U.S. Consulate Working to Get Exit Visas for Gaza Students

Rights group: U.S. officials trying to get exits permits for Fulbright scholarship nominees.

The Associated Press
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The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem is working to get seven Gaza students out of the blockaded territory to pursue their Fulbright scholarship studies, the human rights group Gisha said Sunday.

Gisha gave the Associated Press a copy of a message sent to all seven students by the consulate on Sunday. It said U.S. officials are trying to get exit permits for them, bring them to east Jerusalem and get them visas for the U.S. Then they could continue their studies.

"We are working very closely with the Government of Israel in order to secure its cooperation in this matter," the message read. Consulate officials had no immediate comment.

Gisha director Sari Bashi welcomed the pledge of the consulate to help. "Gisha calls on Israel to allow all students with scholarships trapped in Gaza to leave and study abroad," she said.

On Thursday the students were informed that their scholarships would be canceled because the students couldn't get out of Gaza.

Israel has blockaded Gaza in the year since the Hamas gained power. Israel allows humanitarian cases to leave, but officials say students are not included. However, Israeli officials indicated a solution would be found for the students.

The U.S. State Department on Friday pressed Israel's government to allow seven Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip to travel to the United States to study on coveted Fulbright fellowships.

"We are trying to revisit this issue with the Israeli government," State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters, referring to Israel's failure to grant exit visas for the students.

"Frankly, a decision to let people that have been vetted for what is perhaps the most prestigious foreign educational program run by the United States ... it ought to be [as easy as] falling off a log for them to be able to do this."

Earlier Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she would investigate a report that the State Department had withdrawn Fulbright Scholarship grants to the Palestinian students because they were denied exit visas by Israel.

"I had not known this, and I'll look into it," Rice told reporters on her plane while flying from Stockholm, where she attended an international conference on Iraq.

"Perhaps there are reasons, but I want to look into why this has happened," she said.

The seven won the prestigious grants for education at U.S. universities and are still eligible, U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.

"The issue was that they could not get visas, so the decision was made to transfer the Fulbrights to the West Bank rather than lose them for this year," Casey said.

Hadeel Abu Kawik, 23, a computer engineering student, received her scholarship after a lengthy process that included interviews, exams and an English test.

"I was building my hope on this scholarship," she said Friday.

Named for the late U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright, the grants are the flagship U.S. government educational exchange program. They go to U.S. citizens and nationals of other countries for a variety of educational activities, primarily university lecturing, advanced research, graduate study and teaching in elementary and secondary schools. The $198 million (127.6 million Euros) annual program brings 7,000 foreign students to the U.S.