Gaza's educational system is significantly inadequate compared to most societies. The five universities in the Strip offer limited undergraduate degrees, a narrow range of graduate degrees, and no doctorate level programs. After the recent War In/On Gaza, there was further damage to this compromised situation. Institutions of higher learning were damaged directly from weapons and indirectly by the destruction to infrastructure, such as electricity, roads, and water. In order to pursue a more advanced education, many Gazan students must find programs outside the Strip. Additionally, most of these students must apply for scholarships due to the devastated condition of their economy.
Shortly after the start of the second intifada in 2000, the Israeli government banned Gazan students from studying in the West Bank and Israel. As a result, these students had to find programs in other nations. After gaining acceptance and scholarships, they had to obtain visas in order to enter and stay in the countries where they will study. At that time, they would be screened at the various border crossings by Israeli and/or Egyptian security officials. If cleared, they could go, unescorted, to consulate offices in East Jerusalem, Ramallah or Cairo, since few nations had offices in Gaza.
Things began to change in the summer of 2007, after Hamas gained control over the internal governmental institutions of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government instituted more strict closures of the Gazan borders. They did this by directly controlling the crossings between Israel and Gaza, and indirectly through their veto power over the Rafah Crossing between Egypt and Israel.
In addition to the increased length of border closures, the Israeli government forced the students to exit only through the Erez Crossing between Israel and Gaza, and then bus them to the Nitzana and Kerem Shalom Crossings between Israel and Egypt. As a result of these added incoveniences, less than half of the Gazans eligible to attend foreign universities were able to travel abroad. Many of the students in this group, also, arrived late for their programs due to the delays involved in the shuttling process.
In January 2008, the Israeli government stated that it would not allow any more students to exit Gaza, and that it would permit Palestinians, in general, to leave only in emergency humanitarian cases. In May 2008, there was a high profile situation when it was discovered that seven Fulbright Scholars were barred from leaving Gaza to study in the United States. In response to international media, citizen, and advocacy group involvement, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Senior European Union Officials pressured the Israeli government to reasses its positions regarding the students of Gaza. The Israelis eventually decided to allow a limited number of Gazans to study abroad, subject to criteria it set and at the discretion of its security officials. This reduced the number of Palestinians students leaving Gaza from 480 in 2007 to 70 in 2008.
According to information that the Israeli Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) submitted to the Israeli Supreme Court, only those students holding "recognized academic scholarships" that have been submitted by representatives of foreign embassies or "recognized" foreign organizations would be permitted to leave Gaza. Additionally, COGAT decided that any student eligible for travel may do so, only, with a diplomatic escort from the country of the university that has accepted the student or the country that has awarded the scholarship.
This diplomatic escort must take the student from the Erez Crossing, across Israel and the West Bank, to the Allenby Bridge Crossing between Israel and Jordan. The students will also need these escorts when applying for visas at consulate offices in East Jerusalem and Ramallah. COGAT has neither listed what scholarships and organizations it recognizes, nor specified the reasons for these additional requirements.
Not only do these requirements place an added set of burdens onto the students, but to diplomatic missions, as well. The diplomats must assist in the lengthy, extensive, and costly planning of any escort. They have to track the status of a permit application with COGAT, coordinate the departure time with Israeli officials at the Erez Crossing and the students, and provide information about the escorts and their vehicles to COGAT.
When transporting students, the escort must sign a "delcaration of responsibility" in which they pledge to take these students from the Erez Crossing to the Allenby Bridge in one day. If the student does not pass through to Jordan, then the declaration states that the escort is responsible for returning the student to Gaza on the very same day.
Also, the requirements placed upon diplomatic organizations are a breach of international agreements, such as the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Diplomats and consular officials' designated function is to serve the interests of their own nation. Article 41 of Vienna Convention states that diplomats "have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that (receiving) State", and Article 35 mentions that "the receiving State shall exempt diplomatic agents from all personal services, from all public services whatsoever." Since the Israeli government insists that these envoys be used to act in the interest of the host nation, it is unfairly redefining the mission of these diplomats.
If the Israeli government is concerned with a security threat from these students, then there are more serious challenges to the consular relationship. The host country has the obligation to protect diplomats, not the other way around. These employees are to be given special protection from their hosts. According to Article 29 of the Convention, the government of Israel, as host, must "take all appropriate steps to prevent attack on the person, freedom, or dignity" of diplomats. If these envoys are being used for the security of the State of Israel, then the Israeli government is putting the consular employees lives in danger, which would be a significant violation of international law.
The Israeli government seems to be applying unnecessary and arbitrary requirements on Gazan students and diplomatic agencies, which give the appearance of collective punishment of the Paletinians students and professional rights violations of international officals. If there are legitimate reasons for these rules, then they need to be openly discussed and publicly documented by Israeli officials. Gazan students attempting to apply for foreign university programs and scholarships should be able to do so without the difficulties of having third-party invovlement. The students should have more reasonable access to programs throughout the world. Just because Israel does not have relations with a nation should not be an excuse to limit the pool of available institutions of higher learning.
A more realistic plan needs to be created with respect to any necessary travel for these students. Presently, the only people eligible for travel are those who have scholarships from "recognized" organiztions. Apparently, students who can self-fund their education are not eligible for travel. The Isreali government needs to allow any Gazan student who can fund or obtain funding for their education to travel abroad.
With respect to the security issue, Israeli Security Agency (Shin Bet) officials examine every applicant who seeks to enter Israel, via Gaza, and anyone considered a security risk is denied entry. A student who is cleared to go into Israel through the Erez Crossing is, therefore, not a security risk and should have the ability to travel without an escort. This would afford students the same standard as any other Palestinian allowed to enter Israel from Gaza. Escorting these students shoud be considered, only, for the purposes of expediting their travel time out of Israel. This accomodation shoud be done by Israeli officials and not representatives of other nations.
People in the United States can join advocacy groups in contacting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. You can ask her to persuade the Isreali government to permanently change these short-sighted, arbitrary, and possibly illegal rules. In the interim, you can ask the Secretary to make U.S. diplomatic escorts more readily available to lessen the burdens of the eligible Palestinian students. It is in the interest of the people of Palestine, Israel, as well as the United States, that these innocent and motivated students have every opportunity to obtain the highest levels of education.
To contact Secretary of State Clinton, you can call her State Department office, (202)647-9572, or use the State Department e-mail form.
For the State Department e-mail place "Secretary Of State" in the topic line and "Help Gaza Students Come To The U.S." in the subject line.
For those people interested in contacting the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), you can call its Spokesperson at 03-6977138. Unfotunately, its "Contact Us" page is blank.
Update: Here is a recent post and video from Phil Weiss of Mondoweiss where he interviews 2 of these students during his recent trip to Gaza
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