Why Fulbrights Matter in Gaza

Amid Israel's near-total ban on student travel, a former grantee, stuck in the Hamas-controlled territory, reflects on her own circumstances and those of this year's winners.
June 10, 2008

Rania M. Kharma, a former Fulbright Scholar from Gaza, is in one way like the current Gazan Fulbrighters who have come in her wake: She too is stuck.

Kharma earned her master's in conflict transformation with a concentration in peace building from Virginia's Eastern Mennonite University in 2003. She subsequently supervised development projects at the Palestinian Ministry of Finance before quitting late last year -- with intentions of rebuilding her strength outside the Middle East to better contribute to a revival of the region's peace process.

But she says the Israeli government has not permitted her to leave.

For the last year, Israel has likewise largely banned students from leaving Gaza, controlled by Hamas, as part of a larger policy of isolating the militant government in response to attacks on Israelis. The restrictions on Gazan student travel led to the U.S. government's recent decision to retract Fulbrights offered to seven Gaza residents only to hastily reinstate them, as The New York Times has reported. Late last week, the newspaper reported that the Israeli government had promised to look favorably on exit requests from Gazan students with scholarships to study abroad.

“It’s frustrating. I understand Israel’s stated policy of, 'We’re afraid these people may be terrorists,' but it’s frustrating," says Bill Goldberg, the Fulbright coordinator and program associate for Eastern Mennonite's Summer Peacebuilding Institute. “You’re not letting them get education; you’re trapping them in their country and then being surprised when they turn around and are violent.”

“I’m more optimistic because it’s making news. As long as it stays in the spotlight, as long as it stays in the news, it's going to be very tough for Israel to say these people can’t go because they are a danger -- when the U.S. government has vetted them and says they’re alright," Goldberg says.

As for Kharma, "I do not use the word 'optimistic' much those days," she says. "All Palestinians try to read the political developments carefully, analyze it pragmatically so that we will not be shocked by the ends. We are not optimistic, but cautious."

Kharma took time this weekend to answer questions over e-mail about the Fulbright program, her own career trajectory and limitations on mobility, her own and that of fellow Fulbrighters.

Q. Tell me about your Fulbright experience at Eastern Mennonite. Did you have any problems exiting Gaza/getting to the United States at that point?

A. I had my Fulbright Grant in 2002. Access was not easy then, yet it was far less difficult than it is now for the current students. I managed to leave Gaza when my former boss interfered to get me out. He was the U.N. special envoy for the Middle East peace process, and thus could help me leave Gaza.

I have a friend, Fulbrighter too, who's been trying to leave Gaza for almost a year now. The issue here is that there are no standards. What is possible today might not be possible tomorrow. You manage to leave sometimes, but fail to come back. I once spent a couple of days at the borders just trying to return back to Gaza.

My Fulbrighter friend contacted the American consulate in Jerusalem to help him leave, but they shied away from strongly intervening….Now there is new information that [U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice spoke to [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert regarding this issue and he promised to 'help'. One of the students said today that yes, he was called and informed that he can leave through the Erez checkpoint. When he got there, he was interviewed by the Israeli intelligence "Shabak," who asked him for information in return for letting him out of Gaza. He refused, and now he is back to Gaza. I personally was taken for one of these several-hours-long interviews, and was asked to give information in return for allowing me out of Gaza, and I also refused, and here I am, stuck like the others.

Q. In what ways have your studies in Virginia influenced your career trajectory? How would you describe your career objectives?

A. Living in the U.S. exposed me to the 'American dream,’ if we can put it this way. I loved the country, and loved what you people have made of it. I hoped that we will be able to build a civilized modern country, but based on our own terms, norms and moralities. I came to realize what makes American people proud of their country and their morals. But what works for you does not necessarily have to work for us. Democracy, for example, is a great norm, but it could be applied in different ways, and not necessarily in the American way… international politics cannot be brought down to: my way or the high way. For example, we held democratic elections, and Hamas won. I was not happy that they won, but regardless what I feel about their victory, it was not very 'democratic' that the world decided to boycott the Hamas government despite all reports made by all observers, including the Carter Center which reported on how transparent and democratic the elections were. What did this boycott do? It did not change anything except the fact that Hamas found nobody else to talk to but Iran....

My career objectives are focused on the public sector. I worked for the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Finance in different projects, but above all in the public reform project. I believe this is what we need to establish a strong core for a future Palestinian state.

Before leaving for the U.S., I had broader objectives, particularly regarding working with both Palestinian and Israeli people to enhance the peace process at the grassroots level. It is rather sad to admit that now I see no hope in the peace process as is. There is no serious willingness at the American and Israeli leadership [levels] to push forward this process, which requires commitment from the Israeli side to end the occupation, dismantle the settlements in the West Bank...remove the wall, and reach a final status agreement with the Palestinian leadership.

This does not seem to be happening in the near future despite [U.S. President] Bush's continuous declarations of his commitment to establish a Palestinian state by the end of 2008. It takes far more than declarations to achieve this. Therefore, as one of the peace activists and advocates, I see it kind of irrelevant to [tell] my people, who have been under siege for the last year and under occupation for the last 60 years, that we must talk about peace and reconciliation. The call for peace must be supported with actual actions, which is not happening. Peace is not just signing documents and smiling to CNN cameras.

Q. What did it mean to you to receive a Fulbright?

A. I must say that I've been privileged to receive the Fulbright. It was rather challenging, but at the same time very prestigious scholarship, and very convenient financially. To be honest, I did not realize how prestigious it was until I told one of my American co-workers at the U.N., and saw his reaction, which was very proud and supportive. I think the Fulbright scholarship was the best chance that I've ever got so far.

Q. What's gone through your mind as you've learned about Israel's ban on allowing students from Gaza to study abroad, including on Fulbright Grants?

A. I have always believed that the only weapon with which Palestinians can fight the occupation and win, is education. Israel has always had an anti-education policy towards Palestinians. I remember during the first Intifada, closing universities was the Israelis' main policy to pressure us. Israel knows for sure that the more educated the Palestinians are, the more pragmatic they become, and thus they will be able to play the game with the right rules, [moving] away from fundamentalism and romanticism. Israel wants my people to remain under-educated, but we insist not to. I must here say that I, and all of those who were granted scholarships in the U.S., are truly appreciative of such efforts and wish for it to continue so that more of our young people will benefit from this opportunity.

Q. Is there a community of former Fulbright Scholars in Gaza that keeps in touch? If so, what are your colleagues saying these days?

A. There is one. We meet when circumstances allow, but we have a frequent annual meeting. Everybody is not happy with what is happening to our colleagues who are not able to leave, but we all know as well that with some serious pressure form the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, they can achieve something and can help.

Q. Of late, you also have been unable to leave Gaza, despite quitting your job in December with plans to leave the Middle East. What are your goals and what are the specific roadblocks you're encountering?

A. I love Gaza. Of all places I've been to, Gaza remains my city, my history and memories. But now, I need a serious break, not just from Gaza, but from the whole Middle East. I think I've seen enough blood in my life already, and been through enough wars and conflicts. I need a break because I do not want to start thinking in a fanatical way. I still believe that we can live together, and in fact, I come from a school of thought that eventually calls for one state for two nations, Israelis and Palestinians.

All the previous years of conflict only strengthen my belief that peace must prevail. However, this last year of siege on Gaza was the worst. I need to be away for some time to recollect my strength, and to be able to find new ways to revive the peace calls in the Middle East.

I've been trying to leave since last December with no luck. All borders are closed. I tried to apply for a permit to leave through the West Bank, but I was told that the Israeli intelligence decided lately that I imply a 'threat' to their national security, and thus rejected my permit. It is quite funny to think that somebody like me implies a threat over a nuclear country like Israel. But we all know that it's just an excuse to prevent people from leaving.


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