Students stranded in illegal limbo

February 18, 2000

Many Palestinian students remain cut off from their homes three months after a "safe passage" allowing them to travel between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank was opened by the Israeli authorities.

"The procedure for issuing permits to travel is very arbitrary," said Hanan Elmasu, coordinator of Birzeit University's Human Rights Action Project in the West Bank. Ms Elmasu says that many students have not applied for permits for fear of being refused. "They're worried about being picked up and sent back. They're risking a lot by studying here."

In 1996, the Palestinian territories were closed off following a series of bomb attacks in Israel. As a result, Palestinian universities in the West Bank and Gaza were almost completely cut off from each other.

Many students from Gaza who were enrolled in universities in the West Bank were sent back to Gaza. But an estimated 100 Gazan students are still studying illegally at Birzeit. A similar number from the West Bank are estimated to be studying without official permits in the Gaza Strip.

Abdel Hak Zanatine, from Nablus in the West Bank, is one. He started his BSc in chemistry at the Islamic University in Gaza but ran into trouble when he was renewing his permit back home in Nablus in 1994.

"My first permit was for three months," he said. "After it was refused I spent one year in Nablus waiting for it to be granted, but it never happened, even though I don't have a security record." Abdel Hak managed to get back to Gaza to continue his studies a year later by applying for a visa to visit Egypt, which required him to pass through Gaza. He stayed on illegally in Gaza to study and will graduate in March.

"I miss my family, I haven't seen them for five years," he said. "But I don't know how I can return after I've finished my studies. The time I have spent here is considered as illegal, and I can only apply for a permit from my family's home in the West Bank."

The safe passage allows students to travel freely for one year. Those applying have to take part in a security check. This has been a problem for students who have been studying illegally.

"It has happened that they have been held because of those illegal years," said Ms Elmasu. "After they are freed, they are not allowed out for three months, and only after the three months are up are they free to apply for a new permit."

Abdel Hak's hope is that the Palestinian authorities will arrange an exceptional one-day pass with the Israeli authorities so that he can return home once he has graduated. "I hope I never have to come back to Gaza," he said.

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