U.S. presses Israel on Gaza students’ exit visas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States pressed Israel on Friday to let seven Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip travel to the United States to study on coveted Fulbright fellowships and Israel said it was working on the issue.

Israel tightened its cordon of the Gaza Strip after the Hamas Islamist group took over the coastal Mediterranean territory nearly a year ago and it gives few Palestinians, besides some who are gravely ill, permission to leave.

The State Department this week told the seven that their Fulbright grants had been withdrawn and it has taken steps to be able to direct the money to other Palestinians in the West Bank because of the trouble getting the exit visas from Gaza.

However, after the New York Times published a story about the matter on Friday U.S. officials said they were redoubling their efforts to get the Israeli exit visas for the students.

“We are trying to revisit this issue with the Israeli government,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters in Washington.

“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 … it ought to be falling off a log for them to be able to do this,” he added.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said a few of the Fulbright students had recently left Gaza through the Erez crossing. U.S. officials had no comment on this and it was not immediately possible obtain independent confirmation.

“We’re trying to get them out,” Mekel said, but he added that the situation was “difficult.”

“Obviously the situation, with Hamas shooting at the border crossings, it is not such an easy thing to do,” Mekel said.

There are regular rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel and the Israeli government argues that its travel restrictions are designed to prevent suicide bombings or other attacks.

A U.S. official who asked not to be named said that money set aside for the seven Fulbright recipients had not been given to other students and that if the seven received their exit visas, they would be given the scholarships.

Top U.S. officials appeared to have been taken by surprise by the incident and to be embarrassed that their initial efforts to get Israel to allow the students to leave had not worked.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested she disapproved of the move to reallocate the money for the seven Gaza students who hope to pursue advanced degrees at American institutions this fall.

“I can tell you it was a surprise to me,” Rice said at a news conference with Iceland’s Foreign Minister Ingibjorg Gisladottir in Reykjavik. “I am a huge supporter of Fulbrights.”

Asked if she would reverse the decision, Rice said: “We’ll see what we can do.”

Fulbright grants are the U.S. flagship program in international educational exchange and are used to help promote a better understanding of U.S. values abroad.

Rice is expected to return to the Middle East next month as part of Bush administration efforts there to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians by the end of the year.

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