The Stubborn Ph.D. Student From the Gaza Strip

At a certain European university, they have been waiting for half a year for the arrival of S.O., a young doctoral student from the Gaza Strip. He was supposed to….

At a certain European university, they have been waiting for half a year for the arrival of S.O., a young doctoral student from the Gaza Strip. He was supposed to begin his research there on October 1, 2020. If he doesn’t arrive by April 1, he will lose his scholarship and it will be given to a student from another country. Wouldn’t that be a shame.

The university, and the Foreign Ministry of the relevant country, are well aware that Israeli authorities have declared an all-out war against the young man, and have kept him from leaving Gaza several times for an interview at the country’s embassy in Tel Aviv in order to receive the requisite visa. But what can the university do except exhibit patience, which will run out on April 1? And what can the diplomats from that country do, except to share their frustration with diplomats from other countries?

In September 2020, I wrote about the case of S.O., and I’m writing again, because on Sunday, the Be’er Sheva District Court, sitting as an administrative tribunal, was scheduled once again to discuss S.O.’s fate, his future and his new petition, requesting that he be allowed to travel to the embassy in question. The state prosecution for Israel’s southern district already asked that the petition be dismissed out of hand – this time, using an excuse that it has not yet used in the case of S.O. (A spoiler: The court hearing was short.)

I don’t understand exactly why S.O. prefers that I not mention his name, his field of expertise or the university that has accepted him. What I do understand is that since August 2020, the Israeli Office of Coordination and Liaison in the Gaza Strip and the organization that oversees it – the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, headed by Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu-Rukun – have been waging bureaucratic warfare against this young man’s chances of academic advancement.

Last summer both the Gaza liaison and Abu-Rukun’s office gave three excuses for rejecting the request for a permit to leave the Strip for his interview: 1. The siege of Gaza was being tightened due to the coronavirus; 2. An interview in a foreign embassy for the purpose of receiving a scholarship is not included in the exceptional humanitarian criteria permitting one to leave the Strip; and 3. The request was submitted by Gisha – an Israeli human rights organization whose goal is to protect the freedom of movement of Palestinians – rather than through the usual channel: the Palestinian Authority’s Civilian Affairs Committee (which wasn’t functioning at the time since Mahmoud Abbas had decided to freeze security and civilian coordination with Israel).

Two Be’er Sheva court judges, Gad Gideon and Ariel Vago, didn’t accept the formalistic explanations of the state prosecutor and the coordinator of government activities, and opined that leaving Gaza for higher education with a scholarship could indeed be considered “an exceptional humanitarian case”; Gideon ruled on September 9 last year that S.O. should be allowed to travel to the interview at the embassy. The state prosecution then did something very unusual: It hastened to appeal the district court decision before Supreme Court Justices Neal Hendel, Anat Baron and Yosef Elron.

The three agreed with the opinion of the state and ruled a few days later that a scholarship for doctoral studies does not constitute an exceptional humanitarian case. They also said that the role of the lower court is not to determine criteria instead of those authorized to do so, but rather to examine and review the implementation of the criteria. They also implied that acceding to S.O.’s request would constitute a precedent for other Gazans who receive scholarships to study abroad.

Stubborn S.O. once again scheduled a new date, in November, for the interview in the embassy, and once again submitted a request for an exit permit from the Strip. The local liaison office refused his request yet again, with the familiar excuses: COVID-19 and the failure to send the request through the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee. November came and went, security and civilian coordination between the PA and Israel was renewed, and the would-be doctoral student’s second request (via the official Palestinian channel) was refused again – this time with only the pandemic as an excuse.

On February 14, S.O. submitted another request to travel to Tel Aviv, through the official channel. When the arrival of the permit was delayed, Gisha inquired and the Gaza liaison office replied that the request was being processed. The clock continued to tick and Gisha once again appealed on behalf of S.O. to the Be’er Sheva District Court.

Meanwhile it turned out that the office of coordination of government activities had introduced a new criterion for receiving an exit permit from Gaza to Israel, despite the coronavirus lockdown: “an interview at foreign embassies.” I have no doubt that this change has a lot to do with the persistent legal activity of Gisha. Ostensibly, this welcome development makes the petition unnecessary and S.O. should receive the hoped-for permit. But guess what? Now the authorities were claiming that the request was not received in the Israeli liaison office.

Last Thursday attorney Yaron Fenesh, a senior deputy in the Southern District Prosecutor’s Office, asked the court to reject the petition out of hand for reasons of “failure to follow procedures.” The authors of the petition, attorneys Osnat Cohen Lifshitz and Muna Haddad, expressed amazement, in their response. After all, if the request was not received, how did the Public Inquiries Department of the liaison office reply to Gisha that the request was being processed? Alternatively, why didn’t the liaison office report during all those weeks that the request hadn’t even been received? And how is it that the Palestinian Civilian Affairs Committee confirmed that it had conveyed the request, on time, to the Israeli side?

Gisha says that it’s a known practice of the liaison office: not to reply to requests for exit permits, and then to claim that they “didn’t arrive.” That’s an easy claim, because the office refuses to send a confirmation in writing to the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee for every request that has been submitted.

Sunday, in court, Fenesh himself said that the request for a permit finally did arrive – last Thursday. Therefore, S.O. can receive his permit for an interview in Tel Aviv, on March 17. Gisha will make sure it happens.