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U.S. restores Fulbright scholarships to Gaza students

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: State Department says U.S. erred when it rescinded scholarships
  • U.S. tells students it is trying to persuade Israel to let them leave Gaza
  • U.S. cited Israeli travel restrictions on territory when it rescinded awards last week
  • Israeli spokesman indicates his country would be willing to grant visas
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. has restored Fulbright scholarships to seven Gaza-based students, saying it erred last week when it rescinded the awards because of travel restrictions that Israel imposes on the Palestinian territory.

In e-mails to the students on Sunday, the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem said the United States was working with Israeli authorities to let them leave the Hamas-ruled zone to study at American universities.

The scholarships were reinstated after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed outrage about the initial decision, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Monday.

McCormack said the initial decision was partly the result of a "faulty decision-making process" by the State Department.

"The secretary saw it when it got to her level. She said, 'Fix it,'" McCormack said. "We hope that it has been fixed and that we are working with the Israelis to get these exit permits so that these individuals, again, can have a visa interview." Watch how the students learned about the scholarship loss »

U.S. officials had said the scholarships were rescinded because Israel had denied them exit visas. But McCormack said Monday that U.S. authorities did not take up the matter with Israel until after the matter became public.

Israel, which has been criticized for banning hundreds of students from leaving Gaza to study abroad, said it considers each application individually. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev indicated Sunday that his country would be willing to grant the students visas.

"This can happen," Regev said. "No one has to pressure Israel on this issue. We have an interest. A real interest."

Citing security concerns, Israel imposed an embargo on the movement of people and goods from Gaza after Islamic militant group Hamas took over the territory last year. Palestinians can leave Gaza only with Israeli permission.

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

McCormack said the seven Gaza Fulbright students must be interviewed by Israeli authorities before they can get visas to the United States.

"Should they have a successful visa interview -- and by law I can't prejudge an outcome of a visa interview -- then they would be able to come to the United States and pursue their program," he said.

If the seven are allowed to leave, it would be the first time Israel has let students do so from Gaza since January, according to Palestinian advocacy group Gisha.

One of the Gaza Fulbright scholars, Hadeel Abukwaik, 23, said she "laughed like crazy" from sheer joy when she received Sunday's e-mail.

"I was really hoping for this, but I didn't want to want it too much," the software engineering student said by phone Monday. "I didn't want to be disappointed again.

"This is really good news."

Fulbright scholarships are awarded on the basis of academic merit and leadership potential under the U.S. government-funded Fulbright program, which was started in 1946. The scholarships allow U.S. citizens and foreign nationals to study and teach abroad to promote the "mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries of the world."

More than 279,000 participants have been chosen for Fulbright scholarships.

Abukwaik said the e-mail she received Sunday gave no indication about when the students might be able to travel.

She is waiting to hear back from several universities, including ones in California and Florida. She said academic programs start in August and she hopes to have a visa to leave Gaza by then.

CNN's Atika Shubert in Gaza City and Elise Labott in Washington contributed to this report.

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