Officials in the Prime Minister's Office Saturday night expressed "surprise" at State Department criticism of Israel for reportedly not letting seven Gazan students leave the Gaza Strip on Fulbright scholarships, saying that the State Department did not directly contact the PMO about the issue.
According to the officials, there is an individual in the PMO whose job it is to facilitate the passage for humanitarian needs of certain individuals from the Gaza Strip.
"Israel has an interest in seeing future Palestinian leaders go to Western democratic countries to study," one official said.
"In the past, many countries have approached us, and we have made it possible to facilitate study abroad. In this case they just did not approach us, and assumed it would be impossible."
On Saturday night Israeli officials said the students would be allowed to leave for their studies.
On Friday, US Consulate official Stacy Barrios told The Jerusalem Post the US government had "redirected" the Fulbright scholarships it awarded this year to seven Gazan students because Israel would not let them leave the Strip. The seven students received letters informing them of this decision on Thursday.
"We are neither postponing nor canceling the Fulbright grants, but the funds have been redirected to other recipients in other places because of the difficulty in securing exit permits for the Gazan recipients," Barrios told the Post.
"US officials are very concerned about this issue and raise it in both Washington and Jerusalem, and has urged Israel to allow such individuals to leave Gaza," she continued.
"We are absolutely committed to continuing exchange programs of all kinds," Barrios added.
Sari Bashi, executive director of Gisha - the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, an NGO active on behalf of Palestinians' rights was outraged that the situation had deteriorated to this point.
"If the US can't convince Israel, its closest ally, to let seven students out of Gaza, what chance do the rest of them have?" Bashi told the Post on Friday afternoon.
"Preventing students in Gaza from studying is reminiscent of a painful point in Jewish history. We are a nation that for years was prevented from studying - how can we do the same thing to another people?" Knesset Education Committee Chair Michael Melchior demanded late last week. "Trapping hundreds of students in Gaza is immoral and unwise," he added.
The committee met to discuss the new report by Gisha.
According to the report, and confirmed by representatives of the security establishment present at the committee meeting, no student has been allowed to leave Gaza to attend university overseas since January. According to the report, fewer than half of those who applied were granted permission to leave in 2007.
"I received a permit to leave Gaza today to attend a visa interview, and tonight I return to Gaza. I don't know if I'll be able to leave again, in order to reach my studies," Obaida Abu Hashem, an 18-year-old Gaza resident seeking to reach his studies in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, told the committee.
"The field I want to study does not exist in Gaza, and study abroad is my only opportunity."
Security officials clarified that exit visas were only granted "for exceptional humanitarian and urgent medical cases." They also noted that the universal right to education did not extend to higher studies.
MK Dov Henin (Hadash) declared "The logic of the security apparatus is warped - they are denying education to students who want to study in order to contribute to the entire region."
Meretz MK Avshalom Vilan added that the military's policy preventing education was actually causing "tremendous damage to the security of the state of Israel."
Melchior argued from a pragmatic standpoint, saying that the policy was unwise for two reasons. "First, in terms of Israel's foreign relations, the academic institutions to which these students are slated to go will never understand and never identify with the decision [to prevent them from leaving].
Second, the students who are forced to remain in Gaza, their depression and anger won't turn them into advocates for peace."
Melchior also argued that the policy contravened international conventions and the values of the Jewish state.
According to Gisha's report, the higher education system in Gaza is patchy at best - there are no doctoral tracks at all and many subjects are not even offered. The report cited an Israeli policy stretching back years that severely limited academic exchanges to and from Gaza.
Since Hamas took over, that policy has tightened even more, the report noted, and by January of this year even the overworked mechanism which had granted some students exit visas was no longer operational.
Gaza City resident Wissam Abuajwa, 31, has been trying to get a visa to leave the Strip to study for a masters degree in environmental studies since 2001, according to a vignette in the report.
He was accepted to the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura, but could not get a visa into Israel to attend. Last year, he was accepted to Nottingham University and offered a full scholarship, but could not get a visa to go to England, either.
This year, Nottingham agreed again to award him the scholarship and he is desperately hoping to attend.
"There is no environmental studies program in Gaza. My dream is to come back after studying abroad and open an environmental research center in Gaza," he was quoted as saying, "There is an urgent need for environmental experts, especially in light of the recent deterioration in infrastructure and the standard of living of the residents."
Gisha will appear before the Supreme Court on Monday to plead Abuajwa and another students' cases.
The committee called on the prime minister, the defense minister and the security cabinet to reevaluate the policy and allow those students who were not a security threat to leave Gaza for higher education abroad, provided it could be accomplished in a way that did not threaten IDF soldiers and civilians.
The committee said it expected a reply to its demand within two weeks.