Scholar says he’s trapped in Gaza ahead of new academic year


A Palestinian poet says that Israel denied him a permit to attend a U.S. visa interview in Jerusalem, threatening his future as a master of fine arts student at Syracuse University.

The poet, Mosab Abu Toha, was unavailable for an interview Friday, saying in a private Twitter message that he was still in Gaza with his children, “under heavy attack by Israel.” The Associated Press reported that Israel launched airstrikes on Gaza Friday, killing “at least 10 people, including a senior militant, according to Palestinian officials.” Israel reportedly said it targeted the Islamic Jihad militant group in response to an “imminent threat” following the recent arrest of another senior militant. Later, Palestinian militants fired dozens of rockets.

Days earlier, Abu Toha tweeted that he is due in Syracuse on August 15 for the start of classes, “and Israel is denying my permit to attend my visa interview in Jerusalem tomorrow. I applied for a permit last May. I will lose my chance to finish my MFA degree in creative writing. #help_mosab_get_his_visa.”

Abu Toha, who said he completed one year of his program at Syracuse already before returning to Gaza to visit his family, also said he’d been granted a permit to visit the American embassy in Jerusalem for a student visa interview in June. But when he reached the Erez border crossing, he tweeted, “Israeli officials in the booth ordered me to return to Gaza. I re-applied for Aug. 1. But got Big NO.”

Syracuse confirmed that Abu Toha is a master of fine arts student, saying in a statement that it has “been in contact with the student to provide assistance and support and is working to help resolve the situation.”

Liesl Gerntholtz, director of PEN America’s Barbey Freedom to Write Center, said via email that at this stage, the organization is trying to clarify why Abu Toha was refused permission to attend the interview: “We are trying to ascertain why and we are in touch with Mosab to get more information.”

The Embassy of Israel to the U.S. did not respond to requests for comment.

Abu Toha, who was a visiting scholar at Harvard University from 2019-20, founded the Edward Said Public Library in Gaza and published a book called Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza (City Lights Books) earlier this year.

Among those to publicly offer support to Abu Toha is Steven Salaita, with whom the University of Illinois settled in 2015, after it hired and then unhired him for the tone of his tweets about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Salaita, who is part Palestinian, tweeted last week, “What reason does the Zionist regime have to prevent this young man from acquiring a study visa? Because it can. Because it’s capricious and ruthless. Because it dispenses rights according to religion.”

In 2008, the U.S. State Department withdrew all Fulbright grants to Palestinian students in Gaza hoping to study at U.S. institutions that year. The New York Times said at the time that “Israel has isolated this coastal strip, which is run by the militant group Hamas. Given that policy, the United States Consulate in Jerusalem said the grant money had been ‘redirected’ to students elsewhere out of concern that it would go to waste if the Palestinian students were forced to remain in Gaza.” Grantees were urged to apply again the next year. Fighting between Israel and Palestinian groups escalated into a three-week armed conflict later that year through early 2009.

Academic Freedom
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Mosab Abu Toha/Syracuse University
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Mosab Abu Toha
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