Fulbright Scholars Trapped by Gaza Blockade

Seven Palestinian scholars may lose their prized Fulbright scholarships to attend American universities because Israel won't let them out of the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinians are clearly angry at Israel for its refusal to let them leave, but they are also annoyed at the United States for not being able to influence its Mideast ally Israel to crack open its Gaza blockade just enough to let the seven students and their books out of the area.

"I am so disappointed with the U.S.," Abdulrahman Abdullah told ABC News today from the town of Rafah in the Gaza Strip. "They say they want to help us create a Palestinian state by the end of the year, and they can't get me a visa? I can't believe it."

Israel has sealed the Gaza Strip because it is controlled by the militant group Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, and because the area is frequently used to launch missile attacks on Israeli border towns.

The border is opened only to allow in essential foods, medicine and oil.

Abdullah and seven other Palestinians who live in Gaza were told their scholarships were to be transferred to Palestinians living in the West Bank because Israel would not grant them visas to leave Gaza.

The West Bank is ruled by the more moderate Fatah and is not under any blockade.

The State Department said today that it will "revisit" its decision to yank the Gazan scholarships and would press the Israelis to provide the eight original winners with visas. One of the winners has since dropped out of the program.

That gave fresh hope to Abdullah.

"It is my dream to return from America and make a contribution to my state and my society," said Abdullah, who works for the United Nations and hopes to obtain an MBA in Michigan.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters traveling with her today that she was unaware of the Israeli decision blocking the Fulbright winners from traveling.

"I had not known this and I'll look into it," she said on a a flight from Sweden to Iceland. "Perhaps there are reasons, but I want to look into why this happened."

State Department spokesman Tom Casey was optimstic that the visas would be issued.

Under Secretary of State William Burns called Israel's ambassador in Washington Friday to urge his government to issue the visas. The response, Casey said, was encouraging.

"They heard our concerns," he said. "I expect we'll have some positive outcome for this in the not-too-distant future."

Casey said that while Israel didn't say no, the country didn't say yes either and at a certain point it became clear the State Department wouldn't get a response.

Casey acknowledged Israeli security concerns but indicated that granting the visas should not be difficult, saying it "ought to be falling off a log for them to do this."

An Israeli military spokesman told The Associated Press the U.S. made the decision about the scholarships on its own but confirmed that only urgent humanitarian cases are allowed through Gaza's crossings and that does not include students.

The Israelis sent a letter to the disappointed Gazans that read, "We are extremely sorry that we are unable to finalize your scholarship at this time, and hope you will reapply next year and be able to complete your studies in the U.S."

Hadeel Abu Kawik is one of the scholars who got the letter. She is a 23-year-old computer engineering student who completed a lengthy and rigorous process including interviews, exams and an English test to win her Fulbright.

She remained in Gaza despite her family's pleas that she join them in the United Arab Emirates when Hamas blew up the fence on the Egyptian border last January, and thousands of Gazans poured through. Abu Kawik stayed put because she feared leaving Gaza illegally would jeopardize her shot at the Fulbright.

"I was building my hope on this scholarship," she told The Associated Press.

"Now I don't know what to do — to wait by myself in Gaza for another year with no guarantee what the answer will be? Actually I just don't know," Abu Kawik said.

After a pause, some of her disappointment and anger seeped out toward the United States.

"I was astonished at how the United States government cannot get a few students out of Gaza," she said.

Before the restrictions were imposed in January of this year, between 1,000 and 2,000 Gaza students traveled to study abroad every year, according to Gisha, a group that advocates freedom of movement for Palestinians.