Jerusalem - The Israeli human rights organization Gisha reported late on Sunday that “The U.S. Consulate tonight told Fulbright candidates from Gaza that it is restoring funding for the prestigious scholarship program and is ‘working closely’ with the government of Israel to secure permits for the students to leave Gaza in order to attend visa interviews at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem and thereafter to leave Gaza for travel to the United States”.
An article published in the New York Times on Thursday apparently brought the matter straight to the attention of the relevant authorities.
Then, it apparently took the intervention of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to bring about what looks like a reversal.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is due to travel to Washington on Monday for meetings with U.S. Administration officials, including Secretary Rice, Gisha noted.
A U.S. State Department deputy spokesman, Tom Casey, told journalists during a prolonged exchange in Friday’s press briefing that “Certainly, I can tell you that we have been actively speaking to Israeli officials here in Washington as well as in Israel itself about this issue today, and certainly have expressed our concerns about this issue, talked about the importance that we place on it, noted the Secretary’s personal concern about this issue. And we are working to resolve it and certainly believe that we can come to a positive outcome on this with the Israelis … I think the discussions that people have had with the Israelis have indicated that, first and foremost, they heard our concerns about this, that they understand that this is a very important program to us, that it is something that the Secretary has personally asked to be looked into, and something that they had said – they had said in response that they would like to be able to work with us on and would like to be able to resolve. So I think we take their – these conversations as a positive sign that we ultimately will be able to come to an agreeable and positive outcome here”.
It is not clear whether this would affect all eight of the original candidates for the award.
Casey said that “We have eight grants available for Gaza and we initially nominated eight individuals. One of those individuals has subsequently dropped out, so we are currently talking about seven”.
Earlier on Friday, there had been some suggestion that the Fulbright fellowship money that could not be used by Palestinians students from Gaza might instead be re-directed to Palestinian students from the West Bank.
The New York Times article, written from Gaza by Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner, said that “ Israel has isolated this coastal strip, which is run by the militant group Hamas. Given that policy, the United States Consulate in Jerusalem said the grant money had been ‘redirected’ to students elsewhere out of concern that it would go to waste if the Palestinian students were forced to remain in Gaza .”
But, during the course of the day on Friday, that seem to change. Casey said in Friday’s briefing that “while there had been steps taken to technically reprogram some of those funds if we were not able to get exit visas for this group, as far as I know, there have not been other nominees selected or awards made at this point”.
He added that “certainly, we want to do everything we can. The fact that we have a Fulbright program that includes individuals from Gaza is just one small example of our efforts to ensure that, even despite the takeover, the illegal takeover of Gaza by Hamas and Hamas’ continued misrule of Gaza , that we do intend to continue to reach out and work with the people in the Gaza Strip. And certainly, again, the fact that we have this program, that we’re continuing it, and that we are very much interested in providing these kinds of opportunities for qualified Palestinians is a sign that, contrary to the idea that we’ve somehow looked away from Gaza or neglected it, that we very much are engaged and involved, even despite the fact of, you know, Hamas’ continued takeover or continued control of the area”.
The Jerusalem Post reported on Sunday that “Officials in the Prime Minister`s Office Saturday night expressed ‘surprise’ at State Department criticism of Israel for reportedly not letting seven Gazan students leave the Gaza Strip on Fulbright scholarships, saying that the State Department did not directly contact the PMO about the issue. According to the officials, there is an individual in the PMO whose job it is to facilitate the passage for humanitarian needs of certain individuals from the Gaza Strip … ‘In the past, many countries have approached us, and we have made it possible to facilitate study abroad. In this case they just did not approach us, and assumed it would be impossible’.`
The Jerusalem Post added that Israeli officials said on Saturday night that these students “would be allowed to leave for their studies”.
Earlier in the week, the Knesset Education Committee met to discuss a report from Gisha on the difficulties facing students wanting to leave Gaza to pursue their education – and no student has been given permission to leave Gaza since January, Gisha said.
According to Gisha, Education Committee Chairman Michael Melchior said that “ preventing students in Gaza from studying is reminiscent of a painful point in Jewish history. We are a nation that for years was prevented from studying - how can we do the same thing to another people? … Trapping hundreds of students in Gaza is immoral and unwise”.
The Jerusalem Post added that “Melchior also argued that the policy contravened international conventions and the values of the Jewish state”.
At the Education Committee meeting, Gisha later recounted, military officials present said that “exit from Gaza is permitted ‘for exceptional humanitarian and urgent medical cases only’.”
The New York Times article said that “a Defense Ministry official recalled that the cabinet had declared Gaza ‘hostile territory’ and decided that the safety of Israeli soldiers and civilians at or near the border should be risked only to facilitate the movement out of Gaza for humanitarian concerns, like medical treatment. Higher education, he said, was not a humanitarian concern”.
Now, Sari Bashi, executive director of GISHA, said in a press release issued on Sunday night, “According to an e-mail sent Sunday night to Fulbright students by the U.S. Consulate, 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. We are working closely with the Government of Israel in order to secure its cooperation in this matter’. The e-mail said the scholarship finalization process would now resume”.
At 9 am on Monday morning, Gisha reports, Israel `s Supreme Court will start to hear petitions that Gisha will argue on behalf of two other Gazan students who want to reach their studies, respectively, in the U.K. and in Germany.