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WASHINGTON - "This is one of the oddest things we have encountered in recent years," an Israeli official said of a long sequence of events that began with intense American pressure to allow two young Palestinian students to leave Gaza to study in the United States and ended with the U.S. barring their entry and canceling the visas it had granted them.

It all started around two and a half months ago, when Israel turned down an American request to allow seven Palestinian academics, who had received scholarships sponsored by the State Department, to leave the Gaza Strip to attend a visa interview that would enable them to leave for the U.S. The whole matter turned into a mini-crisis between the State Department and Israel's Foreign Ministry. At its height, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice contacted Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni with a request to allow the students' departure.

After a series of Israeli and American security-assessment procedures, all seven academics received visas. Four left to study in the U.S. Israel maintained that the remaining three had "a problematic security background," and hinted that they had ties to terrorists. But the Americans stood their ground, demanding that the three leave for the U.S., especially given that their visa request had been approved. The request was relayed to Israel by senior State Department officials in Washington, led by Rice's undersecretary for Middle East affairs, David Walsh. Rice, too, was apprised of the details.

Expired passport

Last Sunday it was decided that two of the three - scholar Fidaa Abed and high school student Ahmed Ma'ari - would head to Jordan and proceed to the U.S from there. To avoid another confrontation with the U.S. administration, all the relevant bodies in Israel were mobilized for the effort. More than 20 officials from the Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry, Border Crossing Authority, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the Shin Bet security service, as well as several diplomats at the Israeli Embassy in Washington worked on "the project." "The State of Israel went out of its way for these two guys," said a senior Israeli official who coordinated the effort.

Last Tuesday afternoon, "the operation" was launched. The two academics arrived at the Erez checkpoint, where several diplomats from the American consulate in Jerusalem waited for them, in order to accompany them to the Allenby Bridge crossing. The trip to the border, which started with smiles and optimism, quickly turned into a comedy of errors that greatly embarrassed the State Department.

An Israeli government official said the American diplomats, who exerted intense pressure on Israel to enable the departure of the two, forgot to check if their passports were valid. During the trip to Allenby Bridge, they realized that the high school student's passport had long since expired. When they reached the border crossing, the staff of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories discovered this fact and issued a special travel document.

That was when the problems really started. According to the Israeli official, the Americans did not update the authorities in Jordan, whose territory Gaza residents are not allowed to enter without special permission. And so, after they had already passed through the Israeli terminal, the two Palestinians were left in the no-man's land between the two border crossings, with their entry into Jordan not approved.

However, a senior American official in Israel said the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem and embassies in Tel Aviv and Amman had worked with the Israeli and Jordanian governments to fully coordinate the crossing. The source said the students' 12-hour delay had no connection with any action taken or not taken by American officials.

A protest on the road

At 8 P.M., when the border crossing closes, the Israeli border terminal workers approached the U.S. diplomats and suggested they return to Gaza and try crossing the following day, after having dealt with the passport matter. "I'm not interested, I'm not moving from here until they open the bridge," said one American diplomat and sat down in the road in protest.

After consulting with the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry and the office of the Shin Bet chief, it was decided to leave the bridge open, until the Jordanians finally agreed to the Americans' request at 9 P.M. and allowed the Palestinians to pass. But this was not the end of the two Palestinians' travails.

The high school student remained in Amman for a few days. His friend departed for Washington on Saturday night. However, after a 12-hour flight, when he got to the border control station in Washington, an unpleasant surprise awaited him. The U.S. immigration officials informed him that his visa has been canceled and put him on a plane back to the Jordanian capital. The high school student, who was still waiting in Amman, was notified that his visa had been canceled, too. He already returned to Gaza yesterday, disappointed, while his friend remains frustrated in Jordan.

Israel has asked the State Department in Washington for some clarifications, and local officials are especially upset at the behavior of the American diplomat at the Allenby Bridge. "It's a disgrace," said a senior Foreign Ministry official. "If I had behaved that way at an American border crossing, I'd either be in jail or no longer in the U.S."

A spokesman for the U.S. State Department told The New York Times, which first reported yesterday on the revocation of the visas that the visas were canceled because of new information received by the U.S. authorities. The paper reported that Rice was unhappy about the way these cases were handled and that a thorough review had been ordered to prevent a recurrence.

Gisha, an Israeli organization aimed at protecting Palestinian freedom of movement, says the problems the Palestinian students faced are not out of the ordinary.

"In addition to the particular students who did not receive visas for technical reasons or unexplained security reasons, there are hundreds of students in the Gaza Strip who were accepted by universities abroad and have valid visas," said Gisha executive director Sari Bashi. But, she added, "Israel issues a comprehensive ban on students from Gaza going abroad, as part of its policy of collective punishment toward Gaza residents, thereby impinging on the right to education of hundreds of talented young people who want to study, develop and create a better future in our region."

Some 1,100 university students wanted to leave Gaza to study abroad last September, of whom 480 went to Egypt and from there traveled elsewhere, according to Gisha. However, Israel has not operated such trips from Gaza to Egypt since January.