Student trapped in Gaza asks Blair for help to beat travel ban

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The Independent Online

Wissam Abuajwa has had the same ambition for more than a decade: to acquire all the international expertise he can and return to his native Gaza to help it tackle some of the worst environmental problems in the Middle East.

Mr Abuajwa, 30, an outstanding chemistry graduate of Gaza's secular Al Azhar University was therefore thrilled over a year ago not only to win an MSc place at Nottingham University's School of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, one of the best in its field anywhere, but also a full scholarship to cover his fees and accommodation. After that it was no problem to get a British visa.

What he lacked –and still lacks – is an Israeli permit to leave Gaza because of the closure imposed by the military since Hamas's enforced takeover of the Strip last June – and enforced with even greater rigour on students since January.

For Mr Abuajwa and many other students seeking to study abroad, the description of Gaza as a "big prison" is more than just a slogan. Instead of nearing the end of his course and contemplating a PhD at Nottingham, an increasingly frustrated Mr Abuajwa is still in Gaza. And hope is running out for him to take up the opportunity that the university and the UK-based Karim Rida Said foundation, which provided his scholarship, allowed him to defer to September this year.

All of that, Mr Abuajwa has explained in an eloquent two-page letter to the international Middle East envoy Tony Blair asking him for help. "I wrote to him because he was working for peace and economic development," he explains. "To have development for Palestinians, you need people who can study and come back to build the infrastructure.

"People like me are not Hamas, not Fatah," he continues. Indeed, coming from a non-political family, the son an engineer is equally dismissive of both. "We are just students. And I am someone who believes that Palestinians should be able to solve their own problems."

On Monday, Gisha, the Israeli human rights organisation, will bring a test case attempting to persuade the Israeli Supreme Court to order the military to let Mr Abuajwa out via Israel through the Erez crossing. But in the meantime, he has hardly been idle.

Mr Abuajwa has helped to build up the Gaza NGO Masadar, whose projects have included the provision of lights for fishermen and helping Bedouin farmers to protect their animals from water-borne diseases. And he earned his living as a medical sales representative until, ironically, he was sacked three weeks ago when his boss discovered he wanted to study abroad and did not plan sales as a permanent career.

This month, he tried for two days to leave Gaza through the Rafah border when it was briefly opened for two days. "It was a disaster," he said. "The Egyptians wouldn't let through students going abroad like me. The Palestinian police were trying to hit us with electric truncheons."

Now he believes he could be facing his last chance. "Nottingham University has been very understanding," he says. "But I am not sure I would get the scholarship deferred again."

At a time when Gaza's air is being polluted by the cooking oil motorists are using to beat the fuel blockade, when up to 60 million litres a day of raw sewage are being dumped in the sea because there is no fuel to power treatment pumps, Mr Abuajwa is well aware that the environmental problems will continue longer after Gaza's crisis eases. That is why he told Mr Blair in his letter he wanted to work on pollution control. "I am just a student," he told the former British prime minister. "I do not understand why I am being punished. I cannot understand how I am a risk to the security of Israel."

Mr Abuajwa's case was among several raised last week at a meeting of the Israeli Knesset's education committee, whose chairman, Rabbi Michael Melchior, said that the ban on Gazans studying abroad did not "meet international standards or standards set by the morality of the Jewish people – a people that has experienced denial of access to education".

Saying that there were "rules even in times of war", Mr Melchior added that universities abroad would "never understand" the ban and that "the anger and frustration" of students left behind in Gaza "will not contribute to making them into peace-lovers".

US: 'Let Fulbright scholars out'

The United States is seeking to persuade Israel to let out seven students from Gaza after they won Fulbright scholarships to study in American universities.

The State Department told the students this week that their grants had been withdrawn after they had been unable to secure the necessary permission to leave Gaza by Israel, The New York Times revealed.

Sari Bashi, the director of the Israeli human rights organisation Gisha, said Israel could let through Palestinians when it chose to do so. "Israel controls the borders and Israel bears the responsibility for the students trappedinside," she said.

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