Despite Pledge, Israel Still Denying Gaza Students Permits to Study in West Bank

Students from the Gaza Strip are still being met with a blanket denial of requests to study in the West Bank. The blanket denial comes in spite of Israel's pledge as part of the passage agreement with the Palestinians that bus convoy links between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank would be permitted.

The Israel Defense Forces responded this week to the second petition of the students to the High Court of Justice by stating that the bus convoy agreement does not apply to students. The petitioners, seven male and three female students, were first refused entry to the West Bank by the IDF in 2003, after having been accepted to a special physical therapy program at Bethlehem University funded by the Norwegian government.

Since that time, they have had to study by means of video, the Internet and random lessons given by foreign lecturers permitted into the Gaza Strip. At present there is only one licensed physical therapist in the Gaza Strip.

The petitioners are represented by attorneys Kenneth Mann and Sari Bashi of Gisha, the Center for the Legal Protection of Freedom of Movement.

The petition names the GOC Southern Command as the individual "in control of all passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and responsible for protecting the rights" of the residents of these areas. It also names the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank that "maintains in the name of Israel the area of the West Bank in a state of belligerent occupancy and is responsible for the security and rights of the residents of the areas of its occupation."

The petition also names the interior minister and the director of the Population Administration, "who have the authority to permit entry into Israel by individuals living in the Gaza Strip."

The first petition, submitted in 2004, was rejected by the High Court, which cited the severe security problems at that time. However, the justices told the petitioners they would be able to renew requests for passage in the future. They did so, and were repeatedly rejected.

In November 2004, the petitioners discovered that the refusal applied to all Gaza Strip residents wishing to study in the West Bank; according to a letter written at that time by Lieutenant Colonel Avi Biton from the office of the IDF Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories to the Physicians for Human Rights organization, no students from the Strip are permitted to study in the West Bank.

Last week, the representative of the IDF legal advisor in the Southern Command, Lieutenant Metal Zrihan, told Bashi that the GOC Southern Command "does not permit the passage of students from Gaza to the West Bank and that nothing in the signature on the agreement [regarding the passage of buses in convoys] would change this policy."

Zrihan said talks were underway on the matter.

Haaretz received a similar response from the spokesperson for the IDF Coordinator's Office.

Attorneys Mann and Bashi wrote in the petition that preventing the students from leaving the Gaza Strip contravened Israeli and international law, contradicted Israel's international obligation to regard the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a single territorial unit and harmed the health and welfare of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip that Israel is obligated to preserve.

The petition also stated that blanket refusal was unreasonable as it impaired the ability of individuals to make their specific case. In addition, the petition said the IDF refusal ran contrary to the principle of proportionality because it did not giving adequate weight to their rights of freedom of movement, education and employment.