US anti-terrorism act costs Palestinian students in Lebanon their scholarships

Lebanese universities have pledged to allow students to continue their education

A picture taken on March 14, 2014, in the Lebanese capital Beirut shows the entrance of the American University of Beirut Medical Center. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who led the regime's negotiating team at failed peace talks this year, has been admitted to hospital in neighbouring Lebanon, a medical source said. AFP PHOTO/ANWAR AMRO (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)
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Nearly 30 undergraduate Palestinian students at two major Lebanese universities will lose their US State Department scholarships due to new US anti-terrorism legislation, shocking students who say it unfairly jeopardises their future in the name of politics.

Currently 15 students at the American University of Beirut (AUB), and 13 Lebanese American University (LAU) students study under the US-Middle East Partnership Initiative’s Tomorrow’s Leaders scholarship programme (MEPI-TL), a four year scholarship largely funded by the US State Department that covers tuition, living allowance and travel expenses for underprivileged students from several Middle Eastern countries.

But an “unintended consequence” of the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act of 2018 (ATCA) passed by US Congress on October 3 last year is that these students will lose their funding by the end of the month, leaving their institutions struggling to make up the deficit.

ATCA was initially designed to help American victims of terrorism sue their attackers in US courts by obliging foreign bodies which accept US external assistance to consent to being prosecuted in the US.

But the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) opted to decline the US assistance referenced to in ATCA rather than being exposed to potentially costly lawsuits, explains Scott R Anderson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written several articles about ATCA.

Part of the assistance the Palestinians gave up covered the MEPI-TL programme.

“The law doesn’t end assistance, it just makes it very difficult for Palestinians to accept it,” said Mr Anderson.

The US government only informed AUB earlier this month that as an “unintended consequence” of the act, the scholarship would be suspended, AUB president Fadlo Khuri wrote in a letter published on January 24.

That left AUB scrambling to fill an estimated $1.2 million funding shortfall, according to a source at the prestigious Beirut institution. AUB will be “exploring different options to make up the shortfall and keep the students in school, including seeking donations” without dipping into other students’ financial aid, the source said.

LAU did not say how much its Palestinian students’ studies cost but said that it “has committed to covering their expenses for spring 2019” and is “working hard to secure the financing of their studies after spring 2019”.

In an e-mail, the US State Department confirmed that it had "taken steps to wind down or modify certain projects and programs, including Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) programs at certain regional universities". The spokesperson also said that the State Department had "worked with the universities to ensure all affected students are able to continue their studies through the 2018-2019 academic year at their current institutions."

Launched in 2007, the MEPI-TL programme was initially offered to students from Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Algeria. In 2014, it was extended to students from the West Bank and Gaza. The first cohort of Palestinian students will graduate in 2019.

The aim of the scholarship is to "give access to American style universities in the Middle East to intellectually gifted students with leadership potential and professional skills who otherwise could not afford it”, said the AUB source.

Both universities have discouraged their Palestinian students from speaking to the media. “We want the students to concentrate on their studies and the transition from the MEPI-TL programme to a contingency plan to be as seamless as possible,” said the AUB source.

“The impact on the students is overwhelming as the whole promising future through higher education is now at stake,” said Gabriel Abiad, assistant vice president for strategic communications at LAU.

Privately, some AUB students told The National they were fuming. "I think it's dehumanising students in the name of politics," said one Palestinian student, who is not part of the MEPI-TL programme.

The law is one of the latest blows to US-Palestinian relations which have soured under the administration of President Donald Trump.

Over the past year, the US has dramatically reduced the amount of foreign aid provided to the Palestinians, blaming them for the failure of the peace process with Israel. After recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, the White House decided to halt all funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), which provides aid to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. It also ordered the closure of the Washington mission of the PLO.

However ATCA was not pushed by the Trump administration but by members of Congress who did not fully understand its consequences on foreign aid, said Mr Anderson. “ATCA advocates want Palestine to continue receiving foreign assistance because it’s one of the hooks that requires the recipient of the assistance to be exposed to lawsuits in the US.”

According to Mr Anderson, the PA and PLO will probably also decide not to accept funds worth $60 million primarily used to support the Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, often cited by Israeli officials as having improved the security situation in the West Bank. “Even the Trump administration is now expressing reservations about ATCA,” said Mr Anderson. “They are discussing possibly amending the law.”

It remains to be seen whether these amendments would include reinstating assistance to Palestinian students in Lebanon.