Churches for Middle East Peace ask Secretary Rice's help for students in Gaza

July 16, 2008

Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) has joined six other American organizations in sending a letter on July 15 to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking that she urge Israel to permit hundreds of students in Gaza who have been admitted to foreign universities to exit the embattled area. The students are confined to Gaza because of Israel's closure policy. CMEP is a coalition of 22 Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant institutions, one of which is the Episcopal Church. Other co-signers of the letter -- all of them supporters of a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine -- are Americans for Peace Now, American Task Force on Palestine, the Foundation for Middle East Peace, the Arab American Institute, the Israel Policy Forum, and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom. The letter thanks Secretary Rice for her earlier intervention with Israel that enabled Gazans with Fulbright and other scholarships to travel to the U.S. to continue their studies. However, Israel's new policy only allows a few dozen people with "recognized" scholarships from "friendly" countries to study abroad. This leaves hundreds of other Gazan students, who have been admitted to foreign universities but do not fit in this narrow category, still restricted to Gaza. The letter to the Secretary urges that the U.S. take up the cause of these students to pursue the opportunity for higher education abroad that they have won by merit and hard work. Maureen Shea, chair of the CMEP board and director of the Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations, commented: "In March of this year, I had the unique opportunity of visiting Gaza with our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, and the Bishop in Jerusalem, the Rt. Rev. Suheil Dawani. What we saw there, including the numbers of young people without jobs and hope, is the strongest possible evidence as to the importance of allowing these student to pursue the unique opportunity they are being offered. This is an investment in peace that must not be deferred." The co-signers of the letter to Secretary Rice believe that education for young people is a critical investment for peace between Israel and Palestine, Shea said. Their message to Secretary Rice quotes Rabbi Michael Melchior, chairman of the Israeli Knesset Committee on Education, who said, "Trapping of hundreds of students is Gaza is both immoral and unwise." It points out that depriving students in Gaza who present no security risk from opportunities for higher education that are not available in Gaza threatens their futures and undermines hope for peace, "the most powerful antidote to violence and extremism." The full text of the letter follows. July 15, 2008 The Honorable Condoleezza RiceSecretary of StateU.S. Department of State2201 C Street N.WWashington, D.C. 20520 Dear Secretary Rice, As American organizations committed to a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we applaud your efforts to persuade Israel to allow the seven Fulbright scholars who have been confined to Gaza to travel to the United States. We are also grateful for the efforts of our embassy in Israel to enable Gazan awardees of other American scholarships to leave Gaza and to facilitate U.S. visas for them. Your intervention and public comments on the importance of opportunities for both Israelis and Palestinians to study abroad demonstrate American leadership and are very welcome. Unfortunately, the problem of students and academics who are trapped in Gaza is much larger than the seven Fulbright grantees and five other Gazan students who have scholarships to American universities. There are also hundreds of other students in Gaza who have valid opportunities to study elsewhere abroad but do not qualify for the narrow category of the few dozen students with "recognized" scholarships for study in "friendly" countries that Israel now says may leave Gaza, following the intervention of the U.S. and other foreign governments. We strongly urge that the United States broaden its diplomatic efforts in order to persuade Israel to permit the travel of all students whose travel presents no genuine security threat. Students allowed to travel should include not only scholarship awardees admitted to American universities and those of friendly foreign states, but the hundreds of others who have been admitted to foreign universities elsewhere without "recognized" scholarships. As you said so eloquently on May 30, "If you cannot engage young people and give them a complete horizon to their expectations and to their dreams, then I don't know that there would be any future for Palestine." For Palestinians, like Israelis, education is the most important investment. Peace and a better future for both Israelis and Palestinians will depend on an educated and productive Palestinian community. Israeli policies that foreclose higher studies abroad that are generally unavailable in Gaza not only undermine such a future, but also threaten to destroy hope, the critical antidote to extremism and violence. As Israel's ally and closest friend and partner in the cause of peace, the United States has a deep and legitimate interest, not only in ensuring that students in Gaza can come to study in our country, but in ensuring that any Gazan student who has earned a place at a foreign university has the opportunity to pursue these studies. The right to do so should not be limited to the few dozen who have "recognized" scholarships. Members of the Israeli Knesset and Supreme Court, international academics, and leading media around the world, have called on Israel to permit Gazan students to study abroad. For example, Rabbi Michael Melchior, Chairman of the Knesset's Education Committee has said "Trapping hundreds of students in Gaza is both immoral and unwise." Broadening American diplomatic efforts to include all such students would reinforce these appeals. Such U.S. leadership would also resonate positively with the Israeli public, which, according to a recent public opinion survey, believes the closure of Gaza is likely to increase radicalism and support for Hamas. And, it would demonstrate to Palestinians, both in the West Bank and Gaza, genuine U.S. concern for the Palestinian people. Of course, the deprivation of the right of students to travel abroad for education is only one harmful aspect of an Israeli security regime that harshly restricts the movements of a million and a half Gazans, as well as the movement of goods into and out of the Gaza Strip. We hope this larger problem is addressed soon and urgently. In the meantime, as the next academic year approaches, there is a special urgency to ensuring that Gazan students who have won by merit and hard work the chance to study abroad do not lose this priceless opportunity. Yours truly, Philip C. Wilcox, Jr.President, Foundation for Middle East Peace1761 N Street NW, Washington, DC 20036 Debra DeLeePresident and CEO, Americans for Peace Now1101 14th Street NW, Sixth Floor, Washington, DC 20005 Ziad al AsaliPresident, American Task Force for Palestine815 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 1200, Washington, DC 20006 Warren ClarkExecutive Director, Churches for Middle East Peace110 Maryland Avenue NE, #311, Washington, DC 20002 James ZogbyPresident, Arab American Institute1600 K Street, Suite 601, Washington, DC 20006 M.J. RosenbergDirector, Israel Policy Forum, Washington, DC122 C Street NW, Suite 820, Washington DC 20001 Steve MastersPresident, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom11 E Adams, Suite 707, Chicago, IL 60603