Howard Schneider
The Washington Post
November 13, 2009 - 1:00am

Gaza-born Berlanty Azzam, 21, was two months from receiving her bachelor's degree from Bethlehem University when the past caught up with her.

During a routine stop at a West Bank checkpoint on Oct. 28, an Israeli guard noticed Gaza City as the town of residence on her ID, placed her under arrest for being in the West Bank without permission and, within hours, had her deported back to the Gaza Strip, blindfolded briefly and in handcuffs.

Her case has drawn high-level attention -- including inquiries from the U.S. State Department -- from those who question whether such a strict enforcement of the rules is reasonable at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says he is trying to ease restrictions on Palestinians and encourage economic development as a way to progress toward peace.

Azzam acknowledges that she did not have the required Israeli permission to study in the West Bank -- something that has been increasingly difficult for residents of the Gaza Strip to obtain, particularly since the 2007 takeover of the area by the Islamist Hamas movement. She traveled from Gaza in 2005 on a four-day pass, enrolled in college and never returned.

But she has no security or other charges against her, Israeli authorities acknowledge, and according to university officials and others, she has been assiduous in her studies.

"This is a young woman who is trying to get her bachelor's degree in business from a Vatican-sponsored university. It'd be an economic advantage and serve Israel, too. So what is the deal?" said Brother Jack Carroll, vice president for development at Bethlehem University. "There are no charges against her. They don't have any accusations against her. Her ID said Gaza."

Ruling on a petition by a human rights group, Israel's Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the Defense Ministry to hold an administrative hearing on Azzam's case next week -- she was transferred to Gaza without any proceedings -- and allow her to be represented by a lawyer.

Israel restricted movement between Gaza and the West Bank after the outbreak of a violent intifada, or uprising, in 2000, and it was all but eliminated after the Hamas takeover.

The aim is to prevent Hamas militants from infiltrating the West Bank, according to Israeli officials, with the enrollment of Gaza students into West Bank colleges considered a particular concern. But the restrictions have more than once caused tension with allies, most notably when Israel initially refused to let students from Gaza travel to study abroad, including under programs such as the U.S. Fulbright scholarships. The policy was eased, but it now requires foreign diplomats to act as security escorts and shepherd traveling students from Gaza to the Allenby Bridge crossing into Jordan.

Guy Inbar, a spokesman for the branch of the Israeli military that oversees the West Bank, said the Hamas control in Gaza has made attention to the rules all the more critical. He said that even with the current restrictions, which, in general, allow for only humanitarian travel from Gaza to the West Bank, roughly 100 people a year make the trip and do not return.

"She was illegal," Inbar said of Azzam. "She had our approval to be in Jerusalem for personal reasons. She used it to escape to go to Bethlehem" and enroll in college.

Daniel Rubinstein, the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, has visited Bethlehem University to discuss Azzam's case, and officials with the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv have made inquiries with the Israeli government.

"Just in terms of humanitarian interest, there have been a lot of inquiries. It is pretty compelling," said an official at the U.S. Consulate, who was not authorized to speak for the record. The Israelis "have rules and regulations, but they have provisions for exceptions, and to deprive someone of their degree certainly seems like it would be ripe for that."

Azzam said worries about a Hamas connection are, at least in her case, far-fetched.

"What am I going to do with Hamas? I am a Christian," said Azzam, a Greek Orthodox who said she was aided in leaving Gaza four years ago by papers provided through the church patriarchate.

Gisha, the organization that is representing Azzam, said it has fielded 15 complaints from West Bank deportees this year.

Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said Azzam's individual case should not reflect on the larger efforts the prime minister has made to remove barriers to movement in the West Bank.

Reached by phone in Gaza City, Azzam said she is hopeful the university will let her finish her degree, through e-mailed course work or some other means. But her hope is to return to campus.

"I was not supposed to be there. It's an Israeli thing," she said. "But I'm a Palestinian woman. Why can't I move inside the Palestinian areas?"


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