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The Israeli government is arbitrarily blocking some 670 students in Gaza from pursuing higher education abroad, Human Rights Watch said today. Israel is denying exit permits that the young men and women need to leave Gaza for university programs in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Germany, Britain, and the United States.

The students are among roughly 6,400 Gazans with foreign citizenship, permanent residency, work permits, student visas or university admissions abroad, who have been trapped in Gaza since June, when Hamas took control of the territory by force.

Israel has near total control of Gaza’s borders – land, air, and sea. Since June, it has mostly allowed only extreme medical emergencies, some journalists, and employees of international organizations to leave.

“Israel seems determined to punish all Gazans, including students, for the behavior of Hamas,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division. “Israel should not make young people seeking education pay the price for its conflict with a political or military group.”

Universities in Gaza do not offer degrees in a variety of subjects, including undergraduate degrees in languages other than Arabic, English and French, and master’s degrees in law, journalism and information technology. Doctoral degrees are not offered at all in Gaza or the West Bank.

Israel forbids Gaza residents from studying in Israel or the West Bank, and rarely permits foreign professors and lecturers to visit Gaza to teach.

Most of the students are waiting for permission to leave Gaza, either to get visas for the countries where they have been admitted to universities or to travel to those countries directly. Many started their studies in previous years and were trapped in Gaza when they returned home for the summer.

In some cases, Israeli authorities have given students exit permits but then refused to let them leave via the passenger crossing at Erez due to unspecified “security concerns.”

Among the roughly 670 students, some 400 are trying to pursue their studies in Egypt. The southern crossing from Gaza to Egypt at Rafah has been closed since June 9, 2007, at Israel’s insistence. Reopening it requires the participation of Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority, under the terms of the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access. Israel has declared its opposition to reopening Rafah. Both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority appear to have acquiesced to Israel’s demand, and have not pressed for the crossing to reopen.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority have proposed the Kerem Shalom crossing, located inside Israel near the Gaza-Egypt border, as an alternative to Erez and Rafah for general passenger traffic. Hamas objects because Kerem Shalom lies under Israeli control, and it has launched rocket attacks on the crossing to prevent passenger use.

“Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas share some blame for trapping the Gazan students,” Whitson said. “But ultimate responsibility rests with Israel, which has the ability and legal obligation as the occupying power of Gaza to promote free movement and access to education.”

In October, Human Rights Watch interviewed 12 students in Gaza who were trying to leave for universities in the United States, United Kingdom, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and the West Bank, as well one who was accepted into a media development program run by the United Nations in New York. They include:

•Ghassan Mattar, 25, who is waiting to start his master’s degree in business information systems at Central Michigan University in the US. The semester started on August 27, he said, but he has not been able to leave Gaza to obtain a US visa in Jerusalem. “The denial of entry for me is causing a very personal crisis,” he said. “You know what it means for you if you are about to get a master’s degree from the US. This can change your entire life and enable you to get better job opportunities.”

•Another student, who did not want her name published, returned to Gaza over the summer to conduct research for a study on ground water modeling in Gaza for her master’s program in Jordan. She has a Jordanian visa, but the Israeli authorities have refused to let her out of Gaza. “I have tried many ways to get a permit to go to Jordan through Erez because Rafah crossing is closed, but all my efforts went in vain,” she said.

Khaled al-Mudallal, 22, who is getting his bachelor's degree at the Bradford School of Management in the UK. In June, he came home from Bradford, where he has lived for six years, to visit his family and pick up his fiancee, and he has not been able to leave Gaza since. On September 17, the Tel Aviv-based human rights group Gisha petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to let Khaled out. The court rejected the appeal.

•Hatem Shurab, 22, who was one of 10 Palestinians selected for a UN training program for media practitioners in New York in November. He and two others from Gaza are stuck and will not be able to attend. “I tried hard to get a visa, I’m still trying hard,” he said. “I tried to get a permit for Erez but they denied me. They didn’t give a reason.”

•Mohamed al-Alem, 19, who is a student at the American University in Cairo, has a full scholarship and is trying to resume his studies. “I finished two semesters and I came back in the beginning of June to visit my family,” he said. “And now I’m stuck in Gaza. I told the school and they said okay, but one and half weeks ago they said I’ll have to lose the semester.”

•Mariam Fadel Ashour, 18, who spent 2005-2006 at a high school in San Francisco, California, in the US. She returned to Gaza in August 2006 to finish high school and won a scholarship to study business administration at Columbia College in South Carolina, US. She is waiting for an exit permit to obtain a US visa in Jerusalem. “I have already lost the first semester which started in September and will finish in December while the second semester starts in mid-January,” she said. “I don’t know what will happen if I could not join the second semester.”

In late August and early September, Israel allowed a bus shuttle service to transfer people out through the Erez crossing and on to the Nitzana crossing between Gaza and Egypt. On four occasions, buses transported approximately 550 people in total, including roughly 80 students. Buses were set to take more people on September 12, but the Israeli military abruptly halted the service.

In a petition challenging the restriction on students filed by the human rights group Gisha on behalf of the student Khaled al-Mudallal, mentioned above, the Israeli Supreme Court on October 2 rejected the petition on the basis of the military’s claim that the bus service would resume that same day. As of today, no bus service has resumed.

Gisha petitioned the Supreme Court a second time on October 22 on behalf of Khaled al-Mudallal and six other students, asking that Israel allow them and all other trapped students to leave Gaza to resume their studies. The case is pending.

Five days after the bus service stopped, on September 19, the Israeli cabinet declared Gaza “hostile territory” and voted to impose “restrictions on the movement of people to and from the Strip.” The government says implementation of the decision is pending legal review, but the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza has dropped sharply since the cabinet’s decision.

The government said the cabinet decision was in response to continuing rocket fire into the Israeli town of Sderot and other communities by Palestinian armed groups. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that “the objective is to weaken Hamas.”

Human Rights Watch has long condemned rocket attacks by Gaza-based Palestinian armed groups into civilian areas of Israel because the rockets are highly inaccurate and cannot be directed at a specific military target, making them indiscriminate and often deliberate attacks on civilians. Hamas exercises power inside Gaza and therefore is responsible for the rocket attacks against Israel, even when carried out by other armed groups. At the same time, Israel’s response to those unlawful attacks must itself be permissible under international humanitarian law.

Since the September cabinet decision, Israel has not publicly explained what security concerns it has to justify the denial of exit permits to Gazan students. A Human Rights Watch request to meet the Israel Defense Forces to discuss the trapped students was not granted.

Under international humanitarian law, Israel remains the occupying power in Gaza even though it withdrew its permanent military forces and settlers in 2005, because it continues to exercise effective day-to-day control over most aspects of Gaza life. In addition to its control over Gaza’s land, air, and sea borders, Israel controls most of the territory’s electricity, water, and sewage capacity, its telecommunications networks and population registry, and it regularly conducts military operations inside Gaza.

International human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Israel ratified in 1992, applies in Israel and wherever Israeli officials have “effective control.” Prohibiting students from traveling abroad to study constitutes an arbitrary and unlawful infringement on the right to freedom of movement. This includes the right to leave one’s own country, guaranteed in article 12 of the ICCPR. Human rights law permits restrictions on freedom of movement for security reasons, but the restrictions must have a clear legal basis, be limited to what is necessary, and be proportionate to the threat.

The arbitrary restrictions on students are also a violation of the right to freedom of education, set out in article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Israel ratified in 1992.

“The countries where these students are hoping to go should speak out about this violation of basic rights,” Whitson said. “It is in no one’s interest for Gazans to be denied access to higher education.”

More than 30 students are trying to go to the United States, including six who won a US government-funded Fulbright scholarship.

The US consulate in Jerusalem told Human Rights Watch that it is working with the Israeli government to get the students out. “We are beginning to see progress on this issue and will continue to raise it at the highest levels,” a spokeswoman said.

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