“Physically, the prisoner is powerless. But in spirit he gnaws unceasingly at the roots of the thorny hedge.“ — The Lager Echo, a prison camp newspaper on the Isle of Man, WW I. (Kenneth Helphand 2006)
Densely populated with more than 1.8 million residents, the Gaza Strip is one of the most chronically unstable areas in the world, and perhaps the only territory in the world with borders strictly controlled (and mostly closed) by surrounding countries. Bordered to the east and north by Israel and to the southwest by Egypt – states whose border polices are given tacit acceptance by the international community – the residents of the Gaza Strip are subject to a virtual imprisonment that feeds collective depression and a yearning for escape. For many Gazans, the “futureless present,” represents what WWII prisoner of war Odell Meyers once referred to as a “daily dose of progressive poison.”
According to a December 2015 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 41 percent of all adults living in Gaza expressed a desire to emigrate, compared to 24 percent of West Bank residents (PCPSR 2015). The most popular potential destination was Europe (44%), followed by the Gulf countries (15%). While the economic motives certainly help to drive migration, the desire for freedom and independence are also strong motives for flight. Indeed, a 2014 Euro-Med Monitor survey found that approximately 50 percent of migrants belong to the middle and upper classes of Gaza society (Euro-Med Monitor 2014).
Another survey conducted by Euro-Med Monitor conducted in April 2016 suggested that an even greater percentage of Gazans, particularly among the swelling ranks of unemployed youth, have reached a level of desperation sufficient to trigger psychological maladies. Among the 82 of young people aged 17 to 30 either participating in or on the waiting list for the “We Are Not Numbers” youth writing program, sponsored by the Euro-Med Monitor, 53 percent tested as likely to be suffering from clinical depression. A total of 77 percent of this group cited the inability to travel as the primary cause of their malaise, while 69 percent stated that most of their friends want to live outside the Gaza Strip.
The experience of one such participant in the writing program, 29-year-old Ali (whose real name has been withheld at his request), a civil engineer who has been unable to find a job since graduating in 2012, illustrates the desperation associated with a futureless present. During the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, both his apartment and his family home were destroyed, forcing him and his family to move in with relatives. After some of his close friends were killed in the conflict, he decided he had to leave. “Why should I stay?” he wrote. “There is no work, constant electricity outages and poor health care. There is no security. I can’t guarantee my future, much less for a family, and it’s getting worse. I had some Syrian friends who managed to emigrate to Norway and live a very good life, so I contacted them and they gave me phone numbers of people [human traffickers] in Egypt who I could contact.”
Ali acted on his desperation, making his way to Egypt and paying human traffickers for passage to Europe. However, while waiting to embark, he was detained by Egyptian police, and then forced to return to Gaza after a ship sank on its way to Italy. Despite the loss of the $3,000 he had paid to the traffickers, he is not giving up. “I’m working now to emigrate again, legally to Turkey then illegally to Greece. I’m determined to leave Gaza,” he says.