updated 6/2/2008 6:58:45 PM ET 2008-06-02T22:58:45

The U.S. has reinstated the Fulbright scholarships of seven Gaza Strip students blocked by Israel from leaving the Hamas-ruled territory, the State Department said Monday.

The students were informed Thursday that their scholarships for the upcoming academic year would be deferred because they couldn't get out of Gaza, which Israel blockaded after the Islamic militants seized power a year ago.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. reversal came on orders from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who first heard about the scholarship snafu on Friday.

"She wasn't pleased," McCormack said.

Mistakes made by both Israel, U.S.
Israel and the United States have tried not to point fingers in public over the scholarship incident, but each government clearly thinks the other made mistakes early on. Israeli officials say U.S. diplomats didn't ask for special exemptions for the Fulbright students, while U.S. officials say Israel should have recognized immediately that these were a special case. U.S. officials also blame themselves.

McCormack appeared to blame lower-level U.S. diplomats or support staff for the decision to yank the scholarships without discussing the implications with enough higher-ups.

"On our side there was some decision-making that in retrospect we wouldn't have taken," he said. "The secretary is just pleased that it's been fixed, or will be fixed."

David Siegel, spokesman at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, defended Israel's Gaza closure policy.

"Hamas exploits every opportunity to send terrorists and weapons across the border, including under the guise of humanitarian cases," Siegel said. "Israel has a strong interest in the emergence of a moderate and educated Palestinian leadership."

A letter dated Sunday from the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem said officials were working to secure exit permits so the students could continue the visa and university placement process.

"We are working very closely with the Government of Israel in order to secure its cooperation in this matter," the letter said.

On Monday, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev indicated the problem would be solved.

Israel, he added, "sincerely hopes that it will be possible to get the students out by the beginning of the coming academic year."

Tough security checks
All Gazans who exit the territory need to undergo tight Israeli security checks.

Israel allows pressing humanitarian cases to leave Gaza, but officials say students are not included in that definition. Some 500 students and their dependents have been allowed to leave over the past year. But exit permits have dried up in recent months in the wake of militant attacks on Israel, according to an Israeli human rights group, Gisha, that has been helping Gaza students leave for studies abroad.

Gisha director Sari Bashi welcomed the U.S. consulate's pledge to help the students. Gisha "calls on Israel to allow all students with scholarships trapped in Gaza to leave and study abroad," she said.

The U.S. started appealing to Israel on Friday. The lobbying included a call from the No. 3 State Department official to Israel's ambassador in Washington on Friday morning.

Named for the late U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright, the grants are the flagship U.S. government educational exchange program. They go to U.S. citizens and nationals of other countries for a variety of educational activities, primarily university lecturing, advanced research, graduate study and teaching in elementary and secondary schools. The $198 million annual program brings 7,000 foreign students to the U.S.

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