Outstanding student falls victim to Israel's ban on Palestinians

When Sawsan Salameh won a scholarship she was thrilled, but now her ground-breaking research is on hold. Donald Macintyre reports from Anata
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Sawsan Salameh is no ordinary chemistry student. She has already published three papers in respected scientific journals. Her MA dissertation on the use of a computer programme to make theoretical calculations about the properties of a chemical compound helped her qualify for a full scholarship to study for a PhD in quantum chemistry at Jerusalem's world famous Hebrew University.

With a member of the university's faculty having just been awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for chemistry there could hardly be a better place to do her doctorate and Ms Salameh, 29, was overjoyed to hear last January she had been given the chance to do so.

Except that the chance has now been taken away from her because the Israeli military has recently imposed a blanket ban on Palestinian students from the West Bank taking up places at Israeli universities. Despite repeated requests, enthusiastically endorsed by the Israeli professor, Raphael Levine, who wants to supervise her, Ms Salameh has been unable to persuade the army to grant her the permit that would allow her to pass unimpeded through the single Israeli military checkpoint between her home and the university's Mount Scopus campus, a mere two miles away.

Not even the Israel Defence Forces are saying there is anything in the background of Ms Salameh, whose late father worked for the Israeli telephone company Bezeq, to create security anxieties.

Ms Salameh took her BA and MA in Al Quds University in Abu Dis but there is nowhere in East Jerusalem or the West Bank where she could study for a PhD. Unless Israel's Supreme Court overturns the ban or at least exempts Ms Salameh at a hearing next Thursday, she will be prevented from beginning her doctoral studies once again.

Between February and August Ms Salameh made eight separate visits to the Kalundia crossing terminal between Ramallah and Jerusalem in an attempt to secure the necessary renewable three-month permit - the maximum ever granted - to enter Israel and take up a scholarship which will cover fees of around £1,270 a year plus a basic living allowance for up to four years.

She said: "They kept asking me for new papers. For example they told me to get a letter from Professor Levine which said he needed me there for the full three months. So I brought the letter. Then they said they wanted me to get another saying how many days a week he wanted me."

Such questions were actually irrelevant, however. For eventually Ms Salameh, Professor Levine and Gisha, an Israeli organisation promoting equal access to education which is joining Ms Salameh in fighting next week's court case, were told that she was subject to what the army's civil administration confirmed yesterday was now a ban on all Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank, other than married people of over 35 with families, from entering Israel.

While the ban - which Gisha argues is in breach of international law - will not halt the studies of a few dozen Palestinian students already in Israeli universities, it will prevent new ones from entering.

The military says Ms Salameh could do her PhD abroad. But she comes from a traditional family which wants to see her sleep at home every night. More to the point, Professor Levine is a leading figure in herground- breaking field of predicting changes in molecular behaviour within minuscule "attoseconds".

Professor Levine said last night from California that Hebrew University had a long tradition of being an, "open house". He added: "That is the whole idea of a university; that it is universal. I understand concerns about security but I am not aware that there is any security problem connected with Sawsan and in any case security has to be weighed against other benefits."

Professor Levine, said it is in Israel's interests to strengthen the Palestinian middle-class, including academic institutions. But he added that beside the "moral dimension" there was also a "practical reality. "This is not a field where I can simply say go do the research," he said. "I need to meet and discuss the work with her regularly and that is exactly what the army is denying me the ability to do."

Ms Salameh said she had been sustained throughout by the backing of Professor Levine. "Whenever the Army said no I said to him maybe you should stop the scholarship but he was always saying no and encouraging me to get a permit. He said: 'I am a patient person.'

"When I feel angry about what is happening I remember my professor. He is an Israeli too. I think there is a big difference between military and scientific persons."

Although there have always been heavy restrictions on Palestinian students wanting to attend Israeli universities, they were tightened after Hamas won the Palestinian Authority elections last January. Ms Salameh, who is unmarried and represents the rival and more moderate Fatah on the village council, is doubly a victim of the reaction to Hamas's victory. Seeking to support her family by teaching chemistry at the Anata High School, she has not been paid for the last six months mainly because of Israel's refusal to remit $60m a month duties owed to the Palestinian Authority.

Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Israeli military's civil administration, said that it had become "much more difficult" to maintain security and intelligence liaisons with Palestinian officials than before Hamas's election and the ban had been imposed on security advice.

"We don't like doing this and we hope it will change, but we know there have been cases of terror groups putting pressure on people who are allowed to come into Israel." He added: "This is nothing personal against her. If she wants to do her PhD in any other country she will be allowed to do so."

Donald Macintyre will be speaking at Centre Forum's 'Britain and broader Middle East' conference on 4 November. To book tickets please visit www.centreforum.org