“We are all under unbelievable amounts of psychological pressure. If anyone breaks down and goes crazy in the street, no one will blame them,” Belal El-Shafi, 24, from Nuseirat refugee camp told me. Married with one child, El-Shafi works as a dishwasher in the Lightroom restaurant in Gaza City though he has advanced training as a nurse. He earns a meager living that affords a single room and food for his family. “I want to leave Gaza but I would go with my own dignity,” El-Shafi remarked. “We’re not living — this is not a life.”
As a foreign journalist, the process of exiting the Gaza Strip is a jarring one — not for the difficulty, but for the ease. Palestinian friends and colleagues of mine who live in Gaza are unable to leave the bombed-out ghetto — they are effectively sentenced to live and die in Israel’s open-air-prison. In stark contrast, I seamlessly pass from the dense, rubble-covered cityscape of the Gaza Strip to unobstructed views of abundance in southern Israel — where many of my friends’ relatives were expelled from several decades ago.
Since the conclusion of the summer’s devastating war in Gaza, the pressure on residents to leave the rubble-covered ghetto has become unbearable. Between the slash-and-burn Israeli assaults — another of which appears to be inevitable — and the Israeli-Egyptian siege that suffocates the economy and severely restricts the entry of basic necessities, there is little hope among the 1.8 million Palestinians living inside Gaza.
Most of those who wish to escape the Gaza Strip will run up against the iron wall of Israel’s siege. The Middle East’s most well-armed navy maintains a blockade on Gaza’s Mediterranean coast and the southern border is controlled by Egypt, which destroys the once-thriving tunnel economy that sustained life in Gaza. The northern and eastern borders are controlled by a system of concrete walls and fences that are lined with intermittent pillboxes mounted with remote control machine guns, surveilled by high-tech cameras and patrolled by trigger-happy soldiers.
“If I walk to close to the border, Israeli soldiers will shoot me,” 18-year-old Ezzeldeen Awad Obaid said with a nervous laugh.
Indeed, Israel carries out what it has euphemistically termed a “distancing procedure,” in which soldiers open fire on any Palestinian who walks within 300 meters of the fence. In practice, soldiers have frequently shot at Palestinians beyond that distance.
Against this severe reality, the desire to look elsewhere for a better future is ubiquitous, especially among young people. Some are torn between the desire for a decent livelihood and the urge to stay in Gaza as an act of resistance.
I met 18-year-old Yusef Abu Kader in a lot in Gaza City where he was collecting scrap metal that earned him a few dollars each day. “I’d leave Gaza in the morning,” he told me without blinking.
I asked Abu Kader why he thinks Israel creates unbearable conditions that compel him to think about life abroad, however, he instinctively replied, “I will never leave Gaza. I’ll never give it to the Israelis. This our land. This is our home.”
In greater numbers than ever, Palestinians are risking their lives to flee the Gaza Strip through tunnels — sometimes with deadly outcomes. Hundreds of migrants drowned when rival smugglers attacked their boat this summer. The authorities of Egypt’s junta have imprisoned hundreds of others before deportation back to the Gaza Strip.
In an email, the Israeli historian and professor with the College of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of Exeter Ilan Pappe explained how these methods have been deployed for decades to advance Israel’s colonization of Palestine:
“In many ways the Israeli brutality in Gaza is a unique case in the overall Israeli strategy since 1948, but only in its duration and intensity — not in the method,” Pappe said. “A softer version of decreasing numbers of Palestinians in areas coveted by Israel is by strangulation – not with the same means employed in Gaza but through belts of colonization, or as it is called in Israel – Judaization – have led to immigration of Palestinians from the Galilee and parts of the West Bank.”
The strangulation effect is felt by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip across the socioeconomic spectrum.
“The huge scale of destruction and killing has made life intolerable for a lot of people here. Anyone who has the chance to leave will understandably take it,” Mohammed Suliman, a former researcher at the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights from Gaza City, explained. “If you are fortunate enough [to leave Gaza], people look at you with envy because you are a lucky person — a survivor.”
Suliman, 25, earned a full-ride scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of South Australia beginning in the 2015 spring semester. Yet he will miss at least part of the semester due to a seemingly insurmountable myriad of travel restrictions imposed on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
After having earned a scholarship — no small feat in itself — Suliman must obtain a visa from the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv because there is no embassy in Gaza nor is there an embassy capable of providing a visa in the West Bank. In order to do that, he must mail hard copies of his transcripts to Australia. But there is no post office in Gaza. So his transcripts must be mailed from an office in Gaza to the West Bank and then to Israel, where they will finally be sent to Australia.
In order for Suliman’s wife, Leila Najjar, 24, to obtain an Australian residency visa, the couple must prove that she has health insurance. But even after Suliman and Najjar managed to raise funds from abroad for insurance, the donors refused to send the money to Gaza because of the risk of being prosecuted for ties to terrorist organizations.
“After I get my visa, the real problem starts: How to leave Gaza.” Suliman explained. “I am allowed to leave, but how can I practically?”
The only exits from Gaza are through Egyptian-controlled southern Rafah crossing or through the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing, both of which require lengthy application processes to travel through.
After General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi seized power in Egypt through a coup and a sham election, his regime embraced a policy of collective punishment to Gaza, strangling the coastal enclave from the south in hopes of toppling a government it viewed as the Palestinian cut-out of the Muslim Brotherhood. “They punish the people for the supposed mistakes of their government. I am someone who is paying the price for mistakes of political actors,” Suliman said.
With the Rafah border closed except for rare instances, Suliman has no viable means of leaving Gaza. “I just have to wait and pray that it opens,” he remarked. If the crossing does open — typically this happens for a few hours a day — he must have the right connection because of the sheer number of people.
“There are tens of thousands who want to travel — I’m not the only one,” Suliman explained. Without a connection, he must book a day to travel two months in advance, which almost guarantees he misses part of the academic semester in Australia.
The other alternative for Suliman and Najjar is to travel through the Erez crossing in the north. Not allowed to travel from Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport, they would have to pass through Israel, the West Bank, to Jordan and finally to Australia. To cross Erez, Suliman has to apply to the Ministry of Civil Affairs in Gaza or a human rights organization.
“They told me, ‘You can’t just apply. What’s your reason to come through Israeli land?’”
If Suliman receives a positive response from Israel — assuming there is no hold-up with Israeli intelligence and security — he then must apply for a travel permit from Jordan. Barring some small miracle, he is certain he will miss at least part of the semester.
“I can’t complain because this is all I know,” Suliman said with a look of resignation. “I just accept it and deal with it, you know?”
For the few lucky enough to leave Gaza, returning home after building a life abroad is an unknown. “I thought there would be no way for me to live away from Gaza forever but I don’t really know what’s going to happen,” Suliman said.
Stories like Suliman’s remind me the ordeals of countless Latin-Americans I met in the United States who migrated because of economic conditions with the intention of returning, yet after setting roots, never did. As an observer, I can’t help but wonder if those who say they would return to Gaza might have different feelings down the road.
As arduous as his trip to Australia promises to be, Suliman is among the lucky ones. Though Gaza’s population is among the most educated in the world, residents with advanced degrees in the arts and sciences are increasingly taking up menial jobs as waiters and taxi drivers. Since this summer’s war, the unemployment rate has shot above 55%.
Khalil Hijazi, 24, studied physical therapy in Al-Azha University and completed a year-long internship in a hospital. After his internship ended, he received unemployment payment through the United Nations Relief Agency for Palestinians in the Near East (UNRWA) for three months.
During Israel’s war on Gaza this summer, Hijazi volunteered at al-Shifa hospital for 30 days. After the war, he found it impossible to obtain work, even as a volunteer. He was thus forced to accept the humiliation of taking money from his parents to survive. Eventually, he took a job as a taxi driver.
Leaving Gaza remains a distant dream for Hijazi, who has never traveled outside. He is eager to get a master’s in physical therapy in Egypt, then travel to Europe to make a living. But under the current conditions of siege and regular wars, his ambitions are obstructed.
Despite the unprecedented devastation of the summer war on Gaza, there are those who remain determined to stay in Gaza no matter the cost. “More people are deciding to leave for good because of this hell we’re in,” said 20-year-old Shaima Ziara. “But you’ll find people who tell you ‘no, this is our country.’ We’re staying here because it’s our job to fight for it.”
A senior at the Islamic University of Gaza, Ziara studies English Literature, a pursuit that she views as a form of resistance against Israel’s colonial project.
“Communicating to the world is one of the most important forms of resistance,” she said. “During the last war, we saw the world’s reaction to the assault on Gaza. There were huge demonstrations around the world. This is something we did not see in the wars of 2012 and 2008/2009.”
Ziara credits international displays of solidarity with Gaza to the embrace of social media platforms by Palestinians who have survived successive Israeli assaults and were able to provide a shocking portrayal of reality there. “We can give them another source of information other than the mainstream media that manipulates and twists the truth,” she said. “We want to enable ourselves to defend it by any means possible — by education, improving our mentality and our abilities to communicate to the world our story.”
Last month, a group of Palestinian children orphaned during the war on Gaza received permits to visit Israel, only to be stymied at the last minute by Gazan authorities at the Erez border crossing. The visit was hyped by Israeli government linked publicists as a humanitarian gesture towards the suffering population of Gaza. Yet as the Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah revealed, the children were being exploited as tools in a stunningly cynical government propaganda stunt that was deployed “to show a positive face of Israel” and “to gain points in the hostile world opinion.” With little understanding of the scheme that they had been corralled into, their children returned to parentless homes with their trauma compounded.