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No U.S. Trip for Students From Gaza, Hamas Says

This article orignally appeared in The New York Times on August 19, 2011. Written by New York Times reporter, FARES AKRAM

GAZA — The Islamist group that governs Gaza barred a group of students this week from traveling to the United States for a year of study, officials of the group, Hamas, said.

The seven high school students were selected for the Youth Study and Exchange program sponsored by Amideast, an American nonprofit group engaged in international education, training and development activities in the Middle East and North Africa.

The students had won scholarships to attend school in the United States, where they were to stay with host families.

“A 15-year-old girl cannot spend a year in America without a supervisor,” said Mohammed Awad, the Hamas foreign minister, explaining the decision. “We are worried about our sons and daughters.”

The Hamas authorities said they were also “surprised” that Amideast had not contacted them to arrange for the departure of the students. “We will not accept this way of dealing with us,” Mr. Awad added.

Amideast, like most American organizations, does not deal directly with Hamas, which the State Department classifies as a terrorist organization.

For years, Hamas has criticized Israel and Egypt for imposing a blockade on the Palestinian enclave and restricting the movement of its residents. So the students and their families greeted the Hamas decision with disappointment and bewilderment.

“How can we call on Israel to respect human rights while we do not respect those rights?” the father of one of the students said. Another student said, “In front of the world, Hamas says we are under siege, but in fact Hamas is also putting us under siege.”

They spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid further friction with Hamas.

The move by Hamas was the latest in a series of recent decisions to restrict individuals and groups with foreign connections. Last week, the State Department threatened to briefly stop financing programs in Gaza if Hamas insisted on auditing the American-financed nonprofit organizations that operate here. This week, the Hamas Interior Ministry ordered anybody wishing to travel for a program, work meeting or conference to obtain approval two weeks in advance.

Hamas has at least temporarily retreated from the auditing demand. Mr. Awad said Hamas had accepted a compromise proposal by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to use an external auditing company to examine the financial records of the nonprofit organizations. That compromise secured the restoration of $100 million in State Department aid spent in Gaza.

The Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights criticized the decision to bar the high school students from traveling, saying it meant that “a number of our best students will be deprived of benefiting from scholarships to study abroad while we are in a dire need to communicate with the outside world, break the isolation and blockade imposed on our people and develop our capacities.”

The students, who were supposed to travel via Israel and Jordan, looked lost and weary as they met Thursday to discuss their future steps. They said they were worried because the scholarships would go to candidates from other countries if the Gazans were not in the United States by Sept. 2.

In May, Hamas allowed the students to visit the United States Consulate General in Jerusalem to obtain visas. Some of the students did not register for the school year here, hoping that they would get a chance to leave. The explanation their parents got from the Education Ministry was that the travel was barred for social and cultural reasons.

One of the girls wears a hijab. Her father said he had no problem with her going to the United States. According to the arrangement, girls would stay at host families that had no boys around the same age and host families would monitor Web browsing, among other restrictions. She said that she would keep wearing the hijab in the United States, and that the point of the program was cultural exchange. She said she was “going to introduce our culture to the Americans.”