The State Department said Friday it is pressing Israel to allow seven Palestinian students in Gaza to travel to the United States on prestigious Fulbright fellowships. The scholarships had earlier been withdrawn because the Gaza residents had not been given permission by Israel to leave the Hamas-run area. VOA'S David Gollust reports from the State Department.
Officials here say they recognize that Israel has legitimate security concerns about Gaza. But they say it should be no problem for the Israeli government to facilitate travel for the would-be Fulbright scholars, who have been thoroughly vetted by U.S. authorities.
The issue of the seven Palestinian students came to light in a New York Times story Friday, which said that because Israel had not acted on visa requests, their fellowships had been withdrawn and would be given instead to West Bank Palestinians able to travel.
The story drew expressions of concern not only from Palestinians and U.S. officials but also some Israeli lawmakers, who said their government was failing to promote educational development for a future Palestinian state.
Traveling in Iceland, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she was surprised to learn about the withdrawal of the scholarships and said she would look into the matter.
In a talk with reporters here, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said the scholarships are still available for the seven students this year, and that U.S. officials are, as he put it, trying to revisit the issue with the Israeli government:
"Certainly, the Israeli government has security concerns and other issues that it needs to deal with," he said. "But, we would think that, frankly, a decision to let people that have been vetted for what is, perhaps, the most prestigious foreign educational program run by the United States, certainly the most prestigious one run by the U.S. government -- it ought to be falling off a log for them to be able to do this, and we certainly hope that they will ultimately come forward with the necessary exit visas."
Casey said later, Undersecretary for Political Affairs William Burns raised the issue in a phone call Friday to Israeli Ambassador to Washington Sallai Meridor, and that Burns came away from the conversation with the expectation of an "agreeable and positive outcome."
Israel has largely sealed off the Gaza Strip, which has been controlled by the militant Islamic group Hamas since last year and been used by extremists for rocket attacks into southern Israel.
The New York Times quoted Israeli defense officials as saying they would facilitate only humanitarian services for Gaza, and that education was not a humanitarian concern.
However, officials of the office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the newspaper they were unaware of the case of the Fulbright awardees, and would facilitate their travel if the matter is referred to them.
Palestinian groups say the seven Fulbright scholars are among hundreds of Gaza students, who have missed deadlines for programs to study abroad because of Israeli travel curbs.
Secretary Rice, expected to return to the region early next month for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, said in Reykjavik, if students have their horizons curtailed, it raises doubts about the future of a Palestinian state and the ability of people in the region to have decent lives.