Despite risks, Gazans dream of life away

KHAN YUNIS: At a modest dwelling open to the winds next to a landfill in the Gaza Strip, only the women, children and an old man remain. Angham Zorab's two brothers along with her husband fled the blockaded Palestinian enclave in June 2014 - like many others who see no hope in remaining. "He sold the house and left with the $5,000," the frail 23-year-old woman said of her husband.

"They passed through tunnels" to reach Egypt, she added from the house where she now lives in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip. Gaza's two million residents have lived under Israeli blockade for more than a decade, and humanitarian conditions have worsened by the year. Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas and Israel have fought three wars since 2008 and the strip has an unemployment rate of more than 50 percent - while around two-thirds of young people are jobless. Eighty percent of the population are dependent on international aid.

There are no official figures on the number of Palestinians leaving the Gaza Strip permanently, said Samir Zaqout of the Palestinian human rights group Al-Mezan. According to data compiled by the United Nations, around 61,000 Palestinians left Gaza for Egypt last year, while only around 37,000 entered - a deficit of 24,000, though more could eventually return. Israel grants limited numbers of exit permits, mainly for merchants and medical patients, according to Gisha, an NGO which monitors the Gaza blockade.

Zaqout says the reasons young people seek to leave include unemployment and poverty, low pay, lack of freedom of expression under Hamas and the impossibility of free travel under Israel's blockade. "In the past, the idea of emigrating was considered a betrayal (of the Palestinian cause)," he said at his office in central Gaza City. "Today it is a source of pride. Even those who are engaged in politics, in the resistance (to Israel), are preparing to emigrate." The will to leave crosses all social classes, from the rich to the poor, he said.

'For my family'
For years, tunnels under the Gaza border with Egypt provided Palestinians with a way out of the enclave. Some would then take a dangerous route into Europe, often involving a journey by sea. Egypt has since destroyed the tunnels, but it reopened its crossing with Gaza in 2018 after having kept it largely closed for years.

Zorab's brother-in-law, the last of the family to emigrate, left Gaza last summer through the Rafah crossing with Egypt. As for her husband, she said he left "for the same reasons as all the others: for work. He said 'I'm going to build a future for my daughter, for my family." Her two brothers eventually reached Sweden and have established themselves there. She has however lost contact with her husband and has asked for a divorce.

She and her six-year-old daughter now live with her parents. She thinks the acne-like bumps across her daughter's body are due to the landfill next door. "I would like to leave too," Zorab said. In front of her on a small wooden shelf sits the most precious object in their spartan home: a modem connected to a battery for when the Gaza Strip's frequent electricity cuts plunge the neighborhood into darkness.

"I speak with my sons everyday now," said the mother of the family, Chamaa. "The first two years, my eyes were always filled with tears." The money that her sons send keeps the house running. Nine people live in a handful of rooms that are nearly empty, furnished with mattresses on the floor and kitchen utensils. In the extended family, at least 20 men have left the Gaza Strip and some died in the process. Zaqout of Al-Mezan said the reopening of the Rafah crossing has made emigrating easier.

'How many have died?'
The mother of 27-year-old Abdallah Masri tells of how he wanted to start a new life by leaving Khan Yunis. At the end of a long journey, he reached Algeria, where he planned to leave for Europe by crossing the Mediterranean. "He called me on a Wednesday. He told me, 'I'm going tomorrow,'" said his mother Samar al-Masri, seated in her living room decorated with pictures of her oldest son. But his first attempt failed. "He seemed relaxed, but not normal" when he said he would try again, the 43-year-old woman recalled. "I warned him - 'If you're scared, don't go!'"

After having no word from him following his departure, she eventually received a call from a foreign number. "The person just told me 'Abdallah is dead.' I still don't know who was on the other end of the line," she said. Numerous Gazans know someone who died trying to make their way into exile. "I am angry with the government, with Israel and everybody who locks us in here," Samar al-Masri said, wiping tears from her eyes. "They are taking our young people away from us. How many have died?"- AFP