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Israeli blockade hampers Gaza university students to leave country

Mona Bkheet's academic year has already started at Southern Illinois University, but the civil engineering student can't leave the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Human rights groups say 670 Palestinian students have become trapped in Gaza since the Islamic militants of Hamas took over the territory this summer and Israel halted travel in and out. More than 30 of the students are enrolled at U.S. universities.

Bkheet, 26, is a PhD student at Southern Illinois in Carbondale - or would have been, had she managed to exit Gaza in time. In the U.S. since 2005, she had just arrived home to visit her family this summer when the crossings from Gaza into Egypt and Israel were shut.

In September, as Palestinian militants continued launching near-daily rocket barrages at Israeli towns with Hamas' tacit approval, Israel declared Gaza "hostile territory," a step that allowed for more severe sanctions. The small trickle of people with foreign citizenship or visas who had been allowed to leave was halted altogether.

Though Bkheet's professors have been considerate so far, she said, she's afraid she could lose her financial aid by the time she manages to get out. With Israel offering no indication that it will ease the travel restrictions and no sign of Hamas backing down, she has no idea when she'll be allowed to leave.

"I can't tell you when. Right now I'm kind of desperate," she said.

Southern Illinois spokesman Rod Sievers said in an e-mail response that Bkheet's advisers have maintained "sporadic" contact with her. "We hope the situation stablizes soon and that legitimate college students in Gaza will be allowed to return to their universities in the United States and elsewhere so they can resume their studies," Sievers wrote.

Several students have appealed to Israel's Supreme Court to change Israeli policy and allow them to leave. Earlier this month, the court refused to intervene in the case of Khaled al-Mudallal, who returned to Gaza in June to marry and expected to return with his new wife to Britain, where he had been studying business administration at the University of Bradford. He, too, remains in Gaza.

Shlomo Dror, an Israeli military spokesman, said Israel had not intended to trap the students in Gaza and is trying to devise a way to get them out. The problem, Dror said, is that the crossing slated to be used, Kerem Shalom, is bombarded with mortar shells by Hamas militants several times a week.

"The decision is to help them get out. We don't want to trap the students in Gaza," Dror said.

A "creative solution" for the students could be in place in the next few days, said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry.

In the meantime, Yaser Betar, a resident of Dallas, Texas, since 1990 and a PhD student in computer science at the University of North Texas, is missing class. Back in Gaza to visit his wife and daughter when the borders closed, he now spends his days at home and at the beach as he waits for something to change.

"Right now I'm stuck - I really have no options," said Betar, 34. "I just want to get out, and I don't want to came back until this settles down."

Hassan el-Nabih, 46, who was supposed to start a PhD program in linguistics at Boston College, got an Israeli permit and almost made it out of Gaza twice. The first time his bus was turned back because of Palestinian rocket barrage, and the second time he was sent back after Israeli officers questioned him for hours at the border about suspected ties with militant groups.

Though el-Nabih said it was his dream to study abroad, he seemed to view the setback philosophically.

"I am a Muslim and I believe in my destiny. When something is not happening I believe maybe it can be for my benefit," he said.

Israel pulled all of its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005, ending 38 years of military rule. After the withdrawal, Palestinian militants continued launching rockets into Israel, fire that has killed 12 Israelis and disrupted life for thousands.

After a brief period following the withdrawal during which Gazans enjoyed relative freedom of movement, Israel began clamping down on the territory and stepping up military operations.

Those measures became more severe after Hamas gunmen captured an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid in 2006, and were further tightened after Hamas - which remains openly committed to Israel's destruction - seized power in June.

Egypt has publicly criticized Israel's sanctions but tacitly approved of the closure of its own border with Gaza, apparently hoping the measures will weaken Hamas.

Human rights groups say Israel's occupation hasn't ended because it still controls Gaza's frontiers, and insist Israel still has an obligation to allow Gazans to live normal lives.

Israel's refusal to let the students leave is against international law and "part of a decision to collectively punish Gaza residents as a way of pressuring militants and political leaders," said Sari Bashi of Gisha, an Israeli human rights group that advocates for freedom of movement.

"The young people who want to further their education are people who Israel should be encouraging, not trapping," Bashi said.

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