Fulbright grants for Palestinian students living in the Gaza Strip

The Honorable Condoleezza Rice  

Secretary of State  

Department of State  

2201 C Street NW  

Washington, DC 20520  

Re: Prevention of students from Gaza from studying abroad 


Dear Secretary Rice,  

We are writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch, the Committee on Academic  Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association of North America, and the Committee for Human Rights of the American Anthropological Association to welcome the State Department's decision to reinstate the Fulbright grants that had been awarded for the coming academic year to Palestinian students living in the Gaza Strip. We appreciated in particular your own objection to the department’s  earlier decision to “redirect” the awards because of Israel’s blanket refusal to  allow students in Gaza to travel abroad, or to the West Bank, to continue their  education.  

We remain concerned, however, about the sequence of decisions and the official  statements that accompanied them. According to The New York Times, seven Palestinian students received letters on May 29, 2008, informing them that the grants awarded to them earlier for study in the United States had been  “redirected” because Israeli authorities refused them permission to leave the Gaza  Strip. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said that because the students  “could not get visas,” the State Department decided to transfer the awards to  students in the West Bank “rather than lose them for this year.” 

On May 30, following disclosure of the State Department’s actions, department  spokesman Casey said that US officials “have been actively speaking to Israeli  officials here in Washington” and “noted the secretary’s personal concern about  this issue.” When queried further, Casey said, “I think the conversations that have  been held today indicated that the Israelis appreciated and understood our  concerns about this issue.”  

These statements, and the June 1 decision to reinstate the grants, do not explain  why the State Department, over strenuous objections from the Fulbright program,  “redirected” them in the first place. This action displayed a disturbing readiness  on the part of the United States to actively support Israel’s policy of strict closure  on the Gaza Strip, a policy that has caused grave harm to the population there and  constitutes collective punishment, a serious violation of international law. Rather  than accommodate Israel’s unlawful restrictions, the United States should  vigorously challenge them at every opportunity.  

We also want to call your attention to the fact that Israel’s refusal to allow  students to resume or begin university studies outside of Gaza has affected many more students than these Fulbright awardees. We urge you to take this  opportunity to call on Israel to allow all students in Gaza, except where there are  legitimate security concerns specific to particular individuals, to exercise their  right to freedom of movement and access to education. At a minimum, the United  States should clearly and publicly disassociate itself from Israel’s policy of  collective punishment as it affects students seeking to study abroad.  

Both Human Rights Watch and the Middle East Studies Association have over the  past year called on Israel to remove blanket restrictions that have prevented  hundreds of Palestinian students from leaving the Gaza Strip to study abroad. In  November 2007, Human Rights Watch called on Israel to cease its arbitrary  denial of exit permits to some 670 students in Gaza from pursuing higher studies  abroad. The Middle East Studies Association also raised this matter in letters to  Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. By late 2007, the number of students and  dependents in Gaza seeking to study abroad had risen to approximately 1,100.  Israel allowed fewer than half of those to leave Gaza for Egypt and Jordan for exit  to third countries, and hundreds remained cut off from the possibility of studying  abroad. According to the Israeli human rights organization Gisha, the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, between one and two thousand students in  Gaza seek to leave to study abroad each year, but since January 13 of this year  none had been permitted to do so. Israel has also insisted that the Rafah crossing  on Gaza’s border with Egypt remain closed; during the several days in late  January when the border was breached, Egypt allowed only persons who already  had visas to third countries to proceed to Cairo.  

Gaza’s students need to have access to higher education abroad. Opportunities in  the Gaza Strip are currently quite limited. Many degrees are not at all available in  the four universities there. For instance, there are no undergraduate degrees in  languages other than Arabic, English, and French, and no master’s degrees in law,  journalism, and information technology. Doctoral degrees are not offered at all.  Israel rarely permits professors and lecturers from outside Gaza to enter to teach  there.  

Israel’s restrictions on Gaza students seeking to study abroad are part of its more  comprehensive and increasingly severe policy of closure. Since June 2007 Israel  has enforced a strict blockade of the Gaza Strip, preventing, with very few  exceptions, people and goods from entering or leaving the territory. Israeli  officials say that the strict closure policy is intended to suppress rocket and other  attacks by Palestinian armed groups, many of which hit civilian areas in Israel in  violation of the international humanitarian law prohibition of attacks that target or  cause indiscriminate harm to civilians. The strict closure’s impact on the ability of  the armed groups to carry out these attacks is highly debatable. What is clear is  that the policy has had a grave impact on the access of Gaza’s civilian population  to essential goods and services, including education, and violates Israel’s  obligation under the Fourth Geneva Convention on occupations to protect the  rights of Palestinians to, among other things, freedom of movement and to secure  access to education.  

International humanitarian law and human rights law permits restrictions on  freedom of movement for security reasons, but the restrictions must have a clear  legal basis, be limited to what is necessary, and be proportionate to the threat.  Israeli restrictions clearly exceed these norms, and constitute collective  punishment, a serious violation of international law. 

With this in mind, we strongly urge you to use this opportunity to call on Israel to  cease those restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the  Gaza Strip that constitute collective punishment, including restrictions that  prevent Gaza residents from studying abroad, and to disassociate the United  States from any inference of support for those policies.  


Sarah Leah Whitson  

Executive Director  

Middle East and North Africa division  

Human Rights Watch  


Amy Newhall  

Executive Director  

Middle East Studies Association of North America  


Setha Low  


American Anthropological Association

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