(New York, June 3, 2008) – The United States should promptly call on Israel to end its blanket ban preventing hundreds of Palestinian students from leaving the Gaza Strip to study abroad, Human Rights Watch and two North American scholarly organizations said today.In a letter to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Human Rights Watch, along with the Middle East Studies Association and the American Anthropological Association, welcomed the State Department's decision to reinstate Fulbright scholarships awarded to seven students in Gaza and to help ensure that Israel provides exit permits to leave Gaza. But they deplored Israel's denial of exit permits to hundreds of other students with study places in Europe and the Middle East.
Since June 2007, Israel has enforced a strict blockade preventing, with very few exceptions, people and goods from entering or leaving the Gaza Strip. The three organizations said that the State Department's earlier decision to cancel the Fulbright grants awarded to students in Gaza for the coming academic year displayed a disturbing readiness to support an Israeli policy that constituted collective punishment.
"The United States should vigorously challenge Israel's unlawful restrictions on Gaza rather than accommodate them," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Washington should ask Israel to ensure that the hundreds of other students trapped in Gaza can also pursue their studies abroad."
Israel should let all students in Gaza who want to study abroad do so, except where there are legitimate security concerns specific to particular individuals, the three groups said.
In an email sent on the night of June 1, 2008, the US Consulate in Jerusalem told the seven Fulbright awardees in Gaza that the Department of State "is working to secure exit permits for you to travel to Jerusalem for your visa interview and for final travel to the United States in order to participate in the Fulbright Program this year." This message followed an earlier one on May 29 that their awards had been "redirected" due to Israel's unwillingness to grant them exit permits.
The State Department's initial decision to "redirect" the Gaza scholarships came despite calls over the last six months by Human Rights Watch, the Middle East Studies Association, and Israeli human rights groups for Israel to allow students to leave Gaza to study abroad.
"At a minimum, the United States should clearly and publicly disassociate itself from Israel's policy of strict closure in Gaza as it affects students seeking to study abroad," said Whitson.
By late 2007, the number of students and dependents in Gaza seeking to study abroad had risen to approximately 1,100. Israel allowed fewer than half of those to leave Gaza for Egypt and Jordan for exit to third countries, and hundreds remained cut off from the possibility of studying abroad. According to the Israeli human rights organization Gisha, between 1,000 and 2,000 students in Gaza seek to leave to study abroad each year, but since January 13, none had been permitted to do so.
Israel has insisted that the Rafah crossing on Gaza's border with Egypt also remain closed; during the several days in late January when that border was breached, Egypt allowed only persons who already had visas to third countries to proceed to Cairo.
Human Rights Watch, the Middle East Studies Association and the American Anthropological Association said that Gaza's students need access to higher education abroad because opportunities in Gaza are limited. Many degrees are not available in the four universities there. For instance, there are no undergraduate degrees in languages other than Arabic, English, and French, and no Master's degrees in law, journalism, and information technology. Doctoral degrees are not offered at all. Israel rarely permits professors and lecturers from outside Gaza to enter to teach there.
Members of the Israeli Knesset's Education Committee have also called on the Israeli government to allow Palestinians in Gaza to study abroad. "Trapping hundreds of students in Gaza is immoral and unwise," said Rabbi Michael Malchior, chair of the committee, at a hearing on May 28. "This could be interpreted as collective punishment. 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."
Since June 2007, Israel has enforced a strict closure of the Gaza Strip, preventing, with very few exceptions, people and goods from entering or leaving the territory. Israeli officials say that the strict closure policy is intended to suppress illegal and indiscriminate rocket and other attacks by Palestinian armed groups, many of which hit civilian areas in Israel.
The policy's impact on the ability of the armed groups to carry out these attacks is highly debatable. However, it has had a grave impact on Gaza's civilian population and violates Israel's obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention on occupation to protect the rights of civilians in Gaza to, among other things, freedom of movement and secure access to education. Israeli restrictions on Gaza's civilian population constitute collective punishment in violation of international law.
International human rights law permits restrictions on freedom of movement for security reasons, but the restrictions must have a clear legal basis, be limited to what is necessary, and be proportionate to the threat.
The Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) comprises 2,700 academics worldwide who teach and conduct research on the Middle East and North Africa, and is the preeminent professional association in the field. The association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies, and is committed to ensuring respect for the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression in the region and in connection with the study of the Middle East and North Africa.
The American Anthropological Association encourages research, promotes public understanding of anthropology, and fosters the use of anthropological information in addressing human problems.