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Monday, 27 October 2008

Foreign Academics Protest Denial of Visas to Attend Health Conference in Gaza

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION NEWS BLOG
Monday October 27, 2008

Jerusalem — Physicians and nurses from Harvard Medical School and other American universities were among dozens of U.S. and European health experts denied entry into Gaza on Sunday for an academic conference organized by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme and sponsored by the World Health Organization.

The two-day conference, “Siege and Mental Health Walls vs. Bridges,” opened instead on Monday in Ramallah in the West Bank with a video-conference link to Palestinian health experts in Gaza.

Eyewitnesses said Israeli soldiers and security officers pushed the physicians, nurses, and academics back from the Erez checkpoint, the only pedestrian crossing-point from Israel into the Gaza Strip.

“I wanted to be part of this conference and support the people in Gaza and contribute to breaking the siege of the Gaza Strip imposed by Israel,” Eleanor Roffman, director of the field-training office in the division of counseling and psychology at Lesley University, told The Chronicle. Her visa application, and those of other scholars, was denied by Israeli officials on October 13, she said.

The Erez checkpoint has been closed since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, in the summer of 2007, to all foreigners except diplomats, aid workers, doctors, and journalists. Only a few hundred Palestinians are now permitted to enter Israel through the checkpoint on a regular basis, but more than 11,000 Palestinians have been allowed into Israel for medical treatment so far this year.

Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Coordinator of Israeli Government Activities in the Territories, an Israeli defense-ministry unit that coordinates civilian matters with the Palestinian Authority, said the participants were told two weeks ago that they would not be allowed into Gaza and arrived on Sunday as a political gesture.

“They caused a closure of the crossing, delaying any Palestinians who needed to cross at that time,” Mr. Lerner told The Chronicle. “They knew they had no approval.”

Mr. Lerner said there had been a ban on foreigners attending academic conferences in Gaza since Hamas took over. “We do not regard this gathering as humanitarian. It is just another platform to have a go at Israel,” he said. —Matthew Kalman

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