JERUSALEM – Amal Ashour, 18, loves Shakespeare and American pop music. One of the brightest students in the Gaza Strip, she studied her senior year of high school in Minnesota through a U.S.-government funded program.
She had planned to study English literature this fall at a university in the West Bank through another U.S.-sponsored program, but just a month before school started, she was informed the scholarship was no longer available.
"When you live in Gaza, you're a pawn in a greater political game," she said in a telephone interview. "There's nothing we can do about it." She is now enrolled at Islamic University, a stronghold of Gaza's ruling Islamic militant Hamas.
Under Israeli pressure, U.S. officials have quietly canceled a two-year-old scholarship program for students in the Gaza Strip, undercutting one of the few American outreach programs to people in the Hamas-ruled territory. The program now faces an uncertain future, just two years after being launched with great fanfare by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during a visit to the region.
The program offers about 30 scholarships to promising but financially challenged Palestinian high school seniors from Gaza and the West Bank to study in local Palestinian universities.
It is a rare opportunity for gifted students in Gaza, which has been constrained by an Israeli blockade since Hamas seized power five years ago. The blockade has made it harder for Palestinians to travel abroad. Both Israel and the U.S. consider Hamas a terrorist group because of its hundreds of attacks against Israelis, including suicide bombings, and frequent rocket attacks from Gaza.
After allowing the scholarship program to proceed in 2010, Israel this year refused to give permits for the Gaza students to travel to the West Bank. Hamas' rival, the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, governs the West Bank.
Citing security reasons, Israel bans most Gazans from traveling to Israel or the West Bank. Exceptions are made for about 5,000 humanitarian cases each month.
Education is not considered a humanitarian concern. Israeli officials claim that West Bank universities are breeding grounds for militant groups like Hamas. Last month, Israel's Supreme Court upheld this travel ban on students.
Israeli military spokesman Guy Inbar said the policy is part of Israel's struggle against Hamas, an Iranian-backed group committed to Israel's destruction.
"Hamas makes great efforts to establish new affiliates of the terrorist infrastructure from Gaza to the West Bank, and to transfer knowledge to strengthen the existing infrastructure in the West Bank today," Inbar said. He noted that nearly 300 Gaza students have been able to leave the region to study abroad since 2010.
The Palestinians seek to turn Gaza and the West Bank, located on opposite sides of Israel, into an independent state. But since the Hamas takeover, the Palestinians have been torn between rival governments, and Israel has treated them separately. Israel maintains relations with the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, while branding Hamas-run Gaza a hostile territory. Repeated attempts by the Palestinian rivals to reconcile have failed.
In a statement, the American consulate in Jerusalem said it decided not to grant the scholarships over the summer after Israel said it would not permit the students to travel. "Because of the timing and risk of losing funding, available scholarships were awarded to other applicants," it said. "We hope to include Gazan students in future programs."
The scholarship program, administered by the nonprofit group Amideast, is one of the few contacts between the U.S. and Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, an Israeli advocacy group dedicated to increasing the free movement of Palestinians, said the case reflected U.S. unwillingness to confront a strong ally.
"It's unfortunate and telling that the U.S. government cannot convince its closest ally in the region to allow its scholarship holders to travel from Gaza to Palestinian universities in the West Bank, for fear of clashing or making a diplomatic issue," she said.
Hamas, meanwhile, has also jumped in. Last year, it barred seven high school students from traveling to the United States for a year of study under a U.S. program, citing worries over their supervision.
Ashour said students like her are caught in the political battle and stand to lose the most.
"When I studied in America, I loved how you could travel from state to state without any borders. You live your life," she said. "I can't leave Gaza. Everyone — Hamas, Israel, everyone — is controlling us. We are just students. We don't have anything to do with politics."