Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Disappointing Development

August 5, 2008 - New York Times

3 Fulbright Winners in Gaza Again Told They Can’t Travel


JERUSALEM — The State Department has, for a second time in two months, reneged on its offer to three Palestinians in Gaza to study in the United States on Fulbright grants, this time citing unspecified security concerns.

The three were part of a group of seven Fulbright winners whose grants were first withdrawn at the end of May when the State Department feared it would be unable to get them out of Gaza because of Israel’s closing of the coastal strip, which the Israelis say is aimed at isolating the Hamas leadership there.

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heard about the withdrawals, she declared Fulbright grants to be an important part of American foreign policy and the scholarships were reinstated. The students needed to undergo individual Israeli security checks in order to leave Gaza and travel first to the American Consulate in Jerusalem for a visa interview and then to fly out.

Four of the seven were cleared but three were told by Israel that they were security risks and could not enter the country. Skeptical American officials asked for details but said they only got broad accusations of links to Hamas; the officials still wanted to offer the grants. The consulate brought from Washington high-priced mobile fingerprinting equipment and sent several officials to the Israel-Gaza border to interview the three Palestinians on July 10.

Three weeks later, on July 30, all three were informed that they had cleared the security screening and were granted their visas.

Two days later, the visas were revoked although not before Israel allowed one of the grantees, Fidaa Abed, to leave Gaza to fly to Washington unaware of his changed status. He was informed at the airport that his visa was no longer valid, flown back to Amman, Jordan, and instructed to return to Gaza. He remains in Amman.

On Monday, the American Consulate in Jerusalem sent letters to Mr. Abed and the two other grantees still in Gaza saying “information has come to light that you may be inadmissible to the United States,” and therefore their visas were being revoked. In Washington, Gonzalo Gallegos, a State Department spokesman, declined to get into specifics, but said that the visas were revoked because “we got more information” about the grantees.

A senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Ms. Rice was very unhappy about how these cases had been handled and that a thorough review had been ordered to prevent a recurrence. The official added that the latest information about the three Palestinians was enough to give pause but that “we really have to scrub it and are now going to take a good look to see if it holds.”

Israeli officials, who had insisted that the three posed a risk, expressed satisfaction that their message had gotten through.

A senior Israeli official said that after the United States had granted the visas, “the process of Israeli-American contacts on the matter did not cease, and more specific information was provided.”

Of the four Gaza Fulbright winners who were permitted to leave, three are in the United States already; one dropped out of the program the night before her departure because she did not want to give up her current lectureship in Gaza.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

More Good News from Gaza

July 11, 2008 - New York Times

U.S. Tries to Help 3 Scholars Barred From Leaving Gaza


GAZA — American consular officials drove from Jerusalem to the Gazan border on Thursday in an unusual effort to interview three Gazan Fulbright scholars who Israel says are too dangerous to allow into the country.

Using a portable fingerprinting machine flown in from Washington for the interviews, the Americans were seeking to expedite the granting of study visas to the three scholars, despite Israeli concerns.

The scholars, all former students or teaching assistants at the Islamic University of Gaza, a stronghold of the radical Hamas group that runs Gaza, were among seven winners of Fulbright grants in the territory. In May, the State Department, which sponsors the program, told all the scholars that their awards were canceled because Israel would not permit them to leave Gaza.

But after word of the cancellations spread, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated publicly that the Fulbright program was a vital part of American policy, and the awards were reinstated. Israeli officials then agreed to carry out security checks on the seven Gazans, granting four of them the permits needed to travel to the American Consulate in Jerusalem. The other three, however, were determined to have links to Hamas, which Israel and the United States regard as a terrorist group.

American officials who asked for the details of those links were given only general statements about family ties. The officials decided to find a way to get the students out — thus the drive to Gaza. “It is certainly not the norm,” Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said in Washington.

After Hamas took control of Gaza last year, Israel closed off the territory, barring virtually everyone from leaving except in a medical emergency. Egypt has agreed to Israel’s policy, meaning its border with Gaza has also remained mostly shut.

If the three Fulbright scholars — Zuhair Abu Shaaban, Fidaa Abed and Osama Daoud — do not raise alarms in their State Department vetting in the coming days, the American Consulate will grant them visas and press Israel to allow them to go to the border between the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Jordan to fly to the United States to pursue graduate degrees in engineering and computer science.

As a result of the attention to the Fulbright controversy, Israel has announced a slight change in its policy, saying that it will be open to letting more Gazan students with foreign study grants leave. In recent weeks, a few have been let out.

Israel’s closing of Gaza was supposed to ease gradually as part of a truce with Hamas, which included an end to rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. But there have been numerous violations of the truce from Gaza, by small militias that Hamas has been unable to rein in. And the closing has, in some ways, toughened in recent days as Israel responded to the violations by closing the crossings to goods.

On Thursday, Israeli soldiers killed an 18-year-old militant of Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, loosely affiliated with the Fatah movement. The militant approached the border fence and tried to enter Israel, refusing to stop after warning shots were fired. He was the first fatality since the truce was agreed on last month.

Aksa militants responded by firing two rockets at the Negev Desert in Israel. Hamas, which says it is committed to the truce, then arrested three Aksa members in connection with the rocket attack. They were the first arrests Hamas has made in its effort to make all militias accept the truce.

In the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority is officially in charge but where Israel maintains a strong military presence, Israeli troops continued to close Hamas businesses and institutions in an effort to weaken the group’s social and financial roots.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Letter to the Editor from Executive Director of the Fulbright Association

Palestinian Students
Published: June 12, 2008
To the Editor:

While the outcry over Palestinian Fulbright recipients whose grants were temporarily rescinded has prompted the Israeli government to revisit its ban on Palestinians leaving Gaza for study in other countries, the policy shift needs to go further and move more quickly.

According to Gisha, an Israeli not-for-profit organization that seeks to protect the freedom of movement of Gaza residents and other Palestinians, hundreds of Palestinian students lost their places in universities abroad last year. Hundreds more may do so this year without radical change.

Fulbright Association members, current and former Fulbright grant recipients, believe that international educational exchange is vital to peaceful and cooperative relations between peoples, as well as to participants’ personal development. Students in Gaza who have earned scholarships to pursue their education abroad deserve the opportunity to take up their studies so they can contribute to their society and to our world.

Jane L. Anderson
Executive Director
Fulbright Association
Washington, June 7, 2008

Monday, June 9, 2008

From Zohair Abu Shaban: June 7, 2008

I'm Zohair Abu Shaban, the fulbrighter who was denied entering form Erez Crossing point on Wednesday. I'm writing this letter to make you completely aware of what happened to me in Erez point.

On Tuesday evening, two of the seven fulbrighter received that they couldn't get a permission to cross Erez Crossing Point and go to Jerusalem with the other five. Luckily, as I misestimated, I was from the other five.

On Wednesday morning, I went to Erez with the other 4 fulbrighters and submitted our ID cards to the Palestinians. After nearly half an hour, the Palestinian side gave back the ID's of my 4 companies to them and, shockingly, told me that only I didn't gain a permission to cross Erez point! I phoned the consulate contact person who told me to wait until she made calls with the Israelis. I had to wait another half an hour before she called me back an told me that she succeeded to convince the Israelis to grant me a permission. I and the other fulbrighters entered to the Israeli side and sat in the waiting hall for about two hours before two soldiers come and grabbed me to a room.

In this room, I faced a very offensive physical inspection for every inch in my body. After that I was taken in a scary unknown underground path leading to a room. I waited at the room alone, may be for more than half an hour. Then they took me to the investigation room.

In the investigation room, the officer asked me many question that are really not related to me personally. He asked me about Hamas people and told me he wants to know every Hamas person I know since "I know a lot" ,as he claimed, knowing that I studied in the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG). I tried to convince him that I am independent from Hamas, I have no affiliation to it, I have no relation to its activities, I was just a student and graduated the first rank in my class that's why I became a teaching assistant in ECE department in IUG for one year after which I must manage to find another place to work, as the IUG system dictates. Then he got mad of me and told me I have only two choices to choose between; to answer his question and leave to Jerusalem OR leave to Gaza and give up my master's study for ever. I insisted on my position so he expelled me out of the office back to the waiting hall. Then, after waiting for two hours they gave me back my ID card and ordered me to return to Gaza without showing the reasons.

Now, I am totally shocked that such depreciation happened to me. I want to know what justifies this to happen to me? Am I dangerous on Israel national security? Why in the evening I was OK and in the morning I am not? Is it my fault to graduate from IUG in the first rank and work as a teaching assistant only for one year? I believe the denial is completely unfair and unacceptable.

The resultant is that three out of seven are prevented from being interviewed for the visa. I am really frustrated and I ask what will the consulate do to facilitate their exit from Gaza, respected as Fulbrighters, not violated?

Friday, June 6, 2008

Not All Grantees Able to Obtain Exit Visas

We just received the following email from a Fulbright grantee in Gaza telling us that three of the seven grantees are still waiting to travel to Jerusalem for their visas. We are calling upon everyone to continue to support the Gaza grantees. Please send in signatures, spread the word to other Fulbrighters, write to your Senators and Representatives (if American),  email the Fulbright Association, and, in short, make as much noise as possible so we can work to get these seven to the States.

We were so happy to hear that the Israelis agreed to give us exit permits to enable us reach the US Consulate in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, three guys from our group were not allowed to leave Gaza to Jerusalem. It was really shocking. Now, Fidaa', Osama, and Zohair joined the other hundreds of Gazan students who are refused exit permits. We need to continue shouting for them and to keep our voices laud.

We, the other four Fulbrighters, were able to make it as we were given the needed permits after 5 hours waiting at the Crossing.

Please try to keep all the others informed of what happened to them. The US Consulate said that they are trying with the Israeli authorities to allow them to leave. But we need your support and help.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Excellent News from Gaza

One of the Gazan grantees received an email today from the U.S. Department of State informing him that his grant had been reinstated. We are thrilled by this development and have heard from other Gazan grantees that they received the same good news. We are calling upon the global Fulbright community to continue showing their support for these seven grantees throughout their visa process. You can do this by signing the open letter below and by spreading the word about this positive step in the process of getting these grantees to the U.S.

The following is the text of the email received today (June 1, 2008) by the Gazan grantee.

The US 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.

Therefore, I'm pleased to inform you that the Bureau of Educational and Cultural affairs (ECA) of the US Department of State has instructed Amideast in Washington to continue the placement process at a US university for the 2008-09 academic year for your Fulbright program nomination.

We will notify you when your placement has been arranged to begin the next steps inthe grant process.

A Letter from Abdulrahman, A Gazan Grantee

I want to send an important message to the world, mainly to US Administration, that they succeeded to solve the problem of 7 Fulbrighters from Gaza, but there are hundreds of other Palestinian students and scholars who are trapped in Gaza and cannot reach their universities and institutions in the USA and other Western Countries.

I also want to add that the contacts that these Fellowships and exchange programs provide between liberal educated people in Gaza and the outside world are the bridges on which future peace might be built. Destroying these bridges is not in anyone's interests and it is certainly not in Israel's security interests. An educated public in Gaza is the bedrock on which a two state solution might be built one day. Without that bedrock, peace will be built on a very weak foundation."