About 1,000 students from the Gaza Strip who are studying at universities abroad have been stranded in Gaza since last summer’s war with Israel. The students — whose studies and, in some cases, scholarships have been jeopardized by their failure to return to their campuses — are among some 8,000 Gazans on the Palestinian Interior Ministry’s waiting list of those who wish to go abroad if and when Egypt opens its border crossing at Rafah. Registration in advance has been required to prevent overcrowding on the few days that the crossing is open.
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Other than in exceptional cases, since 1997 Israel has not allowed Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip to go overseas by traversing Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, making Rafah their only gateway to the rest of the world. Because the Rafah crossing has been closed for extended periods since the 2013 overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and due to the increasingly problematic security situation in Sinai, Gazans who had plans to leave the Strip (or return) have had to defer them.
In December, COGAT, the office of the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (a unit of the Ministry of Defense), responded to a request from the Palestinian Authority and as a special gesture allowed 150 university students to leave the Strip via the Erez crossing into Israel and from there on to Jordan. Haaretz has learned from COGAT, however, that in practice only 38 people crossed into Israel and left through the border with Jordan. The others apparently left via the Rafah crossing with Egypt, which was opened by the Egyptians for three days in December and three days in January.
Information from Israel’s Gisha legal center for freedom of movement, indicates that the Palestinian Authority had actually asked Israel for permission to allow 300 Gazan students to cross into Jordan via the Allenby Bridge. The process of getting permission for 150 of them took about a month. The Palestinian Authority has just submitted a request for another 100 to leave Gaza via Israel and Jordan. Last Thursday Gisha asked COGAT to allow eight students that the organization represents to leave via the Allenby Bridge with Jordan. The organization said the request on the behalf of the eight had been submitted about two months ago but has yet to receive a response.
A COGAT spokeswoman told Haaretz: “COGAT is examining going beyond normal procedure with regard to the departure of students from Gaza who are leaving for higher education studies abroad, following the closure of the Rafah crossing. Additional requests are currently being considered in connection with departures for academic study abroad.”
Delay jeopardizes scholarships
In addition to the months of studies that the students have missed, the delay in their departure from Gaza in some cases could result in the expiration of their visas in the countries where they are studying as well as a loss of scholarship funds.
Majdi Ismail, who is a resident of the central Gaza Strip, says if he is unable to leave Gaza by the end of February for medical school in Tunisia, his Tunisian visa will expire. In addition, however, he will lose the full six-year scholarship that he was granted a year and a half ago. He got the scholarship just after graduating from high school in the summer of 2013, he told Haaretz. He was unable to leave the Strip via Rafah at the time and instead used the time to study French in Gaza.
He then planned to leave in August of last year, but his plans were scuttled by last summer’s war with Israel. He attempted to cross into Egypt on the occasions when the border was open, but he didn’t manage to get through due to the large numbers seeking to leave.
“I am like any university student around the world,” he told Haaretz. “I’m not asking for anything unreasonable or imaginary. I want to study and then return to my country to serve my people. Those are my aspirations and the aspirations of my family, but a few days and nights are liable to determine my future if I don’t leave very soon.”