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Palestinian Grad Students Banned from Israeli Schools

Talk of the Nation: October 19, 2006

Palestinian Grad Students Banned from Israeli Schools

NEAL CONAN, host:

Graduate students in Israel head back to class this weekend, but Palestinians who’ve been accepted for graduate studies at universities in Israel are being denied permits to enter the country. Reporter Dina Kraft joins us now from Tel Aviv. Nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. DINA KRAFT (Reporter): Hi. Nice to be here.

CONAN: Tell us a little bit of the background on this. You wrote a story about it recently for the New York Times. Palestinian students who’ve been accepted to study at Israeli universities have always been able to get student permits to enter Israel. Things have changed. What’s going on?

Ms. KRAFT: Well, well actually, until ’96, Palestinian students from the West Bank and Gaza could enter Israel freely and study at universities, usually doing masters or doctoral degrees. But since 2000, 2001, when the Palestinian Intifada began, it began becoming very difficult for Palestinians to get in. The Israeli army said for security reasons, they just weren’t going to let people in unless they passed a security check.

And in the past, people would go through security checks, and a few would get in, but now there’s an actual blanket ban, so students don’t even have a chance to apply and have a security check checked - they’re just being told at the door no, you can’t come in.

CONAN: And I understand that the Israeli high school entered this controversy just yesterday.

Ms. KRAFT: Yeah, just yesterday, an Israeli human rights group that monitors Palestinian freedom of movement issues called Gisha brought a case to the court of a 29-year-old Palestinian woman named Sawsan Salame, who has been accepted at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to study a degree in theoretical chemistry. But the army said because of this blanket ban, she cannot go in. So what the court yesterday is actually that this sweeping ban should be reconsidered and has actually given the court, or rather the army, seven days to reconsider Ms. Salame’s request, and also they have to reconsider the ban as a whole.

CONAN: So in other words, the court is suggesting this might want to be done on a case-by-case basis?

Ms. KRAFT: Yes exactly. In the past, at least officially, it was on a case-by- case basis, and only in last couple of months ahead of the Israeli school year did the army decide to impose a blanket ban, citing security issues.

In Israel, there’s always the question of security. It tends to trump everything else. And the question here is how to balance Israel’s security needs, in this case with Palestinians who are trying to seek higher degrees in Israel.

And it’s important to note that Palestinians who want to do, for example, doctoral degrees in the West Bank and Gaza simply cannot because there are no such degrees offered in the West Bank and Gaza. Those who have money and options go abroad to study for doctorates, but people who don’t have money, or women, for example, like the case of Ms. Salame, who are also conservative - come from conservative Muslim families who won’t let them go abroad to study, have no other choice but to study in an Israeli university if they are to get a higher degree.

CONAN: It should also be pointed out, as I think you did in your article, there have been bombings at Israeli universities in the past.

Ms. KRAFT: Yeah. In at least one university, in the summer of 2002, a Palestinian suicide bomber entered a student cafeteria and killed seven people - several of whom were American. So there are very real security issues at hand. The question is how to balance them.

And what’s interesting here is you have the supreme court, the Israeli universities themselves - you have six of the seven major Israeli universities now coming out asking that the ban be abolished - as well as the education and science minister, who are saying wait, let’s step back. Let’s not have this ban, because Israel could possibly be punishing the same people they need to be cultivating. These are educated people who would be able to be part of Palestinian state-building. And what Gisha, the organization that brought the petition to the supreme court, is saying is you know - they’re not asking to let every single person in but that they just go back to a case-by-case policy and do a case-by-case security check and then determine who should and should not be let in.

CONAN: We’re talking with Dina Kraft in Tel Aviv, and you’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Joining us now on the phone now from Ramallah in the West Bank is Saed Saify, a computer engineer who was accepted to an MBA program at Tel Aviv University. Good to have you on the program. Mr. Saify? And apparently, we’ve lost the line too Ramallah. Mr. Saify, are you there?

Ms. SAED SAIFY (Prospective Graduate Student, Ramallah): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Oh there you. I apologize for that. I understand you were accepted into the MBA program, then had to apply for this student permit from the Israeli army. What happened?

Mr. SAIFY: Yes, Neal. I was accepted to this unique international executive MBA program at the University of Tel Aviv. And this is a program that has been there for like 10 years on the purpose of providing the best business solutions for the people in the region. And it’s actually supervised by the Kellogg School of Management at the Northwestern University. So it’s really a great opportunity for anyone to be accepted to that program.

And when I got everything - all the letters from the university that states that have been admitted to this program - and I went to the (unintelligible) coordination office here near Ramallah, to ask the Israelis for the needed permit for me to travel freely into Tel Aviv University, my request was denied and I was actually transferred to an interrogation with Israeli Security officials on another day.

And I went for the day that they have assigned for me, and I stayed there for like probably eight hours, and no one showed and talked to me, and then they had to dismiss me without any further, you know, clarification.

So I had to go and hire a lawyer for that and to check what’s happening. And then like two weeks after that, the lawyer told me that there is a new policy, a new Israeli policy by the Israeli army - beginning this summer - to ban all the Palestinian students, and they will not be looking at the requests, actually, if it is a request to enter Israel or, you know, just move on the checkpoints, with the purpose of study. So that’s, you know, just something new.

CONAN: Saed, some people might wonder why it is - you mentioned what a great program this is - but why it is you want to study in an Israeli university. Are there not opportunities at universities on the West Bank?

Mr. SAIFY: Yeah, I mean, this is a unique program, actually. It’s not presented there at the Palestinian universities. And you know, I can frankly say that, you know, the Palestinian universities, after 60 years of occupation by the Israelis, are you know, at a humble level of education than a university like Northwestern University in the states, so it’s definitely a much better and different program. And it was created actually for the intention of having people from the region, not just the Israeli people…

CONAN: What happens if you can’t start classes on Sunday, as you’re scheduled to do?

Mr. SAIFY: Exactly. This is what happened, actually. Actually, the university gave me a deadline until October 18, which is yesterday, which by coincidence is the day of the result of the hearing from the high court. And you know, I just sent them a letter today, this morning, telling them that, you know, I was not able - all my efforts were at a closed road, and I’m not really sure if I can attend the classes on Sunday. And this program, actually you have to attend like at least 60 percent of the classes in each module, which is, you know, the module, if it is five days, then you have to attend like four days, and this is starting Sunday. So there is no way I can make it, and they are telling me like, we are so sorry for that, but we hope that, you know, the situation will change in the future so that we will be able to ask you again to come to the university if this will still be valid.

CONAN: Dina Kraft, let me ask you. Is there any likelihood that this case might be resolved in time for Saed and others to get to class before they begin?

Ms. KRAFT: Yeah, it’s unlikely that it would happen in the next few days. And what the court told the army is that they had seven days to find a solution for the case of Sawsan Salame, the student from the West Bank who wants to study chemistry at Hebrew University. But it’s not clear even if she has an answer specifically for herself, what will happen for other students like Saed. It could be still a long process.

But what’s interesting to see now is that there is pressure, and there’s pressure coming from within. The pressure’s coming from supreme court itself, questioning the policy itself, the Israeli universities, and, like I said, the education and science minister. So it’s an issue that was quite off the radar just a week ago is now coming very much to the front of people’s attention.

CONAN: And very briefly, how many students are we talking about?

Ms. KRAFT: Not that many students. I mean, that’s the thing. I mean, it’s not clear how many - I talked to the army - it’s not really clear how many have actually applied, but currently there are only 14 Palestinian students from Gaza and the West Bank studying at Israeli universities. And they will be allowed to continue studying. Their permits will continue to work, but new students, new incoming students, will not be allowed according to the ban.

CONAN: Dina Kraft, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.

Ms. KRAFT: Thank you.

CONAN: Dina Kraft, a freelance reporter who spoke to us from her home in Tel Aviv, and Saed Saify, thank you very much for your time, as well. Good luck to you.

Mr. SAIFY: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Saed Saify, manager of the software engineering department at Global Software Services, a partner with the American hi-technology company PDF Solutions speaking with us today on the phone from the West Bank town of Ramallah. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I’m Neal Conan in Washington.

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