Ethan Bronner
The New York Times
June 2, 2008 - 3:51pm

The American State Department has reinstated seven Fulbright grants offered to Palestinians in Gaza for advanced study in the United States, reversing a decision to withdraw the scholarships because of Israel’s ban on Palestinians’ leaving Gaza for study abroad.

The American Consulate in Jerusalem sent e-mail messages on Sunday night to all seven telling them it was “working closely” with Israeli officials to secure them exit permits. Maj. Peter Lerner, spokesman for the Israeli Defense Ministry’s office of civilian affairs, said the Gazans would be granted permits after individual security checks.

On Thursday the seven received e-mail messages saying the grants had been “redirected” because of Israel’s closing of Gaza, an area run by the militant anti-Israel group Hamas. The closing, an effort to punish Hamas for its rocket and mortar barrages of southern Israel, prevents Palestinians from leaving Gaza except for medical emergencies.

But after word of the grant withdrawals got out, senior American and Israeli officials expressed surprise and outrage, saying that training ambitious and talented young people under Fulbright grants was one of the ways to help blunt the appeal of radical forces in Palestinian society.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she was surprised to hear of the withdrawals, adding: “If you cannot engage young people and give complete horizons to their expectations and their dreams, I don’t know that there would be any future for Palestine. We will take a look. I am a huge supporter of Fulbrights.”

Tom Casey, a spokesman for the State Department, said because the seven Gazans had already been thoroughly evaluated for one of the most prestigious foreign educational programs run by the United States, “It ought to be falling off a log for them to be able to do this.”

On Wednesday, the education committee of Israel’s Parliament held a hearing on student movement out of Gaza, with many members saying they were horrified by the policy barring students from leaving. They asked the Defense Ministry to reconsider the policy and report back in two weeks.

Abdulrahman Abdullah, one of the Fulbright recipients in Gaza, said that when the consulate’s e-mail message arrived he had been in the middle of corresponding with Fulbright winners around the world who were mounting a campaign in support of the Gazans.

“Suddenly I got this e-mail, and then I told them I had succeeded in this long battle,” he said. Mr. Abdullah, 30, had been trying to get a grant for five years and plans to pursue an M.B.A. at one of several American universities.

Like the others who got the good news on Sunday, however, he said he could not be truly happy until the other 600 or so Gazans with grants to study abroad also got out.

Major Lerner said that the policy toward study abroad for Gazans was under review and could change, but that the case of the seven Fulbright scholars was accelerated. He cited their tight timetable, but it seems likely that the political pressure played a role.

Sari Bashi, who runs an Israeli organization called Gisha, which focuses on the free movement of Palestinians, said that while the group welcomed the decision to let out the seven Fulbright winners, “Gisha calls on Israel to allow all Palestinian students accepted to universities abroad to exercise their right to leave Gaza and access education, in order to obtain the tools they need to build a better future in the region.”

On Monday, Israel’s Supreme Court will hear petitions brought by Gisha on behalf of two students seeking exit permits for study programs in Germany and Britain. Since January, Ms. Bashi said, almost no students have gotten out of Gaza for such study.


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