Israel turns Gaza into prison for Fulbright Scholar

As a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip, I could not have been more proud to learn last June that I had earned a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to study in the United States.

As a child, I would wonder how televisions, computers and washing machines actually worked. I took this fascination to the Islamic University of Gaza, the only Gazan university offering a degree in electrical engineering. There, I developed an ECG monitoring system that enables patients’ hearts to be monitored at home through a personal computer and an Internet link. I won the university prize for distinguished projects for my innovation. I long dreamed of the other advances I might make after an education at the University of Connecticut, where I was scheduled to study this fall for a master’s degree in electrical engineering.

Now, my dream has been stolen from me. I am devastated; my parents heartbroken. Though Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, it still controls our borders and determines who and what enters or exits. Since a 2006 election that brought a Hamas majority to the Palestinian Legislative Council, Israel has steadily diminished access into and out of Gaza. Many Palestinians reportedly died in the past year because they could not leave to obtain medical care they desperately needed. Food, fuel and medicine are scarce. Hundreds of students like me, with scholarships to study abroad, are being arbitrarily denied the right to leave Gaza to fulfill our educational aspirations.

A few weeks ago when I went to the Erez Checkpoint between Gaza and Israel, I was told by the Israeli official that I could not leave unless I collaborated with the Israeli occupation. I refused. My conscience and my people’s right to freedom and equal rights mean more to me than even the finest education.

US officials came to my aid. They held special visa interviews along the Israeli-Gaza border for me and two other Fulbright scholars in a similar position. The US granted my visa. Once again I could imagine taking my seat in a lecture hall in America. I packed my bags, bought souvenirs for my future friends in America and bade farewell to my family.

Then came a phone call that changed everything. My American visa had been revoked based on secret evidence provided by Israel. I cannot see the evidence and so have no opportunity to contest it.

What carrot did an Israeli security official dangle before another Gazan’s eyes, or what torture tactics did he use to manufacture information he could use against me? However it happened, and for whatever reason, the outcome is the same. Despite my abhorrence of violence, I am being penalized.

What troubles me most, however, is not my own personal plight, but the effect this experience has had on my talented younger brother.

After watching what I have endured as an innocent and politically unaffiliated student, he has concluded that he will no longer pursue the educational dream outside of Gaza he once held. His horizons are closing.

As an older brother from a family that places deep value on education, it pains me to see his own ambitions falter, even temporarily, because of the injustice I am facing.

I wonder what hopelessness all children in Gaza suffer when they learn that Gaza’s best students are confined by Israel to the cramped Gaza Strip? And how are they to succeed when this week their parents discover local stores are empty of study essentials such as pencils, pens and notebooks because of the economic blockade of our small parcel of land?

There are hundreds of Palestinian students in Gaza hoping for a miracle in the next few days so that we can pursue scholarships that may offer a once-in-a-lifetime escape from ignorance and poverty. We are determined not to be rendered a dependent people lacking advanced education.

And yet the silence of the world suggests that Israel will succeed in keeping us within the limiting confines of Gaza. Perhaps American students will think of me and my fellow Palestinian students as the academic year begins. We long for a similar opportunity.

Zohair M. Abu Shaban is a Fulbright Scholar from Gaza accepted to the University of Connecticut. This article originally appeared in the Hartford Courant and is republished with the author’s permission.

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