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The High Court of Justice yesterday called Israel's sweeping ban on Palestinian students studying here "unreasonable," and ordered the IDF to set criteria for the admission of Palestinian students into local universities within 60 days.

The court also ordered the state to allow Sawsan Salameh, an outstanding Palestinian doctoral student in chemistry, to continue her studies beyond the six months allocated to her by the state.

The interim ruling came in response to the petition filed in Salameh's name by Gisha, an Israeli non-profit organization that seeks to protect the fundamental rights of Palestinians living in the territories. Sawsen, a resident of Anata village east of Jerusalem, had been admitted to the Hebrew University on a full scholarship. She could not study in the West Bank because there is no school offering a doctoral study program in chemistry there.

After the petition was submitted, Sawsa received a permit to enter Israel for her Ph.D. studies, but for no more than six months - far less than the required period.

The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, as well as the heads of six of Israel's seven universities, and the education minister, the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and Knesset members joined the petition demanding the elimination of the blanket ban.

Until now, there were no criteria for admitting Palestinian students to study in Israel, and all applications from Palestinian students had been rejected as part of a sweeping policy to ban the entrance of students from the territories.

The academic institutions said the ban violated their academic freedom, which included the right to admit qualified students irrespective of nationality. Due to the military ban, these institutions have been unable to enroll qualified Palestinians from the territories.

The state argued it could not conduct a separate examination of each student wishing to enter Israel, to determine the extent of "security risk" involved in his or her studies, as there were too many of them.

The court instructed the state to report on the actual number of Palestinian students who have applied to study in Israel.

The state argued that Israel's citizenship law does not allow Palestinian students to enter Israel for longer than six months. But Supreme Court President, Justice Dorit Beinisch, ruled that the state's interpretation of the law was unreasonable. She told the state to reconsider Salameh's request to extend her stay at the end of six months, and told the IDF that it expected Salameh to be permitted to study for the duration of her doctoral studies.

The IDF had refused to let Salameh study at the Hebrew University and rejected her requests without saying she herself was a security risk and without checking whether she personally posed such a risk.

Gisha's director general, attorney Sari Bashi, said the court's ruling is "a recognition that the IDF cannot automatically veto the ability of Palestinian students to study in Israel. It is an unequivocal recognition of the academic freedom of Israeli universities wishing to teach students regardless of religion and nationality.