Friday, June 6, 2008

Trapped in Gaza

Many readers will have seen recent press reports about the cancellation of Fulbright grants to 7 students whom Israel had not allowed to leave Gaza, the reversal of that decision after media coverage of the cancellation, and the negotiations between the United States and Israel over allowing the students to leave and take up their studies. As I write, Israel has agreed to give visas to 4 of them, while the cases of the other 3 are pending. The major group working to help these students is the Tel Aviv-based human rights organization Gisha.

In today's issue of Science, I report on the decision of Brown University emeritus professor of mathematics David Mumford, who was recently awarded the prestigious Wolf Prize along with two other mathematicians, to give his share of the award money to Gisha and to Birzeit University on the West Bank. This "Newsmaker" item is available here, but only for those with online access to the magazine; however I think that my editors will not mind if I reproduce this short article below.

Last Monday, the Israeli Supreme Court heard the cases of two other students trapped in Gaza, Nibal Nayef, 27, and Wissam Abuajwa, 31, who have grants to study in Germany and the United Kingdom, respectively. As reported by Gisha, the court criticized the Israeli government position, pointing out that it was detrimental to future peace prospects, and gave the government 15 days to "reflect" on its policy.

Today, Gisha released a new report, available online in pdf form, concluding that hundreds of students are trapped in Gaza and cannot reach their studies. I have reproduced Gisha's press release here, below the Mumford item.

Map: BBC

From the June 6, 2008 issue of Science:


Figure 1
CALCULUS OF PEACE. David Mumford, one of three winners of the 2008 mathematics prize from the Israel-based Wolf Foundation, is donating his share of the $100,000 award to Palestinian causes. Mumford, professor emeritus of mathematics at Brown University, will give half of his award to Birzeit University in the West Bank and half to the Tel Aviv-based human rights organization Gisha, which works for freedom of movement of Palestinians in Gaza.

A pioneer in algebraic geometry who previously won the Fields Medal, mathematics' highest honor, the 70-year-old Mumford says his donations were inspired by a trip to Israel and Palestine 4 years ago, when he saw how difficult it was for Palestinians to study abroad. Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, says Israeli restrictions on travel from Gaza are particularly hard on science students: "There are many advanced degrees that don't exist in Gaza. Hundreds of students are trapped there and can't reach their studies."

Mumford stresses that he is "not doing this as a criticism of Israel. This is in Israel's interest as well. Educated Palestinians can be better partners for peace than uneducated ones." A full list of Wolf Prize winners is at

* * *

Gisha press release:

News Release – For Immediate Release - Friday, June 6, 2008

Closure of Gaza Isn't Just Trapping a Few Dozen Students -

New Report by Gisha:

Hundreds of Students in Gaza Denied Access to Education

Friday, June 6, 2008: Israel's closure of the Gaza Strip isn't just harming a few dozen students with study grants – hundreds of students accepted to foreign universities are still trapped in Gaza, denied the right to freedom of movement and to access education - according to a new report issued today by Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement. The report comes as Israeli officials say they will let a few students out of Gaza – but will maintain the closure policy preventing most of the students from leaving Gaza.

The report, "Held Back – Students Trapped in Gaza", describes a chronicle of closure, in which students enrolled in universities abroad have been barred from leaving Gaza since January 2008 – even though critically needed fields, including all doctoral programs, many advanced degree programs, and some medical and para-medical studies are not available in the Gaza Strip. The report documents the claim of Israel's military that allowing students from Gaza to leave for study abroad is "far beyond the humanitarian standard which Israel is obligated to uphold".

The report warns that these students will lose their chances to pursue higher education abroad – unless the closure policy is reversed.

The report is issued amid mounting criticism of the ban on student travel, in the wake of Israel's initial refusal to allow seven recipients of the prestigious U.S.-funded Fulbright scholarships to leave Gaza. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed support for the rights of Gaza residents to access education, saying that, "if you cannot engage young people and give them a complete horizon to their expectations and to their dreams, then I don't know that there would be any future for Palestine".

Under pressure, Israeli officials on Thursday said they would let some students leave Gaza, but only those with foreign grants and only in limited numbers. But today's report notes that hundreds of students are trapped in Gaza, just some of the 1.5 million people denied normal life by the year-long closure of Gaza's borders.

According to Gisha Director Sari Bashi: "When Secretary of State Rice said the right to access education is critical to the future of the region, I don't think she limited it to a few dozen students lucky enough to win scholarships. The closure of Gaza is trapping hundreds of students accepted to foreign universities – why does Israel continue to refuse to let them study?"

To view the report:

The New York Times reports today that Israel has now reconsidered its policy and will begin to "look favorably" upon requests for visas by Palestinian students. This is clearly a result of the considerable publicity this issue has received in recent days.

More on Gaza: The Times also features a piece by an American aid worker, entitled "The Smells of Gaza," about the serious consequences of the Israeli blockade on the health and welfare of Gazans.

Update (June 9): This past weekend Counterpunch published an interesting interview with Ilan Pappe, the Israeli historian and author of "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine," and Noam Chomsky, about the current Israeli-Palestinian situation. Scroll down slightly on the page to see it. One thing that Pappe and Chomsky stress, and I think they are right, is that it is no longer taboo to criticize Israeli government policies, which many now see as the principal obstacle to peace.

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