem if we only grant permission to the
Fulbright students," Peter Lerner, spokesman for the coordinator of
Israeli activities in the occupied territories, said on Monday. "A
review is currently under way regarding the entire issue at the
moment. We will be informing the court of any decision in two weeks,
as requested today."

Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, said she hoped the increasing pressure
on the Israeli authorities would finally move them to change their
policy.

"The ban on students leaving Gaza for study abroad is part of a policy
of closure and collective punishment that is trapping 1.5-million
civilians," she said. "I hope that the Defense Ministry will listen to
the reasoned voices of the U.S. secretary of state, the Knesset
Education Committee, and the Supreme Court—and allow Palestinians in
Gaza to exercise their right to freedom of movement and to access
education."

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