JERUSALEM — For more than a decade, Emal Abu Aisha has run a women's center in the Gaza Strip that provides women with training and classes to improve their education. But Abu Aisha, 42, said she'd been denied that opportunity herself.
In 2000, a new Israeli policy that banned Palestinians from the Gaza Strip from studying in the West Bank cut short her own education, in gender studies in the West Bank's Birzeit University.
"From that moment till now I wasn't allowed to continue my studies," Abu Aisha said. "As a women's activist I run a center to help women, to teach them. But I can't do the same for myself. I've gone as far as I can and I need more education for myself."
Over the last decade, Israel has adopted a policy of what it calls "separationism" between the Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Palestinians who live in Gaza are forbidden from moving to the West Bank, unless they have first-degree relatives suffering from severe illness or are orphans seeking to reunite with their families.
The policy, which has been established through dozens of documents published by Israel's Defense Ministry, argues that allowing Palestinians to travel between the territories — separated by about 30 miles — poses a security risk to Israel.
To many Palestinians, it means being cut off from family, employment or educational opportunities.
"When I left in 2000, I never thought that would be the last time," Abu Aisha said. "As a woman, I don't have the same opportunity in Gaza as I did" in the West Bank.
An Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman said Israel's ban on students traveling, established in October 2000, wasn't directed at women. But in practice, experts say, women bear the brunt of the problem because they lack opportunities outside the Palestinian territories.
Sari Bashi, the director of the Israeli organization Gisha, which promotes freedom of movement for Palestinians, has followed Abu Aisha's appeals to study in the West Bank and she pointed to six other similar cases of Palestinian women in Gaza who've been prevented from studying human rights and women's issues in the West Bank.
"The ban on students traveling isn't directed at women, but they are disproportionately affected by it. If a woman can't reach a university in West Bank she is far less likely than her male counterpart to be allowed to travel abroad to access a university or continue her studies," Bashi said.
"Women who are trying to improve the status of women in Gaza, to do things that radicals in Gaza are not happy about — those are the ones that are thwarted."
She added that for many of the students, pursuing studies in the West Bank meant access to a wealth of programs and degrees that aren't available in much of the Arab world. The West Bank — better off and more stable than impoverished Gaza, which is under Israeli blockade — has more master's and Ph.D. programs, a Roman Catholic university in the town of Bethlehem and the well-regarded Birzeit University, whose programs in women's studies and human rights are unique in the territories.
Abu Aisha said her family was "understanding" but that as a married woman and a mother of four she couldn't travel outside the Palestinian territories.
"Why can't I study in my home, where I know family and have friends? Why can't I study in Palestine?" she said.
Palestinians used to freely travel between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, uprooting all its settlements there. Israel's much larger settlements in the West Bank, however, remain.
While Palestinians see the West Bank and Gaza as the boundaries of a future Palestinian state, Israeli officials have said repeatedly that they'll maintain at least some of their territorial claims in the West Bank.
Bashi pointed to documents that her organization had obtained through Israel's Freedom of Information Act that outline Israel's reason for denying all Gaza-based Palestinian students access to the West Bank. The documents show that security officials called Gaza a "greenhouse" for growing terrorists and argued that extremists were more likely to attempt to attack Israeli civilians if they were allowed into the West Bank.
"Palestinian students can travel and study in any place in the world except Palestine," Bashi said.
She added that while Israel had eased its blockade on Gaza by expanding the number and variety of goods that were allowed to enter and making it easier for certain people to travel, such as businessmen and athletes, the ban on students remained "rigid."
In some cases, Israel has made exceptions to the blockade "where there has been diplomatic intervention, pressure from the United States," Bashi said. "But those exceptions should just prove that maybe the reasons given for the ban were not justified to begin with."
In 2008, a group of Palestinian students in Gaza were awarded Fulbright scholarships but Israel denied them permission to travel to the United States. After diplomatic appeals and intervention by U.S. authorities, Israel allowed the students to travel.
Earlier this year, Gaza's Hamas rulers said they'd ban elementary and high school students from traveling to foreign countries to study. That ban hasn't yet gone into effect, but Abu Aisha said it was part of a growing trend of restrictions in Gaza.
"Gaza needs more educated people," she said. "We need — men or women — to have a higher education. Because to have education is to have a change to improve our lives. To have a good education is to improve our situation."
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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