A Palestinian Student Wants a Visa to Europe? Let Him Do Research in Gaza

The Be’er Sheva District Court, sitting as an administrative court, dared to rule that S.O., a Palestinian doctoral student in engineering, must be allowed to leave the Gaza Strip for….

The Be’er Sheva District Court, sitting as an administrative court, dared to rule that S.O., a Palestinian doctoral student in engineering, must be allowed to leave the Gaza Strip for Tel Aviv in order to receive a visa for the European state in which he is meant to begin his research on October 1. But Israel is determined to block the 28-year-old Gazan man from realizing his dream. To this end, it enlisted its endless supply of time, resources, clerks, officers and jurists. So important was it for Israel to shoot down S.O.’s scholarship and his research that it hastened to appeal the Be’er Sheva court’s ruling to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court justices did not disappoint. They didn’t miss the opportunity to prove their conservatism. On Wednesday, Justices Neal Hendel, Anat Baron and Yosef Elron ruled that a one-time scholarship for doctoral studies does not meet the criteria for “exceptional humanitarian cases.” This is the rigid framework that the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories follows to implement Israel’s policy to deny Palestinians their freedom of movement and to cut off Gazans from the rest of the world.

As is customary in the bureaucratic warfare at which Israel excels, killing time was the weapon immediately drawn against S.O. His consulate interview was scheduled for August 24. By the end of July he applied to the Gaza District Coordination and Liaison Office for a one-day exit permit to Tel Aviv. For two weeks the DCO, which answers to the Defense Ministry and the IDF, was silent.

Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization that seeks to protect Palestinians’ freedom of movement, petitioned the Be’er Sheva court, asking it to instruct the DCO to reply. The state answered that the case was not urgent. Judge Gad Gidion disagreed. He scheduled a hearing for August 13, the day after the petition was filed, and ordered the state to respond to the exit permit request. On August 18, the DCO sent its standard refusal: S.O. did not apply through proper channels (that is, the Palestinian Authority). He does not fit any category of exceptional cases that are permitted to leave. And besides, there’s a pandemic.

Gisha’s lawyers immediately petitioned to have S.O.’s case heard. A hearing was set for August 24. The consulate meeting was postponed to September 2. Judge Ariel Vago, like Gidion, was not intimidated by the state’s formalistic arguments (coronavirus, categories and proper channels). He proposed broadening the “humanitarian” definition beyond medical issues, and asked the state to weigh S.O.’s specific request. Only on the afternoon of September 2, after the time for the consular interview had passed, did the DCO reply: We considered the request. S.O. isn’t getting an exit permit.

On September 5, Gisha filed another petition. S.O. had managed to get a third date for his consular interview: September 16. On September 9, the Be’er Sheva court held its third hearing. The case had returned to Gidion, who like Vago believed the opportunity posed by this special, one-time scholarship was indeed a humanitarian case. He ruled that S.O. must be allowed to go to Tel Aviv, subject to a Shin Bet security service check, as quickly as possible so that he did not miss his interview again.

But when the state wants to, it can move quickly: Not two days passed before it appealed to the Supreme Court. This time the state won. The justices ruled that the court’s role in the first instance is not to set criteria instead of the authorities, but to review and monitor how the criteria are applied. They also hinted that giving S.O. a permit would set a precedent for other Gazans who win scholarships for foreign study, God forbid.

Thus the Supreme Court justices joined the coordinator of government activities and practically announced: We love our Gazans when they are wretched, sick and dying (and even then, not always). Those are the only ones to whom we’ll throw crumbs of freedom of movement. We don’t like them when they are talented students, ambitious researchers and able Ph.Ds.