December 9, 2009
By Matthew Kalman
In a ruling that could affect thousands of other Palestinian students, Israel's High Court of Justice decided on Wednesday to uphold the deportation of a student from Bethlehem University to her family home in the Gaza Strip weeks before she was to complete her undergraduate degree.
Berlanty Azzam, 22, a fourth-year student in business administration and translation, was arrested, handcuffed, and blindfolded after a routine security check at a military roadblock near Bethlehem last month. She was forced across the Erez border crossing into Gaza at midnight despite an undertaking by another military unit to keep her in Israel pending an appeal.
A three-judge panel at the High Court headed by Justice Miriam Naor rejected her appeal against the deportation. The court accepted the army's argument that Ms. Azzam's original permit to leave Gaza in 2005 was valid for just five days and could not be used to remain in Bethlehem to study.
"We cannot ignore the fact that the petitioner stayed in the West Bank for four years without a proper permit," Judge Naor said in a three-page decision unanimously accepted by the other two judges.
Ms Azzam's lawyer, Yadin Elam, had argued that in 2005 no such permit was necessary because the army had not yet introduced its policy banning Gaza residents from studying in the West Bank.
"It is unfortunate that the court, which in its interim decision asked state officials to permit Berlanty to return to Bethlehem to complete her degree, refrained from ordering them to do so when they refused," said Mr. Elam. "I cannot imagine why the State of Israel is so insistent on preventing Palestinian young people, against whom it makes no security claims whatsoever, from accessing higher education."
Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, an Israeli human-rights group that assisted Ms. Azzam, said an estimated 25,000 Palestinians with Gaza ID cards are in the West Bank, including many students who are also at risk of being deported.
In 2007 the Israeli High Court instructed the army to reconsider its blanket ban on allowing students from Gaza to study in the West Bank and recommended that exceptions be granted in special cases.
"To the best of our knowledge, since this judgment was handed down, Israel has not issued a single permit to a student from Gaza," said Ms. Bashi.
Ms. Azzam told The Chronicle that the decision had undermined her belief that the Israelis really wanted to achieve peace with the Palestinians.
"I feel disappointed about their decision because they didn't have any reason to do this," she said. "I feel they are unjust and unfair in the way they treat us. I don't think they want peace. I believe in peace."
Brother Jack Curran, vice president for development at Bethlehem University, said he was "incredibly disappointed" and would try to make arrangements for Ms. Azzam to finish her degree by long-distance learning.
"It's very disconcerting for any student who might have Gaza ID and might still be in the West Bank," he said of the court decision. "They will stay close to their campuses, I imagine. I know in our university community that Israeli policies like these only achieve more confusion, more pain, and more distrust of desires to build a better future on both sides."