Gazan’s death shines light on ex­o­dus

Grow­ing num­ber of mid­dle class are flee­ing Gaza Strip

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Fares Akram and Mo­hammed Daragh­meh

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — With a fam­ily of five, a two-story home and a phar­macy, Tamer al-Sul­tan had a life many in the be­sieged and im­pov­er­ished Gaza Strip would envy, but he still felt trapped.

Fed up with the heavy-handed rule of Hamas, al-Sul­tan braved a treach­er­ous jour­ney in hopes of start­ing a new life in the West — only to die along the way. His death has drawn at­ten­tion to the grow­ing ex­o­dus of mid­dle-class Gazans who can no longer bear to live in the iso­lated coastal ter­ri­tory.

It has also struck a nerve among many Pales­tini­ans be­cause he ap­pears to have fled per­se­cu­tion by Hamas, rather than the ter­ri­tory’s dire eco­nomic con­di­tions fol­low­ing a 12year block­ade by Is­rael and Egypt, im­posed when the Is­lamic mil­i­tant group seized power.

Al-Sul­tan had vented about Hamas’ rule on so­cial me­dia and joined rare protests against a Hamas tax hike in March that were quickly and vi­o­lently sup­pressed. Amin Abed, a friend who was ar­rested with al-Sul­tan on three oc­ca­sions over the protests, said they were doused with cold wa­ter and beaten with plas­tic whips.

So al-Sul­tan left, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of thou­sands of other ed­u­cated, mid­dle-class Pales­tini­ans. The ex­o­dus has gath­ered pace in re­cent years, rais­ing fears that Gaza could lose its doc­tors, lawyers, teach­ers and thinkers, putting the Pales­tini­ans’ dream of es­tab­lish­ing a pros­per­ous in­de­pen­dent state in even greater peril.

He had planned to go to Bel­gium, where he had rel­a­tives, and bring his fam­ily af­ter gain­ing refugee sta­tus. But his jour­ney ended in Bos­nia, where he died last month at the age of 38.

The ex­act cause of his death is not known. A pur­ported hos­pi­tal re­port from Bos­nia cir­cu­lated on­line says he had blood can­cer, but the doc­u­ment has not been au­then­ti­cated, and his fam­ily says he was in good health prior to the jour­ney.

“He left Gaza be­cause of the op­pres­sion,” his brother, Ra­madan al-Sul­tan, said at the fam­ily’s home in the north­ern town of Beit Lahiya. Mourn­ers at the fu­neral last month marched with the yel­low flags of the ri­val Fatah move­ment and chanted “Out, Out!” when Hamas sup­port­ers showed up.

Pales­tini­ans have long seen their stead­fast­ness in re­main­ing on the land as their best hope for one day gain­ing in­de­pen­dence from Is­raeli mil­i­tary rule, and both the West­ern-backed Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity and its ri­val Hamas are op­posed to em­i­gra­tion. Hamas cleric Salem Salama re­cently is­sued a fatwa, or re­li­gious edict, against em­i­gra­tion, say­ing “those who leave our home­land with the in­ten­tion of not com­ing back de­serve the wrath of God.”

There is no of­fi­cial count of the num­ber of Pales­tini­ans who have em­i­grated from Gaza. Is­rael does not con­trol Rafah, the main exit point, and Hamas and Egypt do not track such fig­ures.

The U.N. Of­fice for the Co­or­di­na­tion of Hu­man­i­tar­ian Af­fairs says 104,600 Pales­tini­ans left Gaza in 2018 and 2019 and 75,783 re­turned. But it’s not clear whether all of the roughly 30,000 net de­par­tures are em­i­grants. Many Gazans leave for ex­tended pe­ri­ods to study or work abroad, with the in­ten­tion of re­turn­ing.

“It’s cer­tain that thou­sands have taken ad­van­tage of the op­por­tu­nity to exit Gaza in the hopes of find­ing a bet­ter fu­ture, away from the poverty and feel­ing of hope­less­ness at home,” says Gisha, an Is­raeli rights group that ad­vo­cates for Pales­tinian free­dom of move­ment.

There is no of­fi­cial re­set­tle­ment pro­gram, so many Pales­tini­ans re­sort to in­for­mal routes. Al-Sul­tan took one of the more pop­u­lar ones.

He left through the Rafah cross­ing, which Egypt has kept open on a reg­u­lar ba­sis since May 2018 af­ter years of largely re­strict­ing travel to hu­man­i­tar­ian cases. From there, al-Sul­tan went to Turkey, which wel­comes Pales­tinian vis­i­tors. Then he took a rick­ety boat to Greece and worked his way up through the Balkans.

The In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion says 1,177 Pales­tini­ans have crossed from Turkey to Greece by sea since the start of the year, the fourth most cross­ings by na­tion­al­ity. Over the past year, at least six Gazans have died on that route, in­clud­ing al-Sul­tan, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal me­dia re­ports.

While al-Sul­tan left to es­cape Hamas, many oth­ers have fled poverty and iso­la­tion. The block­ade, along with Pales­tinian in­fight­ing, has dev­as­tated the lo­cal econ­omy. More than half of Gaza’s la­bor force is unem­ployed and some 80% rely on food as­sis­tance. Daily power cuts last for sev­eral hours, and the tap wa­ter is un­drink­able.

Mo­hammed Nas­sir grad­u­ated with a de­gree in in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy three years ago and opened a com­puter shop in his home­town of Beit Ha­noun, but soon went out of busi­ness. He found a part-time job at an ad­ver­tis­ing com­pany, but the firm shut down two months later.

Last week he waited out­side the Rafah cross­ing, hop­ing his name would be called so he could board one of the three buses Egypt al­lows in ev­ery day.

“There is noth­ing left for us here,” he said. “No work, no present, no fu­ture, and above all, no hope.”

His un­cle lives in Ger­many and is work­ing on get­ting him a visa to travel there. Un­til then, he in­tends to so­journ in Egypt.

“If things don’t work out, I don’t know what I will do. But any place would be bet­ter than Gaza,” he said.

At the other end of the long and un­cer­tain jour­ney is Karim Nash­wan, a prom­i­nent lawyer who left Gaza with his fam­ily in 2016 af­ter his chil­dren grad­u­ated from univer­sity and now lives out­side Brus­sels. He says he wishes he had left even ear­lier.

“My chil­dren de­cided to leave, and I agreed with them. They have no jobs, no safety, no fu­ture and no life in Gaza,” he said in a phone in­ter­view.

His wife and five chil­dren risked ev­ery­thing to travel the Turkey-Greece route be­fore even­tu­ally fly­ing on­ward to Bel­gium. He was able to join them later by trav­el­ing to Bel­gium legally un­der a fam­ily re­uni­fi­ca­tion pro­gram.

“The chil­dren learned the lan­guage and are in­te­grat­ing in the so­ci­ety,” he said. “We lost hope in Gaza.”

KHALIL HAMRA/AP

The U.N. Of­fice for the Co­or­di­na­tion of Hu­man­i­tar­ian Af­fairs says 104,600 Pales­tini­ans left Gaza in 2018 and 2019 and 75,783 re­turned.

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