MENA: Visas of Fulbright scholars revoked

Earlier this week three Palestinians, recipients of prestigious Fulbright scholarships to study in the United States, had their visas revoked by the US, preventing them from taking up the scholarships. A fourth, a high-school student on a separate programme, was also stopped. Yet two and a half months ago, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had personally intervened to make sure that the grant winners would be able to go. Why the last-minute change of heart? Bloggers from around the Middle East have a number of theories.

The story started at the end of May when seven Fulbright winners from the Gaza Strip had their grants withdrawn, as the US State Department was concerned that it would not be able to get them out of the Gaza Strip to the American Consulate in Jerusalem for visa interviews. Condoleezza Rice made sure the scholarships were reinstated, and because Israel would not allow three of the seven, Zuhair Abu Shaban, Fida Abed and Osama Daoud, to leave Gaza because they were 'security risks', American officials made exceptional efforts and interviewed the three on the Gaza border. All three were subsequently granted visas, on 30 July. Two days later, however, their visas were revoked. Fida Abed had already flown to Washington, but was turned away at the airport and sent straight back to Amman, Jordan. State Department officials will only say that ‘new information' was received about the three, along with a fourth, Ahmed Ma'arri, a 14-year-old high-school student who was the recipient of a separate scholarship.

Emily, writing at the Arab-American blog KABOBfest, is not really surprised:

Three of the seven Fulbright grantees from Gaza have had their visas canceled finally by the US: one, after flying to Washington only to be told by border security that his visa was no longer valid. The saga of the journey to Jordan strikes me as a remarkably hallmark Palestinian travel experience. If Israel finally had information in the end to send over to the US authorities to cause them to cancel the three visas, it strikes me as publicly admitting that the seven were originally denied based on no information whatsoever. (Whether that information is accurate or not… I mean, clearly, the kid just out of high school is a terrorist planning to use his education to bomb and kill.) I'd like to see the security information forwarded by Israel. Who wants to place a bet that it says “Palestinian, male, born in Gaza= DENIED.”

Israeli-American blogger Jerry Haber, writing at The Magnes Zionist, believes Israel wanted to save face:

Meet Fidaa Abed and Ahmed Ma'ari. Abed was headed to the University of California at San Diego for a graduate degree in computer science. Ahmed is a high school student. Both won Fulbrights to study in the US. Both had their Fulbrights cancelled, then reinstated, then US visas issued, then revoked. Now, let me get this straight. At first they weren't a security threat; they were just kept in Gaza because of Israel's stranglehold on that territory. It's called “collective punishment” – if we hurt the Gazans enough, they will rise up and throw out Hamas. Gee, that's a smart strategy. Certainly has worked. […] What's a better explanation for the reversal of fortune? That Mr. Abed and Mr. Ma'ari are the victims of a face-saving ploy that Israel was desparate to pull off, and that America has agreed to, for the moment. You know the drill – the US decides to let some of the Fulbright students in (to make Condi happy), and decide to keep some of that out (to make Israel happy). That resolves the diplomatic mini-crisis. On the backs of the Palestinians.

Ms. Missive, an American living in Israel, writing at Patriot Missive, thinks the US handled the situation badly:

It wouldn’t be first time we’ve looked so clumsy. I’m still waiting on details of the security concerns though.

In a follow-up post, she points out that some Arab students currently studying in the US have just paid a trip to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.

DesertPeace, an American living in Jerusalem, is concerned that just opposing Israeli policies would be enough to prevent travel:

‘Are you now? Were you ever?' Obviously two questions that weren’t asked of the Gaza recipients of Fulbright grants when they applied for travel permits. In the ‘good-ole’ McCarthy era those questions were in reference to membership in the Communist Party, today it refers to any organisation you may belong to that is opposed to the genocidal policies of Israel. Condoleeza Rice, herself, took a position that helped these young students get their travel permits in order…. but it seems that the powers of AIPAC are even stronger than the office of the Secretary of State.

However Carl, an American-born Israeli writing at Israel Matzav, thinks the decision was right:

And the [denied] three apparently have closer connections to Hamas and terrorism than Condi was willing to admit two months ago. Don't hold your breaths waiting for Condi or anyone else at State to apologize.

A number of bloggers look at the long-term implications of such a decision. Arab-American blogger Edmund, writing at The Philistine, asks:

What “new” information could there be? By denying education to the masses and even the few all you do is give extremist more recruits. Now you understand why white slave owners denied education to their “workers.” The less you know the easier you are to control and the US and Israel fear the prospect of an educated Arab (Palestinian) society.

Teach the Masses in Kuwait echoes the sentiment:

Yes, no doubt the ‘new information' was fabricated as a cover for the plain fact that the Israelis want as few well-educated Palestinians around as possible – makes containment easier.

US blogger Richard Silverstein, writing at Tikun Olam, despairs at the short-sightedness of the decision:

At this rate, the U.S. is lucky that any Gaza students have an interest in studying in this country. Certainly, the Israeli “evidence” is designed to promote obstacles for Palestinians to study abroad. It is not in Israel’s interests for Gazans to do so. God only knows what academic knowledge and expertise they might bring back with them to improve the lot of their fellow Gazans when they return. Who knows what new theories they might advance, new businesses they might create, new political ideas they might implant? It’s all certainly too much for Israel, which prefers an impoverished, poorly educated society as one that is supposedly easier to dominate. […] These Palestinian young people are learning a lesson from this – that the U.S. is not to be trusted, that it is little better than Israel in fabricating reasons to suspect Palestinians. Such lessons last a lifetime, and not just in those of the specific victims, but in the lifetimes of young Palestinian children who would be the Fulbright applicants of the future. At this rate, we’ll be lucky next year if ANY Palestinian wants to apply. And we wonder why Arabs hate us.

We end with some comments by Hassan, the teacher of the high-school student Ahmed Ma'arri who was prevented from going to the US. Hassan was commenting on an article in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz:

I want to add that Ahmed is only 14 years old , one of the best students at a program called ACCESS sponsored by AMIDEAST, he went through so many exams and interviews to gain this scholarship, he is a mere boy. He has nothing to do with politics or Hamas. He just dreamed to be a good, distinguished student. He has been taught in a course for two years how to love the world and how to be an open minded student. He did so many presentations about the American culture and the cultures around the world. You are just frustrating our kids and want them all to be as you call it “terrorist or martyrs “. PLZ. What threat does this 14 -year-old student have for the security of the USA or Israel?

And in response to another commenter who asked if Ahmed had celebrated when the World Trade Center was destroyed, Hassan said:

Thanks indeed you all who support Ahmed and I really sympathize with those who are still misled by the media. Firstly, at 9 /11 Ahmed was only six years old. Secondly, Ahmed belongs to an educated family… You should know that most people decline the idea to let their sons travel for one year especially at this critical age. Thirdly, we have lots of political diversity. […] Plz, Let Our Kids Lead a Healthy life.

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