Fulbright scholars barred from US again

The US revokes visas for Gaza students despite intervention by Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state.

Zuhair Abu Shaban displays his Palestinian passport, stamped with a visa from the United States, which was later revoked, in Gaza.
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GAZA CITY // Osama Daoud is still reeling from shock. "I am very frustrated," said the 25-year-old engineer, who lectures at the University of Palestine in Gaza. "I built a lot of dreams on this scholarship." Mr Daoud is one of three Fulbright scholars who have had their US visas revoked even after Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, intervened and Israel issued them permits to leave Gaza.

Israel had initially prevented seven Fulbright scholars from leaving Gaza, causing the US government to revoke their scholarships. When the story came to light, the US state department made a formal request to Israel to issue the seven with permits to leave. Israel granted exit permits for four of the students to go to the US consulate in Jerusalem, where they were interviewed and fingerprinted. But three, Mr Daoud, Zuhair Abu Shaban and Fida Abed, were not granted the same permits and US consulate officials instead travelled to the Erez crossing for the formal interview. All seven were then issued US visas, only for the latter three to have them revoked on Friday.

"The rejection came at the last moment," Mr Daoud said. "We had been told to prepare for departure from Gaza." The last-minute revocation meant he had to return to his former employers to ask them to rehire him. Luckily, he said, "they were very understanding". An official at the US consulate in Jerusalem yesterday said "new information" had come to light that "led us to revoke those visas". She would not elaborate on the details of that information nor what its source was. Meanwhile, a fourth student accepted on a different programme was also denied entry to the United States, she said.

"They gave us the visas on July 30 and two days later we were told the visas were not valid," Mr Shaban, who wants to pursue a second degree in electrical engineering, told Reuters. "It was a great shock. We had hoped to complete our studies, especially after we were granted the visas. We were packing our bags." Mr Daoud had no idea what that information could have been. "I don't know anything about this 'new information'. I have no idea why they cancelled my visa."

Ms Rice's intervention highlighted the plight of hundreds of Gazan students with scholarships to study abroad who remain trapped in Gaza, denied permits by the Israelis to leave. In all, 900 students have languished waiting for permission. Wael Aldaya, an instructor at Gaza's Islamic and Al Azhar universities, said he was so angry he was "ready for the lunatic asylum". "If I don't get a permit to leave, they can lock me up," said the 34-year-old economist, who was selected from among 300 applicants and granted a full scholarship by the Ford Foundation to attend Bradford University in the United Kingdom on the strength of his PhD proposal to study financial management in the context of the Palestinian Authority.

He has already missed a pre-session course this month, he said, and if he does not arrive in Britain by next month, will lose both his scholarship and his place. Mr Aldaya, founder and head of the Trapped Students of Gaza Committee, said he turned down several lucrative contracts while he worked on his PhD proposal, in addition to spurning offers from "both governments", a reference to the Hamas and West Bank Palestinian Authority administrations. "I can see no reason why Israel is not allowing students to leave other than that it wants to completely destroy Gaza's institutions," he said. "In order to develop this place, Gaza needs educated, cultured people. Without such people, Gaza is condemned to poverty. That is what Israel wants."

Mr Daoud had been granted a scholarship to complete a PhD in water management and environmental engineering at the University of Utah, a subject, he said, that is "critical for Gaza's future". "I have heard so much about academic life in America, and I was looking forward to participating in it there. We don't have the same facilities in Gaza or even in the Middle East." The US consulate official said the four students whose visa applications were revoked could reapply "at a future date". But that is scant consolation for Mr Daoud.

"I worked very hard for this scholarship. But I will continue to do my best to achieve my dreams." @Email:okarmi@thenational.ae