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U.S. cancels Fulbright grants for Gaza students

The  U.S. State Department has canceled the Fulbright scholarships of eight students in the Gaza Strip because they would not be able to get exit visas from Israel.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hadeel Abu Kawik was supposed to spend next year in the United States on the prestigious Fulbright scholarship program, but now it appears she will remain trapped in the Gaza Strip by an Israeli blockade.

Word that the U.S. State Department was canceling her scholarship came after Abu Kawik, 23 and a computer engineering student, went through a lengthy process for the scholarship that included interviews, exams and an English test.

“I was building my hope on this scholarship,” she said Friday.

Seven other Gaza students also lost their grants. The decision was made because they would not be able to get exit visas from Israel, according to State Department spokesman Tom Casey.

The teeming coastal territory and its 1.5 million inhabitants have been controlled by the Islamic militant group Hamas for nearly a year. Israel has kept its border crossings closed to everything but humanitarian aid in an attempt to weaken the group and end frequent rocket barrages aimed at Israeli towns.

Grants to go to West Bank students
The scholarships meant for the Gazans will be offered instead to Palestinian students from the West Bank, Casey said, “rather than lose them for this year.” The eight Gazans will be eligible next year, he said.

The West Bank is controlled by the moderate government of President Mahmoud Abbas and West Bank residents are allowed to leave the territory.

An Israeli military spokesman said the United States made the decision about the scholarships on its own, but confirmed that only urgent humanitarian cases are allowed through Gaza’s crossings and that does not include students.

“We are extremely sorry that we are unable to finalize your scholarship at this time, and hope you will reapply next year and be able to complete your studies in the U.S.,” read the letter received Thursday by another one of the eight students from the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.

‘Now I don’t know what to do’
Abu Kawik’s said her family, living in the United Arab Emirates, has repeatedly asked her to leave Gaza. But she insisted on staying because of her hopes for the Fulbright grant.

“Now I don’t know what to do — to wait by myself in Gaza for another year with no guarantee what the answer will be?” Abu Kawik said. “Actually I just don’t know. I was astonished at how the United States government cannot get a few students out of Gaza.”

Egypt has also kept its one crossing with Gaza closed, but in January, Hamas militants blew up a stretch of the border wall and thousands of Palestinians flooded through the frontier. One of them was Abu Kawik’s sister. Abu Kawik decided to stay, she said, because she was afraid that leaving Gaza illegally would jeopardize her chances of getting the scholarship.

Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner said the current policy is to issue permits only in humanitarian cases and “students are not included under the definition of humanitarian aid.”

Individual exceptions are made, Lerner said, and the United States did not specifically ask for visas for the eight Gaza students. The United States made the decision to cancel the scholarships without coordinating with Israel, Lerner said.

Tightened restrictions
Despite the blockade, around 500 students and their dependents managed to get out of Gaza over the past year with the help of Israeli permits, according to Gisha, a group that works for freedom of movement for Palestinians. But restrictions were tightened late last year in response to attacks, and nearly no student permits have been issued since.

Before the restrictions, between 1,000 and 2,000 Gaza students traveled to study abroad every year, according to Gisha figures. In light of the ongoing attacks, Israel is unlikely to change its policy soon.

Last week, a suicide bomber detonated a truck carrying four tons of explosives at Erez, the main terminal for people entering and leaving the territory.

Israel’s measures are “geared toward preventing the continuous wave of terror being launched at us, including the incessant rocket fire at our towns and cities,” government spokesman David Baker said.

Sari Bashi, Gisha’s director, said Palestinian students who want to build a better future in Gaza are good for Israel too.

“The fact that the U.S. government can’t even get its Fulbright students out of Gaza shows how draconian the closure is — a closure that is led by Israel but has U.S. support,” Bashi said.