Seven young men from the Gaza Strip died on 23 October when their boat sank off the Tunisian coast. Among dozens of other refugees attempting to reach Europe, these Palestinian names were added to a list of more than 110 victims who have died in similar circumstances since 2007.
In early November, another boat sank in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece, however, the fate of the 10 young men from Gaza who were on board the boat remains unknown. In the same month, it was reported by Wafa news agency that five Palestinians were rescued from a migrant boat wreck, also in the Aegean.
The exodus of Palestinians from Gaza – or their displacement through living conditions that make survival difficult – dates back to the end of the 1960s, with Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip. After the Israeli “withdrawal” in 2005, followed by the internal conflict between Fatah and Hamas in 2007, and then latter’s control of the Strip, the desire for Palestinians to immigrate only increased, especially among Gaza’s youth.
According to a survey published in September by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Gaza, nine out of ten young people said they believed they were living abnormal lives. Of the respondents, 40 percent between the ages of 18 and 29 said that they do not hope to find a job within the next 15 years. The ICRC also contextualized their plight in light of Israel’s on-going economic and political blockade of Gaza:
“Fifteen years of restrictions imposed by Israel on the movement of goods and People in and out of Gaza have significantly contributed to a steady deterioration in the economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza. This has limited access to essential services, jobs and opportunities outside of the occupied Palestinian territory.”
In a survey conducted by Al-Aqsa University, 51 percent of young people in Gaza said they would like to emigrate. During the preparation of this report, 26 young people out of 30 expressed the desire to migrate, including 15 of them who confirmed that they are seriously working on it.
Although there is no official data on the number of people who have emigrated from the densely-populated Gaza Strip since 2007, unofficial figures indicate that about 100,000 people have left Gaza during the past 15 years.
Human rights researcher Abdullah Sharshara attributes these numbers to “the psychological impact left by 15 years of Israeli control over the details of life in Gaza.”
“Israel has created expelling living conditions for the population,” Sharshara told The Cradle. “It launched destructive wars, imposed a suffocating blockade, destroyed infrastructure, bombed the power plant, and increased poverty rates among the population, which led to a collective feeling that Gaza is no longer a safe place to build a happy future,” he explained.
Israel’s motives behind Gazan migration
All of the integral components of Palestinian society – be it the resistance factions or the civil and official institutions – agree that the emigration of Palestinian youth ultimately serves Israeli interests, especially if it leads to a brain drain and the younger generation’s disengagement from Palestinian national concerns.
In an article published by the Regional Thinking Forum website in early March 2021, Israeli researcher Omri Sheffer Raviv revealed that successive Israeli governments since 1969 have worked to encourage the emigration of young people from Gaza.
Raviv argued that Israel’s goal in the late 1960s was to try to empty the Strip of a large mass of its population, with the aim of bringing it under the authority of Tel Aviv with the least amount of burden. However, after the Israeli “withdrawal” from Gaza in 2005, the Occupation state lost its ability to directly control the flow of migration, so its focus shifted to creating “expelling living conditions” for the Palestinian population, such as the blockade, successive crises, and seasonal wars.
Israel has launched four devastating wars against Gaza in 2009, 2012, 2014, and 2021, in addition to more than 20 battles between those wars, in which around 4,300 Palestinians were killed and tens of thousands injured.
Raviv also revealed that in 2019, Israel, in coordination with some European countries, worked to facilitate the emigration of the residents of the Gaza Strip, and even to officially organize emigration trips.
Tel Aviv also expressed its willingness to build an airport in the southern Negev region, adjacent to Gaza, in order to transport Palestinians to new lives overseas. This approach has not been denied by any Israeli officials. Rather, former Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked promoted it for years, going so far as to criticize her government and army for denying Gazans the ability to leave the Strip.
A new Nakba
Researcher in Israeli affairs, Ismail Muhammad, believes that the policies adopted by the Occupation state through the blockade, legal restrictions, repeated wars, manufacturing electricity and water crises, and the systematic destruction of the Palestinian economy, have entrenched in the collective mind of the new generations that there is no aspired future in their country. This in turn pushes them to search for individual salvation.
If the goal in the 1960s was to reduce the population mass in order to contain the Gaza Strip and dissolve it geographically within Israel’s borders, then the goal after the 2005 “withdrawal” turned to viewing Gaza as an independent entity, which would be a part of future negotiations for a final Palestinian solution – possibly an alternative to their occupied homeland.
Muhammad told The Cradle that by encouraging immigration, Israel seeks to achieve “the displacement of competencies and scientific capabilities in order to prevent the resistance from benefiting from them, in addition to disrupting the wheel of development, so that Gaza remains dependent on the Occupation state in the industrial, medical and agricultural fields.”
He further points out that the number of doctors with rare specializations who emigrated from Gaza exceeded 600 until last year, in addition to thousands of engineers, teachers, and other professionals.
According to Muhammad, the second Israeli goal is to foster an entire generation who oppose the resistance.
“The focus here is on a young generation living a life full of unresolvable crises. This leads to emptying Gaza of its human reservoir, which is its capital in its extended confrontation with the occupation.”
Death boats to Europe
Although the path of illegal immigration to Europe via “death boats” is fraught with dangers, this does not diminish the determination of dozens of families and young people to embark on such a misadventure.
Ahmed, who is in his twenties, says:
“I graduated from Al-Aqsa University ten years ago in English literature. I was first in my batch. I never wanted to migrate, nor did I plan to. Like any young man, I want to work and secure my future, but all roads in Gaza are closed. Life inside Gaza prison is more difficult than anywhere else. I am looking for any way to leave, and I do not rule out death boats, because here we are living in a state of death.”
However, death by drowning is not the only danger facing migrants. The 12 young men who drowned in a boat off the Tunisian coast at the end of last October had been kidnapped by a local Libyan militia that demanded a ransom for their release.
“The kidnappers demanded $10,000 for their release. We told them that if we had that kind of money, they wouldn’t have emigrated. In the end we paid $500 for each of the boys,” Muhammad al-Shaer, Haidar’s brother, who was among the 12 young casualties, revealed to The Cradle.
Palestinians hold a passport that allows them to enter 37 countries without prior visas. However, none of these countries offers them any privileges such as a monthly salary, health insurance, or citizenship.
The root cause of the migrant crisis
Therefore, young Palestinians try to risk traveling to Europe through two main, danger-fraught routes: The first, which is most common, is to travel to Turkey, crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece, and the second, is to travel to Egypt, then onto Libya, and from there to Italy’s shores. Both routes are dangerous and accompanied with a high-level of risk.
Despite the recurrence of drowning incidents and the increase in the number of victims, neither local Gaza authorities, nor Palestinian resistance factions, nor their civil society institutions have made any notable effort to limit this phenomenon. Yet as has been shown, the crux and main cause of the issue lies with the ethnic-cleansing policies of the Israeli government.