Israel Allows Gaza Athletes to Cross Into West Bank, but Bars Outstanding Academics

Loujain, Mohammed and Said are not soccer players in whom FIFA, the international soccer federation, takes any interest. No international academic association has stood up for their basic right to choose where they will study.

Ihab (the subject of last week's column ) was allowed by Israel to enter the West Bank for a specified period of time in order to get engaged. Students from Gaza are not allowed to study in the West Bank. The universities there are, after all, a hotbed for love affairs, raising the fear that young people will move to Judea and Samaria to settle.

The one thing that Loujain A-Zaim, a law student, Mohammed, a student of engineering, and Sa'id Qadih, a poet, have in common is that they are not players on the Palestinian national soccer team. If they were, these three young and talented Palestinians, residents of Gaza, would have received from Israeli authorities permits to leave Gaza via the Erez checkpoint, travel through Israel and then stay in the West Bank.

Palestinian law student

There are 16 items on the list of categories of people allowed to leave Gaza and enter Israel and the "Judea and Samaria Region." It is a long list, compiled by Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT ), which includes several hundred people (out of a million and a half ) granted some measly freedom of movement by Israel. Among them are medical teams, patients in need of life-saving treatment, first-degree relatives of the very ill, collaborators (called "threatened parties" ) and merchants. Number 15 on the list stands out: "Entry of soccer players: Entry into Israel, including for transfer to the Judea and Samaria Region or abroad, is granted to players of the Palestinian national soccer team and the Palestinian Olympic team for participation in training and team games, subject to a request from the Palestinian Civil Affairs Coordination Office."

But Loujain, Mohammed and Said are not soccer players in whom FIFA, the international soccer federation, takes any interest. Their travel to the West Bank and presence there are forbidden. No international academic association has stood up for their basic right to choose where they will study.

Sa'id Qadih is a young man who balances between economic and business administration studies in Gaza and writing poems that have garnered interest locally and abroad. The Palestinian Ministry of Culture in Ramallah invited Qadih to a series of encounters and poetry readings. But the "Public Petitions Center" at the District Coordination and Liaison Office (the DCL, subordinate to COGAT ) has already informed Gisha - The Legal Center for Freedom of Movement that "upon examination of your client's petition it was decided to turn down the request."

Mohammed, 19, left Gaza twice in 2009 through the Erez checkpoint to the West Bank and then abroad. He participated in a peace delegation of Israeli and Palestinian youth. The funding was American. This year he was accepted to the mechatronics faculty (a profession combining mechanical engineering and computer science ) at Bir Zeit University.

His father teased him a bit, as he told me by phone from Gaza, for his naivete - believing he would be allowed to travel 70 kilometers and study at a Palestinian university, with other Palestinians, four kilometers away from the Muqata'a, the presidential compound of Mahmoud Abbas. And indeed, in this case as well, "upon examination of your client's petition it was decided to turn down the request."

Loujain a-Zaim will be 18 in January. Her grade average in her matriculation exams last year was 98. She studied at the "Holy Family" high school, funded by the Vatican though the great majority of its 1,200 pupils are Muslim. I asked her a rhetorical question: "Didn't you know that Israel does not allow students from Gaza to study in the West Bank?" Three years ago, her elder brother, also a top student, was accepted to Bir Zeit. When the permit to travel through Israel was denied, he went to study law in London.

Loujain visited the West Bank only once in her life: for one day at the age of six. Almost from the beginning of her high school studies she dreamed of studying at Bir Zeit. "I applied because I had hope. After all, I haven't done anything - I'm just a normal young woman and I thought I would receive a permit."

She waited for about a month until the reply reached the Gisha offices. Of course: "upon examination of your client's petition it was decided to turn down the request." Did you cry? "Yes," she admits with an embarrassed smile that could be clearly heard over the phone from her home in the Rimal neighborhood in Gaza. She even announced to her family that she wouldn't go to university at all. But finally she was persuaded to begin law studies at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.

Copy-and-paste replies

It is not the meanness or slothfulness of the Gaza DCL officials (or their superiors at COGAT ) that are responsible for such "copy and paste" answers. They are just implementing policy. The policy is one of "segregation" - separation between Gaza and the West Bank - that does not allow the populations of the two parts of the same geographic entity (according to the Oslo Accords ) to mix. And I'll say it again (for the millionth and third time ): It is a policy of de facto disconnection, which began 15 years before Hamas took power in Gaza in 2006.

From a conversation with an official in the implementing arm of the segregation policy, I find out about the two pillars on which the prohibition on student travel to the West Bank rest. The first, as expected, has to do with security. "Students around the world are of the rebellious type." Indeed, the state's response to a petition by Gisha from 2007 regarding the case of students who applied for occupational therapy studies at Bethlehem University (a petition turned down by the High Court of Justice ) claimed that universities in the West Bank serve as a hotbed for terrorists. The language and logic are those of the Shin Bet security service, whose assertions the justices of the High Court do not question. Nevertheless, the court recommended creating a "mechanism for examining such cases on an individual basis." Maybe that's why the copy-and-paste replies to these three talented would-be students mention that their petition was "examined." If their cases had indeed been examined, the examination would certainly have revealed that the three are not a potential al-Qaida cell.

But then there's the second pillar of the segregation policy, which is not declared openly: It is the "fear of settling down," as defined for me by the same official of the system's implementing arm. After all, universities across the world are also hotbeds for making new acquaintances, falling in love and even getting married. And then, the fear of the Israeli system is that residents of Gaza will move their "center of life" to the West Bank, find work there, have children and settle down. The equivalent would be fearing that residents of Ashkelon may settle down in Tel Aviv or Haifa.

That fear of settling down in the West Bank was at the basis of the refusal to grant the request of Ihab, of whom I wrote here last week (a Gazan M.A. student in the United States who wishes to become engaged to his beloved, who lives in the West Bank ). To say that Israel denies him the right to get engaged is a cynical misrepresentation, so I was told. After all, his girlfriend can go to Jordan to get engaged there, or the U.S. Nevertheless, the High Court justices who heard Gisha's petition regarding Ihab's case last week recommended that the state reconsider its position. And the state (that is, the Israel Defense Forces and the Ministry of Defense / COGAT ) did provide this answer last Thursday: "The respondents hereby announce that ex gratia, they are willing to grant the request of petitioner 1 to enter the Judea and Samaria Region from Jordan through Allenby Bridge for a visit of limited time. His entry will be allowed subject to a surety bond of NIS 10,000 to ensure his exit from the Judea and Samaria Region by the date specified in the petition."

Don't worry - when he gets married and the two have children, we'll make sure they don't settle down in the West Bank.