US nixes visas for Gaza Fulbrighters

"New information" arises over 3 scholars whose cases Rice handled personally; move comes weeks after US criticized Israel for not letting them leave Gaza.

rice big ed 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
rice big ed 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Acting on "new information," the US has revoked the visas of three Palestinian Fulbright scholars whose cases were taken up personally by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after Israel initially refused to let them leave Gaza, US officials said Tuesday. The visas for the three, along with a fourth Palestinian student from Gaza who had hoped to come to the US under a different program, were approved after Rice intervened in June following a prominent New York Times article that drew the attention of top State Department officials. The incident caused some diplomatic unpleasantness between Jerusalem and Washington, with one State Department official saying at the time that this was no way for Israel to behave toward the US. Neither the Prime Minister's Office nor the Foreign Ministry had any official comment on the US reversal. One Israeli official, who said "tension over the issue was exaggerated," said Israel had told the US it had concerns about some of the candidates, but the US had decided to process their applications nonetheless. The official said, however, that the process of exchanging information had continued. The issue was widely reported abroad as a case of Israeli collective punishment, and The New York Times, dubbing the Gaza students the "Fulbright Seven," editorialized at the time that "seven highly qualified and carefully vetted Palestinian students from the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip will come to the United States for advanced study after all." "Israel has a right and a duty to defend itself and to fight back against Hamas terrorism," the paper wrote in June. "But punishing students, and any other forms of collective punishment, will only sow more anger and hate." Rice was infuriated when State Department officials canceled the scholarships of the seven students after Israel refused to allow them out of Gaza for their visa interviews. After Rice took their cases to senior Israeli officials, Israel allowed four of the seven to travel to Jerusalem for interviews in June. Over Israel's objections, US diplomats then made a rare trip to the Gaza border in July to interview the remaining three. Of the seven original students, three are already in the US. The "new information" that led to the revoking of the visas were for the four other candidates, one of whom had already decided to drop out of the program. One official said Rice, who had been outspoken about the negative signal the original cancellations sent to Palestinians and the broader Arab world, had ordered a top-to-bottom review of the entire Fulbright scholarship vetting process at the time. Now, however, the students' visas were revoked following information that one Israeli diplomatic official said apparently linked four of the candidates to Hamas - recognized by the US as a terrorist organization. One of the students had already arrived at Dulles International Airport outside Washington before he was told his visa had been revoked and was forced to return to Jordan, State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said. An official familiar with the situation said the new information related to security issues behind Israel's original refusal to allow them to leave Gaza for their interviews in May. Another spokesman said the department was still "evaluating the information" that led it to revoke four visas under America's Immigration and Nationality Act. He referred to the process as "a safety precaution that, in security cases, we undertake with a relatively low threshold of information to ensure that all relevant or potentially relevant facts about an alien are thoroughly explored before we admit that alien to the United States." He said it was entirely possible the decision could be reversed, and that while he didn't know the details of the case, procedures such as this one were "routine" because of the difficulty of obtaining adequate background information on visitors from the Middle East, given language and other logistical barriers. He noted that Rice had been personally involved in the case, but that once additional information about the applicants had come to light, calling their eligibility for visas into question, officials had decided to reexamine their cases. "It might not put us in the best light," he acknowledged, "but nobody wants to be the one who [lets in] a future source of trouble, so they're erring on the side of caution." AP contributed to this report.