U.S. Tries to Open Door to Gaza Scholars

Abdulrahman Abdullah's dream of studying in the United States seemed to be just that -- a dream.

The 30-year-old was one of seven young Palestinians from the Gaza Strip who won a prestigious U.S. Fulbright scholarship, and he had hoped to earn an MBA at Michigan State.

His hopes were dashed last week when the United States announced it had decided to drop the scholarship because Israel would not grant visas for the students to leave Gaza.

But today, the United States reversed that decision, and the U.S. consulate sent e-mails to the seven scholarship winners in Gaza, telling them that it is "working closely" with the Israeli government to get them permits to leave Gaza in order to attend visa interviews at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, and then to leave Gaza again for travel to the United States.

For Abdullah, the decision would seem to remove the biggest roadblock in what has been a four-year effort to win a Fulbright and study in the United States. He first applied for the scholarship in 2004, but did not win one until this year.

"I wasn't unhappy about it then," he told ABC News, regarding his unsuccessful application. "I knew the other candidates were better than me. So, I decided to try harder. But this time it's different. To be successful and then not be able to go, because I can't get a visa? I can't believe it."

On Friday, the U.S. State Department -- following media reports of Abdullah's case -- said it would review the decision to drop the scholarships and Israel would be asked to reconsider the granting of visas.

Israel has tightened restrictions on freedom of movement since Hamas took power in Gaza in June 2007. That blockade has become even tighter since January, and permits are now only granted for urgent humanitarian cases, including those needing medical care in better equipped Israeli hospitals.

"Education is not as urgent as the need for medical care," said Arieh Mekel from the Israeli foreign ministry when contacted by ABC News.

"The problem is in Gaza and with the people of Gaza who voted for Hamas," Mekel said. "We do what we can, but while Gaza is still ruled by Hamas, and while rockets are still being fired at Israelis, Palestinian students seeking education are not a priority."

Although the case of the Fulbright hopefuls has grabbed headlines, it has only served to highlight a much wider problem.

Every year, more than 1,000 Palestinian students from Gaza try to study overseas. There are no Ph.D. courses in Gaza, and many subjects are simply not offered, forcing students to search overseas.

"Trapping talented people who want to try and help themselves, and then help develop Gaza, is bad for the Palestinians, but it's also bad for Israel," said Sari Bashi from the Israeli civil rights movement, Gisha.

"It's just wrong and also stupid," she said. "These sort of people are our future partners and what Israel is doing is collective punishment."

According to Gisha's figures in 2007, more than 1,200 students and some of their dependents sought visas to study abroad. Only 400 visas were granted.

The group currently represents two Gaza students whose cases are scheduled to be heard Monday in Israel's supreme court.

One of them is Wissam Abuajwa a 31-year-old with a place at Nottingham University in Great Britain to study environmental science. He has been trying to get out of Gaza to work towards a master's degree in environmental science since 2000.

The skills that such an education would give him are much needed in Gaza, one of the world's most heavily populated places.

"Every time I earn a place on a course, something happens in Gaza and I'm not allowed to get out," he told ABC News in a telephone interview.

"I don't care about politics," he added.

"Olmert, Abbas and Hamas, they can all go to hell," he said, referring to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders and the group that seized Gaza a year ago. "The word frustrated isn't strong enough to describe my feelings. But I don't want to give up. I just want to help improve the infrastructure of Gaza for the future."

Until this January, Israel ran buses for lucky students from Gaza to the Egyptian border. From there, they made their way to courses around the world. But the last bus left on Jan. 13.

Abdullah believes his right to education is a basic human right.

"I was shocked to read some Israelis saying education is not a human right, and not a priority. Why not?" he asked.

The right to education is enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Freedom to move from your own territory and return to it is also part of a 1966 U.N. treaty outlining basic economic and educational rights.

"My dream is to return from America and make a contribution to my state, to my society," Abdullah said.

Some Israeli politicians agree with him, including member of parliament Michael Melchior, who chairs the Knesset's (Israel's legislature) education committee. He is on record saying Israel should expand its humanitarian criteria to include students seeking education.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed her surprise at hearing the news of the Fulbright cancellations.

"If you cannot engage young people and give complete horizon to their expectations and to their dreams, then I don't know that there would be any future for Palestine or, frankly, since I believe the two-state solution is so important, to Israelis and Palestinians, to the people of that region who want to have decent lives," Rice said.

Before the announcement today, Mekel told ABC News, "The Americans never asked us for help in granting visas for these students. But if they need our help now, then we always take American requests very seriously."

Down in Gaza, Abdullah told ABC News he was delighted to hear the U.S. government was prepared to put pressure on Israel to grant him a visa.

"God willing, my dream will come true," he said.