Since Israel tightened the siege on the Gaza Strip last year, hundreds of Palestinian students have been unable to reach their educational institutions in the West Bank and abroad. Not only are the students being denied their right to education, but Palestinian society suffers as a whole from this impediment to its development. The harm to students is only one example of grave harm resulting from the siege. Israel has almost complete control of Gaza's borders, and its policy toward the Strip breaches its obligations under international law.
Student hardship in Gaza
There are three universities in Gaza, which offer a limited number of programs for bachelor's degrees. No programs are available in occupational therapy, physiotherapy, dentistry, and many other fields. Master's degrees are even more limited, and PhD programs are non-existent.
As a result, many Gazans choose to study in the West Bank and abroad. Hundreds of Gazans were accepted this year to academic programs outside the Strip, but Israel refused in almost all cases to let them leave the Strip to attend school. The many students who had already begun their studies outside the Gaza Strip and were home on vacation found themselves stuck there. The precise number of students unable to reach their schools is unknown, given that, since January 2008, the Civil Committee in Gaza stopped accepting exit requests from students. According to the statistics of Gisha, a human rights organization, the number of students unable to exit the Strip is in the hundreds. As far back as 2000, Israeli authorities imposed a sweeping prohibition on the exit of Gazans wanting to study, with a small number of exceptions. The situation worsened under the siege.
Given its sweeping nature and the lack of individual examination of each case, the Israeli prohibition constitutes collective punishment. In August 2007, the Israeli High Court of Justice rejected the petition of occupational-therapy students and Gisha to enable the students to leave the Strip to attend school in the West Bank. The court based its ruling on the age of the students, who were in the 16-35 age group, which the defense establishment considers security risks, and on the existence of an armed conflict between armed groups in Gaza and Israeli armed forces. The court did not require the state to examine the movement requests on an individual basis, thus approving the state's sweeping refusal to let them leave the Strip.
In recent months, the media has given wide coverage to the case of seven students from Gaza who received prestigious Fulbright fellowships, given by the US government, and were denied exit from the Strip. Fulbright officials consequently decided to retract the scholarships. Following criticism by the US government and the involvement of US Secretary of State Rice, the prohibition was lifted. Recently, American officials arrived at Erez Crossing to enable the students to apply for US visas. Whereas these seven students were lucky, hundreds of other students remain imprisoned in the Strip and wait for a general solution to the problem.
In August 2005, Israel removed its armed forces from the Gaza Strip along with the settlements it had established there. Despite the evacuation, Israel maintained almost absolute control over major aspects of Palestinian life in the Strip. All the crossing points are under Israel's direct control, except for Rafah Crossing, over which Israel has partial, indirect control only. Israel also controls the air and sea space, the population registry and family-unification proceedings, and the crossing of goods to and from the Strip. Since the Hamas takeover, in mid-2007, Israel has tightened the siege.
The siege and its accompanying sanctions have led to shortages of food, electricity, medicines and medical treatment, have severely restricted freedom of movement, and have impeded the residents' ability to earn a living and obtain an education.
In addition to the students being denied their right to education, Palestinian society, whose development is impeded as a result of the restriction on movement, also suffers. The prolonged prohibition on students leaving the Strip to study has created a grave shortage of skilled personnel, among them specialist physicians and persons engaged in the paramedic professions.
In recent months, Hamas, in coordination with Egypt, has opened the crossing for brief intervals to enable the ill, students, and persons stuck on either side of the border to cross. However, this opening does not help students who need to get to their educational institutions in the West Bank. Also, the brief, infrequent opening of the crossing enables only a small number of students to cross.
In its preliminary response to a petition in the High Court filed in April 2008 by a Gazan student and HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual, the state argued that, in accordance with the common law, students from Gaza do not have a vested right to enter Israel, even if the medical treatment they require is not available in the Strip, and by analogy, the state is not required to let students leave the Strip to study.
However, as stated above, Israel continues, even after disengagement, to directly control many aspects of Palestinian life in the Strip. The broad scope of this control creates a reasonable basis for argument that the laws of occupation continue to bind Israel with respect to the Gaza Strip, and that Israel has general responsibility for the safety and welfare of the residents there, and that it must enable them to exercise their right to education.
International humanitarian law allows restrictions on freedom of movement, if the restrictions are needed to meet security needs. But these restrictions must be legal and limited to the minimum necessary to meet the security needs. A sweeping prohibition on students leaving the Strip therefore constitutes prohibited collective punishment and violates the law.
Israel's responsibility for enabling Gazan students to exercise their right to education applies even if the laws of occupation do not pertain to the Strip. In this instance, the responsibility arises from Israel's control of the crossings to the West Bank and its partial control over exit of residents to other places abroad, and is based on international human rights law. Its responsibility is also derived from Israel's forty-year control of the educational system in the Strip and its severe neglect during that period. The right to education is explicitly stated in article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, of 1966. The right of persons to leave their country is enshrined in article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, also of 1966. Israel has ratified both of these covenants.