By Kari Huus Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 8/17/2011 5:07:55 PM ET 2011-08-17T21:07:55

Gaza’s rulers have barred travel by a group of teenagers who were awarded scholarships to study in the United States, a Palestinian rights group says.

If confirmed, the move represents a trend toward authoritarianism on the part of the militant Hamas leadership in the isolated Palestinian territory, according to Khaled Elgindy, visiting scholar at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“I think it is significant… it's part of a pattern that Hamas is engaging in that has really intensified in the last several months, where they have become increasingly insecure."

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said the eight students, ages 15 to 17, were awarded scholarships from the YES program run by AMIDEAST, a U.S. independent nonprofit that does some work on State Department grants. Chosen on academic merit, the teens were slated to study one year in the United States, they said.

But the Minister of Education has denied permission to leave the country for “social and cultural reasons” according to the rights group, which said it had been involved in intensive efforts to get the students approval from the government.

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The Associated Press reported that it had contacted the parents of one scholarship grantee, 15-year-old Aboud Alshatari, who said their son was traveling to the border Wednesday when Hamas police turned him away, saying the Education Ministry refused to let him leave Gaza. Alshatari was slated to attend school in North Carolina.

“It is definitely on our radar,” said Nicole Thompson, a State Department spokesperson. The department was still looking into the report and had not issued a formal statement. The nonprofit AMIDEAST, based in Washington, D.C., did not respond to queries for confirmation of the report.

The Hamas leadership, which controls the Gaza strip but not the West Bank has been increasingly oppressive since March when thousands of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem held demonstrations calling for Palestinian unity, said Elgindy of Brookings.

"There was fear that those protests would turn from calling for national unity to calling for an end to Hamas rule," he said. "They tried to co-opt them initially, then when that didn’t work, they became more heavy-handed... They’ve become more and more insecure over time."

The “March 15” movement came on the heels of protests that toppled leaders, forced reforms and sparked violence across the Middle East.

Of particular concern to Hamas is the popular uprising against Syrian leader Bashir Assad, whose government provides key support for Hamas.

Earlier this year, Hamas threatened to audit scores of foreign non-profit organizations working in Gaza. Nonprofits with U.S. funding cannot have contact with Hamas because it is deemed a terrorist organization by the United States. The audits would have forced all American groups to leave, and put an end to about $100 million in aid that flows to the tiny territory. Ultimately, Hamas backed down.

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“That points to their overall sense of insecurity and need to exert control on civil society,” says Elgindy of Brookings. “Now you have this group of students who got scholarships to study, where of all places but the U.S. They see a threat.”

Travel and movement of goods in and out of Gaza is extremely restricted, and the opportunity for Gaza students to study abroad is extremely rare.

In a previous case in 2008, a group of Fulbright scholars was halted from traveling out of Gaza because of a border dispute between the Palestinians and Israel. That time it was Israel that held them up, though ultimately the students were allowed to go to on their American study program.

But in Gaza, an opportunity like this study abroad program is extremely rare.

“Gaza is really just an open air prison,” says Elgindy. “And finally you get this opportunity and the door is shut in your face, and by whom — your own government.”

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