Public disagreements between top Israeli and American officials are not too common. The most recent conflagration occurred over Israel’s refusal to allow seven Palestinian Fulbright scholars to leave Gaza.
It was widely seen as an embarrassment to American diplomats. After pressuring Israel to allow them to enter the United States, the American government surprisingly denied visas to three of the scholarship winners last week after receiving “new information” about them. They did not describe what that meant.
In mid-May, Israel rejected an American request for seven Palestinian academics to leave the Gaza Strip to attend visa interviews that would enable them to leave for the U.S. Haaretz called what ensued a “mini-crisis.” The State Department worked directly with Israel’s Foreign Ministry at the highest levels to resolve the issue.
Israeli and American security personnel scrutinized the seven Palestinians and all seven received U.S. visas. Israel cleared four to leave to study in the U.S., but claimed three had “a problematic security background.” The three Fulbright scholars were Zuhair Abu Shaban, Fida Abed and Osama Daoud.
The Americans demanded that the three be allowed to travel since they were granted visas after being interviewed and fingerprinted at a Gaza border crossing.
Israel delayed granting them the right to exit until Sunday, July 27, when it said two of the three could proceed to Jordan, then on to the United States from there.
Israel drove the two academics to the Erez checkpoint to meet American diplomats from the Jerusalem consulate. They were to transport them to the Allenby Bridge crossing, which connects to Jordan. One of the student’s travel documents, they discovered, was expired. When they reached the border crossing, the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories issued him a special travel document.
Then, Jordan objected to allowing them entry. An Israeli official said that the Americans did not inform the authorities in Jordan properly. Jordan requires Gaza residents to obtain special permission before entering the country. The two Palestinians were stuck in the no-man’s land between the two border crossings, while they waited for approval to enter Jordan. American officials denied this explanation, saying they coordinated with the Jordanian government early on.
When the border was to close at 8 p.m., the American diplomat with the two Palestinians refused to take them anywhere. The Israeli border terminal workers suggested they go back to Gaza and try again the following day. The diplomat said, “I’m not interested, I’m not moving from here until they open the bridge.” The U.S. official sat on the road and refused to leave.
The border stayed open until the Jordanian government finally agreed to let them in at 9 p.m.
When they got to Amman, one waited while another departed for Washington. After the 12-hour flight, he got bad news. U.S. immigration officials told him they had canceled his visa, and they put him on a plane heading back to Amman. The other was informed as well.
A State Department spokesman told the New York Times the revocation of the visas was due to “new information” received by the U.S. authorities. There was no elaboration.
An Israeli organization that advocates for Palestinian freedom of movement, Gisha, called this bizarre tale fairly typical and representative of more common problems.
“In addition to the particular students who did not receive visas for technical reasons or unexplained security reasons, there are hundreds of students in the Gaza Strip who were accepted by universities abroad and have valid visas,” said Gisha executive director Sari Bashi.
She added, “Israel issues a comprehensive ban on students from Gaza going abroad, as part of its policy of collective punishment toward Gaza residents, thereby impinging on the right to education of hundreds of talented young people who want to study, develop and create a better future in our region.”
In 1946, Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, who was known for his international outlook, introduced legislation to provide grants to support international study as a way of furthering goodwill towards the United States.
Will Youmans is a writer with The Arab American News.