Flight under conditions of duress or desperation is nothing new for Palestinians. Since 1948, when more than half a million Palestinians were forced to leave their homeland to make way for a new country in their midst, there have been several large waves of Palestinian outmigration or forced displacement. Yet this flight has in many cases been only temporary, with migrants drawn back home by periodic glimmers of hope for an end to the conflict. For example, the Oslo Accords signed in 1993 and 1995 by the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization were felt by many to signal the potential for a sustainable peace. The creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, originally intended to serve as an interim body, generated the semblance of limited self-governance. In 1998, an airport was built in the Gaza Strip as a growing – if fragile – sense of sovereignty and freedom of movement began attracting thousands of Palestinians who saw the accords as a turning point. Some 100,000 diaspora Palestinians returned to their home territory in the years after the accords were signed. Indeed, from 1995 to 1999, nearly 39 percent of the Palestinians who had previously emigrated from the Gaza Strip returned to the territory, while the number of Palestinian refugees residing there increased from 683,560 in 1995 to nearly 1 million by 2007 (PCBS 2011).
However, Palestinians ultimately saw their hopes for an expansion of freedom and opportunity dashed, as the accords ultimately allowed Israel to consolidate its control over the border to the Gaza Strip. This had a negative impact on socioeconomic conditions within the region. As a result, Palestinian outmigration from Gaza has again increased in recent years, particularly among young and highly-educated individuals.
Beginning of the second crisis period
September 2000 marked the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada. This triggered a chain of events that led to a new level of restrictions on the freedom of movement (for goods as well as for people), as well as tight controls on farming and fishing, two sectors vital to the Gaza economy. In parallel, hundreds of Palestinians were dismissed from their jobs in Israel. For Palestinian workers and students abroad, the option of returning to Gaza on summer holidays and breaks was no longer available. Thus, they stayed away for longer periods, and those who were “stuck” in the Strip desperately looked for ways out.
Five years later, the Israeli government withdrew roughly 8,000 settlers from Gaza. However, this was only a cover for its expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank and the increasing degree of control it was exerting over East Jerusalem. According to the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute, “the manner in which the Israeli ‘withdrawal/disengagement’ of Gaza has transformed realities there into a socioeconomic disaster zone (…) bodes ill for what might come next” (MAS 2007).
As predicted, Israel has maintained effective control over entry into and exit out of Gaza via its control of the territory’s sea approaches and airspace, as well as of one of the territory’s two land borders. Egypt controls the other land border, and has largely kept it closed in response to Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2006. Israel also controls the Palestinian population registry, telecommunication networks, and many other aspects of daily life and infrastructure.
Bottleneck: decade of blockade
Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in 2006. The following spring, the party assumed control of Gaza after it shut down a de facto coup attempt by a faction of the opposing party, Fatah. Israel subsequently declared Gaza to be a “hostile entity,” and economic sanctions were imposed by both Israel and the international Quartet (United Nations, European Union, United States and Russia), exacerbating conditions of crisis and reinforcing Gaza’s dependency.
At the time, Israeli officials stated that “[a]dditional sanctions will be placed on the Hamas regime in order to restrict the passage of various goods to the Gaza Strip and reduce the supply of fuel and electricity. Restrictions will also be placed on the movement of people to and from the Gaza Strip” (EMHRM 2015a). In carrying out this strategy, Israel effectively isolated the coastal enclave from its surroundings and turned it into what is known today as the world’s largest open-air prison. For many Gazans, the dream of leaving the devastated Strip and seeking better living conditions abroad became paramount. Although the Strip had been subjected to many closures since the 1990s, the sweeping nature of the blockade imposed in 2006 and 2007 – maintained in later years in somewhat looser form – was an unprecedented form of collective punishment.
Statistics collected by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor demonstrate in stark detail the catastrophic consequences of Israel’s 10-year blockade of Gaza. In 2015, the unemployment rate stood at 44 percent – the highest such rate in the world, according to the World Bank (World Bank, IBRD, IDA 2015). Among youth and young adults, the unemployment rate was an even higher 58 percent. Forty percent of Palestinians in Gaza now live below the poverty line, and 80 percent rely on emergency aid simply to put food on the table. Six out of 10 families suffer from food insecurity, and the shame and stress of simply trying to survive has contributed to a rise in domestic violence, an issue that now impacts a startling 73 percent of families.
The incidence of suicide – ordinarily anathema in a conservative, Islamic culture – has also risen. According to statistics verified by Euro-Med Monitor, the number of suicides and attempted suicides in Gaza averaged between 25 and 30 per month during the 2013 – 2015 period. However, during January and February of 2016 alone, about 80 people per month either tried to kill themselves or succeeded in doing so, representing an increase of 160 percent. Some unconfirmed estimates were even higher.
“The situation has never been worse,” said Zahia Al-Qarra, a psychiatrist with the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, to a We Are Not Numbers writer in 2016. “In the past, Gazans have always been able to find a way out when it got very bad. They would work in Israel or abroad in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Even when those options were not available, they could escape through the tunnels into Egypt. But now that Israel and Egypt have destroyed most of the tunnels, there is no way out. We are trapped in Gaza. Everyone appears to be against us. All of the doors are locked” (Ghannam 2016).
Although suicide is prohibited by Islam, Al-Qarra noted that when a person loses everything and enters the “depression zone,” his or her beliefs and all other restraints “fade away. He looks for salvation in any way possible.”
Three military offensives
The 2008 – 2014 period saw three Israeli military offensives against Gaza, with the most recent one, in the summer of 2014, being the most severe. This was Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, which claimed the lives of 2,147 Palestinians, including 530 children and 489 adult women (144 families lost three or more members). In addition, 10,870 Palestinians, including 3,303 children (one-third of them with long-term disabilities), were injured. More than 485,000 people were internally displaced.
Likewise, the Strip’s already-fragile infrastructure has been repeatedly targeted. For example, 22 schools were completely destroyed and 118 others were damaged. Within the agricultural sector, 17,000 hectares of croplands, including greenhouses, animal farms, fodder stock and irrigation systems, were damaged. Nearly 12 percent of the territory’s wells, in addition to more than 33,000 meters of water and wastewater networks, were destroyed or damaged.
At the time of writing, talk of a fourth war is already circulating. For many, this has only intensified the drive to emigrate.
In fact, shortly before the end of 2014, less than two weeks after the Israeli assault, more than 450 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean in a single shipwreck on their way to Italy. Families fleeing the Gaza Strip represented the largest contingent among the migrants on board. The incident marked the start of a chain of similar such tragic incidents.