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Page last updated at 15:49 GMT, Friday, 30 May 2008 16:49 UK

Gaza students denied by blockade

By Wyre Davies
BBC News, Jerusalem

"I regret to inform you that the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State will not be able to finalise your Fulbright Student Scholarship for 2008."

With those words, in a brief letter from the United States Consulate in Jerusalem, the dreams of seven talented and ambitious young people from Gaza were dashed.

Graduation ceremony at the Gaza Islamic University, 2005
For talented and ambitious students, Gaza's education system has its limits

The seven, including Hadeel Abukwaik, had been offered places on the prestigious Fulbright scheme - realising their desires to complete their studies abroad.

For talented students, like Hadeel, the Gazan education system can only offer so much.

It is almost impossible to enrol on post-graduate university courses and many, specialised, degrees can only be pursued elsewhere.

Hadeel, who is 23 and is currently working as a university teacher, had been accepted on a Masters course in computer science in the United States.

On its own website, the Fulbright Program, which is run by the US State Department, proudly proclaims to be "an integral part of US foreign relations".

"Face-to-face exchanges have proven to be the single most effective means of engaging foreign publics while broadening dialogue between US citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad," it says.

Blockade

Nonetheless, because of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, not even students sponsored by the US government can leave to further their studies overseas.

If you cannot engage young people and give complete horizon to their expectations and to their dreams, then I don't know that there would be any future for Palestine
Condoleezza Rice
US Secretary of State

The Israeli government maintains that as long as Palestinian militants fire rockets from Gaza at Israeli towns, nobody - apart from the most urgent of medical cases - can leave. And nothing - apart from the most basic humanitarian aid - can get in.

The decision to deny the seven students - and dozens of other young Gazans with places in Western universities - is counter-productive say human rights groups.

They say it is arbitrary and short-sighted to hold-back students who could contribute so much to Gaza's future.

Some Israeli members of parliament have criticised their government's decision to refuse the students exit permits.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has promised to investigate the withdrawal of the scholarships.

"If you cannot engage young people and give complete horizon to their expectations and to their dreams, then I don't know that there would be any future for Palestine or, frankly, since I believe the two-state solution is so important to Israelis and Palestinians, to the people of that region who want to have decent lives," Ms Rice added.

Appeal to Blair

Some students have been waiting a very long time.

Wassim Abuajwa, has been trying to take up his environmental studies Masters course at Nottingham University for seven years.

Wassim is now 31. In desperation he has recently written to Tony Blair, now an international envoy to the Middle East, and has appealed to Israel's Supreme Court.

For the Americans, who justifiably place much kudos and pride on programmes like the Fulbright, this is a potentially embarrassing situation.

The United States has stood firmly behind Israel's policy of containing the militant threat from Gaza but would clearly like the students to be able to take up their sought-after places.

In the letter sent out to the "Fulbright Seven", the US Consulate General says it is "extremely sorry" but urges the student to apply again in 2009.

That slight hope is all that Hadeel can cling to as she resumes her teaching classes in Gaza, feeling literally cut-off from a promising future.


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