For Gaza students, security steps limit access to West Bank schools


TEL AVIV — There is just one trained occupational therapist working in the Gaza Strip and 24,000 disabled residents in need of his help.

Shayma el-Naji, 21, who grew up in Gaza, decided she would become an occupational therapist and help fill the void. But with no degree program in Gaza, she applied to study at Bethlehem University in the West Bank.

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Four years after starting her studies there, she has yet to set foot on campus. She and the nine other occupational therapy students from Gaza have been forbidden by Israeli authorities to travel to the West Bank as part of a general ban, imposed soon after the violent Palestinian intifada began in September 2000, on Palestinian students traveling between the two areas.

Instead, they study from afar, attending lectures via video conference and Internet discussions. But none of the practical side of their studies — a major portion of a hands-on profession like occupational therapy — can be done in Gaza because there’s no one to supervise their work there.

The students have traveled briefly to Cairo for practical instruction, but with the border to Egypt now usually closed by Israel for security reasons, even that option may not be tenable.

“We’re disappointed because we are not threatening anyone’s security,” el-Naji told JTA in a phone interview from Gaza. “We’re looking to complete our studies and start work helping people.”

Most Palestinian universities and colleges are located in the West Bank, not the Gaza Strip. Degrees in some medical fields, including occupational therapy, are available only in the West Bank.

Relating to questions about the 10 students, Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for the Israeli military department that coordinates policy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said the reasons are exclusively security-related, part of a policy to prevent potential terrorists from Gaza from entering the West Bank.

Dror said there have been incidents of Gazans who relocated to the West Bank and then helped plan terrorist attacks in Israel or perpetrated them themselves. Part of the debate when it comes to granting student permits, he said, is whether Israel can handle the possible threats or needs to continue its blanket ban.

But the students’ lawyers, who have brought the case to the Israeli Supreme Court, argue that the ban is a case of collective punishment and an attempt to label all Gazans as dangerous.

“It’s a dehumanization of Gaza residents that is not helpful to Israelis or Palestinians. The policy is also not coherent because they are preventing Palestinians from studying at Palestinian universities, and particularly these 10 students are asking to study a profession that would be extremely helpful for Gaza residents,” said Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, an Israeli group that advocates for Palestinians and is representing the students. “What could be objectionable about that, especially when these students are not known to be a security threat?”

Gisha lawyers argued in the Oct. 31 court hearing that the students be reviewed on a case-by-case basis before being banned from traveling to the West Bank for security reasons.

On Nov. 2, the Supreme Court ordered the Israeli army to specify why it refuses to allow students from Gaza to study at West Bank universities. The decision suggests that the justices were not convinced by the state’s argument that all students from Gaza are potentially dangerous.

Some 250 Israeli academics have submitted a petition to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz demanding that Gaza students who have passed individual security checks be allowed to study at colleges and universities in the West Bank.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir has joined the call to end the blanket ban, just as she has called for an end to a similar ban preventing Palestinian students from studying at Israeli universities.

Hanan Reicher, the state prosecutor, argued in the most recent Supreme Court hearing that the state cannot conduct individual security checks on students because of the difficulties involved in collecting intelligence information on Gazans. Reicher also told the court that young residents of Gaza between ages 16 to 35 were especially known for attempting to harm Israeli security.

Earlier this year, the state wrote in its original response to the Gisha appeal that students pose a special risk since — even if they don’t arrive in the West Bank with the intention of taking part in terrorist activities — they may be recruited by militant elements once there.

Restriction of Palestinians’ freedom of movement has increased in recent years as the security situation has deteriorated. Human rights activists and Palestinians complain that if Palestinians are to build national institutions and the beginnings of a state, they need to be able to travel to both parts of their future state.

But Israeli military officials say Israel cannot allow the violence prevalent in Gaza today into the West Bank. Limiting the number of Palestinians who can travel between the two areas — and who would have to cross Israel to do so — is part of that strategy.

The number of disabled people in Gaza is considered disproportionately high in part because of a lack of safety codes, which leads to increased accidents, as well as Israeli counterterrorist operations, which sometimes injure civilians as well.

“In the long term Israel should be trying to make peace with educated, well-cared-for people, and all these students are trying to do is to get an education and learn the skills they need to help rehabilitate people with disabilities in Gaza,” Bashi said. “It is in Israel’s interest to allow Palestinian young people to become educated and to learn the skills they need to build a robust civil society, and particularly to learn medical professions that will help them care for fellow Palestinians that need their help.”