Since the beginning of 2012, Gisha and Al Mezan, an Israeli and a Palestinian human rights organization, respectively, have been arguing a petition before Israel’s highest court asking that five women from Gaza be permitted to enter the West Bank to complete their academic studies. In September the petition was rejected, against the backdrop of a 12-year ban on travel between the two parts of the Palestinian territory for the purposes of engaging in academic studies.
Then it was revealed that even the United States cannot broker permits for its State Department-funded scholars from Gaza, who had hoped to start the academic year at Palestinian universities in the West Bank.
Despite having removed its settlements and military installations from inside Gaza, Israel continues to control all access points from Gaza to the West Bank and does not allow Gaza residents to enter the West Bank without a permit. If a student wants to study for a degree that isn’t offered in Gaza, or if she feels that the programs offered don’t meet her needs, she is expected to either travel abroad or forgo her academic aspirations.
Even when there are no concrete security claims or suspicions raised against her as an individual, she is considered a potential threat or a vessel for terror, condemned by the registration of her residency in Gaza and prevented from accessing the Palestinian universities established for her benefit.
There had been reason for hope. In the course of legal proceedings, the court recommended that the state reconsider its refusal to allow four of the petitioners to reach the West Bank to complete degrees they had started before the ban was implemented in 2000. The four women, master’s degree candidates in gender studies and democracy and human rights programs uniquely offered in the West Bank, had asked for temporary permits to complete their degrees.
Each woman holds leadership roles in various civil society organizations that are working, against the odds, on initiatives to prevent violence against women, train women in the agricultural sector and offer capacity building to women who are owners of small businesses. Completing their degrees has been a dream deferred.
The fifth petitioner, a bright young woman seeking to study in Palestine’s most prestigious law program, was dropped from discussion weeks ago when it was determined that her request was not “exceptional” enough. Israel’s current policy is to allow entrance of Gaza residents to the West Bank in “exceptional humanitarian circumstances only, with an emphasis on urgent medical cases.”
I was lucky enough to be born in Israel, to a nice Jewish family that eventually immigrated to the United States. When I wanted to leave my family home to go to university, or when I thought about studying abroad, the world was my oyster. I didn’t have to change the then-current regime to get books or travel to school.
No one asked me to prove how exceptional or humanitarian my aspirations were. I certainly didn’t have to go to court to seek confirmation that my desire to study was sanctioned by law.
There are real and concrete security threats in the region, and, yes, Gaza is a ruled by a regime that tops America’s terror list. But if you were a woman in Gaza, what would you do?
If I were a woman in Gaza, I would do exactly what these courageous women did when they filed a petition to Israel’s highest court to let them study: I would declare in a court of law that my individual right to education, to movement, to freedom is just that, an individual right. I would tell the court that denying me access to a Palestinian university in another part of the Palestinian territory because of the existence of a regime that I have no individual power to change is as unjust as it is unwise.
After all, each of the women, in her own way, has dedicated her life to improving the conditions of women and promoting rights from within Gaza and without. Isn’t that what we should want and encourage?
Yes, Israel has legitimate security concerns. A smarter and more principled approach would take these concerns seriously and recognize that Israel is not made safer by preventing these exceptional women from pursuing their admirable goals.
Tania Hary is the director of international relations at Gisha — Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, an Israeli human rights organization.