Tamara Traubmann
October 29, 2007 - 7:12pm

Thousands of people and one very active Internet site have been busy these days with Khaled Al-Mudallal's right to return - that is, his right to return to the University of Bradford in England. Mudallal, 22, was supposed to be devoting his entire attention right now to his last year of studies for a bachelor's degree in business administration. But instead, he is stuck in Rafah and cannot see how he will be able to leave the Gaza Strip and finish his studies.

He is not the only person in such a predicament. More than 6,000 people have requested to leave Gaza - one-10th of them students who are studying abroad and have already missed the start of the academic year. But Israel is not allowing them to travel to Egypt and continue onward to their respective places of study from there.

Mudallal was born in the Rafah refugee camp. He has six other siblings. He went to Bradford six years ago, following in his father's footsteps, who completed his doctorate in history there. "I understood that England was a wonderful place to be, an interesting place where I could develop," he says, explaining his decision to remain abroad even after his father returned to Gaza. "Until then, I had lived in Palestine. It was entirely new for me to live in an area that was not occupied, in a wide open place."

Last June, he came to visit his family in Rafah. He planned to marry his fiancee, Duah, and take her with him on a honeymoon to London. But the timing of the visit turned out to be problematic: In June Hamas took control of Gaza and, in response, Israel tightened its sanctions against the Strip. The Rafah border crossing is closed most of the time and the passage of Gaza's residents into Egypt has virtually come to a standstill. Although Israel has in fact created a system of transportation for the Palestinians, by means of buses that take them from the Erez checkpoint to the border crossing with Egypt at Nitzana, it is not operational at present.

Jeopardizing degrees

According to a report published last week by Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement (www.gisha.org), there are currently some 6,400 people waiting to leave the Gaza Strip. About 670 of them are students who want to go study in Europe, the United States, various Middle Eastern countries and elsewhere. The delay of their departure could mean they would lose an entire academic year and perhaps even their place at the university, and it jeopardizes the grants and the visas they have received.

Gisha has petitioned the High Court of Justice on Mudallal's behalf, demanding that Israel allow him and his wife to leave the Gaza Strip. At the beginning of this month, the High Court rejected the demand. In its response to the court, the state claimed that the system of transportation to Nitzana - which came to a complete standstill in September - would be resumed that very day, and the judges stated that Mudallal would have to wait his turn.

This could turn into a prolonged delay. Since June, a mere 480 people have left the Gaza Strip using the Israeli transportation system. According to Gisha's report, even if the system were to resume operations immediately, Mudallal - who was assigned number 4,845 - would leave Gaza in another 502 days - almost a year and a half from now.

But the transportation has not yet resumed. According to the spokesman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Shlomo Dror: "There is an intention" of resuming the system in the near future via the Kerem Shalom crossing point. Dror explains that its operation was stopped for security reasons.

"The decision was made by Southern Command, on the grounds that there was heavy firing of mortar bombs and that the Israel Defense Forces was unable to devote additional manpower for the purpose of taking Palestinians out," Dror told Haaretz. "The Palestinians complain to us that they can't leave to go and study. The complaint should be addressed to Hamas - I would very much like Khaled to go study. If Khaled has complaints, he should go to Hamas and say: 'Sorry, you are responsible for my life in Gaza, you have taken control of Gaza. Stop shooting mortar bombs on the crossing points so they will let us out.'"

Last Monday, Gisha once again petitioned the High Court on behalf of students from Gaza, calling for "the policy of collective punishment" that prevents them from going to study abroad to be rejected.

"Rather than fulfilling its obligation to find the resources necessary to open the borders and let the students out, the army has chosen to keep the borders shut," Gisha's director general, Sari Bashi, said. "The Erez checkpoint is open and people are able to cross over there to Israel. It is the army that has decided that students will not leave. Since September's cabinet decision calling for steps to punish the residents of the Gaza Strip, the shuttle service has been canceled and the army has locked up students and thousands of others inside Gaza. International law forbids the deliberate harming of residents of Sderot, and it also forbids deliberately harming one and a half million civilians in Gaza in reprisal."

Hampering education

Gaza's youngsters are limited in their ability to get an academic education. There are only three universities in the Gaza Strip. The departments for bachelor studies do not include subjects vital to Gaza's future well-being, including for example occupational therapy, speech therapy and physiotherapy. The number of possibilities for a master's degree is extremely limited. As for studies in the West Bank, where most Palestinian universities are located, even before Hamas took control of the Strip, Israel did not allow the passage of Gaza's residents to study in the West Bank, and does not allow foreign lecturers and experts to enter the Strip.

The Gisha report claims that "travel restrictions have prevented and continue to prevent university faculty from Gaza from pursuing advanced studies and attending conferences and seminars around the world. The opportunities to conduct joint research and to cooperate with colleagues at other academic institutions worldwide are extremely limited - hampering the development of the educational system in general."

Meanwhile, Mudallal is teaching courses on administration on a voluntary basis at the Islamic University in Gaza. He has already missed more than a month of studies and is afraid that soon he will lose his temporary employment at a computer store in Bradford. Meanwhile, his debts are piling up because before leaving for Gaza, he rented an apartment and bought a car for which he is paying.

Dozens of students have demonstrated on his behalf in England. The National Union of Students there has set up a campaign under the slogan "Let Khaled study," and has organized an Internet site (www.letkhaledstudy.co.uk). More than 2,000 people have signed a petition calling on the Israeli government to "remove the restrictions on freedom of movement, which it has imposed on Khaled and other students in Gaza."

The student union's Ruqayyah Collector, one of the campaign's leaders, referred to the academic boycott against Israel, which the lecturers' union decided to cancel when the campaign on Khaled's behalf was just starting. "People talk about academic freedom but this is an equal right of all, of the Palestinians as well. Academic freedom can't just relate to one group," she says.

Mudallal is encouraged by the campaign on his behalf. He is still dreaming of finishing his degree, so he can return to Gaza and help rehabilitate its collapsing economy. He invested a great effort to be able to study at Bradford. "Until the age of 16, I didn't speak English at all. I did my best after a day of study at high school. I spent many long hours studying English. But I understood that it would be very good for me to study there, for my future, so I had to study hard."

He adds: "I am a refugee. We are from a village close to Ashdod. But I'm not fighting to go back to that village, but rather to go get an education. That's all I want."


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