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U.S. cancels Fulbright scholarships for Gaza students

  • Story Highlights
  • Israel has imposed travel restrictions on Hamas-ruled Gaza
  • U.S. cites travel restrictions in withdrawing scholarships to eight Gaza students
  • U.S. says scholarships now will be given to students in West Bank
  • Israel maintains tight control of border with Gaza
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From Kevin Flower
CNN Jerusalem Bureau Chief
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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- The U.S. government has taken Fulbright scholarships away from eight students in the Palestinian territory of Gaza, citing Israeli travel restrictions imposed on the Hamas-ruled zone, a U.S. official said Friday.

Israel maintains tight control of the border with Gaza in such checkpoints as the Erez Crossing, here in December.

The scholarships, which bring international students to the United States to study at American universities, will be given to students in the West Bank, said Stacey Barrios, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem.

Barrios said the scholarships were taken away because of restrictions that the Israeli government placed on travel in and out of Gaza.

Israel maintains tight control of the border with Gaza and has imposed an embargo on the movement of people and goods since Hamas took over the territory last year.

The Islamic movement has refused to recognize Israel's right to exist, and Israel, the United States and the European Union have designated Hamas a terrorist organization.

U.S. officials are pressing Israel to give exit visas to Palestinians who have won Fulbright scholarships, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Friday.

"We would think frankly that a decision to let people who have been vetted for what is perhaps the most prestigious foreign education program run by the United States, certainly the most prestigious one run by the U.S. government -- it ought to be falling off a log for them to do this," Casey said.

"We certainly hope they will ultimately come forward with the necessary exit visas to be able to allow these individuals to go forward and continue on with their program."

Fulbright winners need exit visas from Israel to go to the U.S. Consulate for an interview and then to travel to the United States.

Barrios said earlier that neither the State Department-sponsored Fulbright program nor any other U.S. government exchange program was being canceled for Gazans.

In a short letter from the consulate, the Gaza students were told that U.S. government would "not be able to finalize" their scholarships for 2008 and that they would need to apply again if they wanted to be considered in 2009.

The American government has raised the issue of students being allowed to leave Gaza for study overseas repeatedly with Israeli officials.

Aryeh Mekel, a spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that security was the paramount concern when considering applications for Gaza residents to travel through Israel.

Mekel pointed to recent attacks on border crossings by Palestinian militants as evidence of Israel's security concerns.

But he said the Israeli government had made a "special effort" to facilitate the travel of the Fulbright scholars and said that a few of them have been allowed to leave Gaza.

The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem could not immediately verify that statement.

CNN's Charley Keyes in Washington contributed to this report.

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