Via Turkish Shores
Driven by desperation from the Israeli blockade, some Gaza Palestinians make risky migration attempts by sea.
Zaid Allouh is only 28 eight years old, but in the last three years, he's already made three dangerous attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea in the hopes of a better life in Europe.
Zaid graduated from university six years ago, with a major in Arabic language. He was hoping to get a teaching job. Instead, he ended up a local farmer in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya, an agricultural community. He is the main provider for his three children and a wife.
Zaid says that he was close to death each time he set off for nearby Greece and then to Europe. His goal was to get to Germany or Belgium, where he has relatives.
With the help of smugglers, he traveled by boat via Turkish and Libyan territorial waters.
"We were 45 migrants," he told me at his rented home north of the Gaza Strip. "And suddenly, a Turkish naval police force spotted our boat. [They] shined a light on us, and covered our small boat with a large net. We were in the Izmir Turkish area, close to Rodos island in the Greek territories. Once we were caught, the Turkish authorities placed us in custody in Istanbul. And it was severely cold in the middle of December, back in 2018."
Zaid tried again, this time traveling through Libyan territorial waters.
Shaban Hassouna was one of the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for an Israeli soldier in 2011. But when he returned to find Gaza transformed into an open-air prison, he soon realized neither he—nor his family—would ever be truly free.
"It was a journey of death. The boat went deeper, about 100 kilometers, and I think we were close to Malta Island. The smuggler was Libyan, who left us in the ocean with an Egyptian boat captain, along with several Egyptian migrants. The captain made some phone calls after the boat's engines broke out abruptly. He was told that our boat was close to Malta, but we could not get off the boat and swim because our Egyptian fellow migrants feared the Malta authorities would extradite them to the Egyptian authorities."
He continued: "By then, the naval Libyan forces arrested us and sent us to a prison [specifically] for migrants, where we spent 13 days, until the Palestinian embassy in Libya helped release us, the Palestinian migrants."
Despite the horrors he faced on the open sea, Zaid still wants to migrate and seek better living conditions for his small family.
"I swear that I am ready to migrate once, twice, and twenty times. Ask me why? That's mainly because I am never able to ensure a good living for my family and myself."
He continued: "I have been working here as a farmer. This winter, I only worked 10 days a month. And it is never enough to meet my family's needs. As for jobs through government-run institutions here, I can clearly say that the government offers jobs only to those who support it or belong to it, unfortunately."
Zaid's story speaks to the desperation felt by Palestinians living in Gaza. The Gaza Strip is 375-square kilometers in size and is populated by 2.3 million Palestinians. In 2007, this coastal tiny enclave came under Israeli siege when the Islamist Hamas party took over power. This came following a long power struggle with the Fatah party of the Western-backed Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Since then, Gaza's economy has been worsening. According to local Palestinian statistics, the unemployment rate among the labor force stands at almost 48 percent, while the poverty rate is over 50. Around 80 percent of the population relies on regular food aid, which is provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). Over the past three years, the state of Qatar has sent out monthly stipends of US$100 for 100,000 cases of poverty in the territory.
Since Hamas has been in power, the Hamas-led local government has created thousands of temporary jobs for jobless youth, especially university graduates. Mohammad Tobail, the general director of employment at the Hamas-ruled ministry of labor in Gaza, spoke to me in his office in Gaza City.
"Criteria for preference in our job creation programs include the availability of university certificates including year of graduation, the number of children, and poverty of the potential recruit. All our selection process is being computerized and based on transparency. Also, we have held tens of workshops, before we made a job creation program. We pray that our employment mission is being in the right direction, where God will be satisfied. We want to call on youth to seek broader job opportunities, mainly online or micro projects. In addition, we would appeal to potential international donors to channel funds to the territory within job creation programs and developmental projects."
After the near collapse of the regional economy under Israel-controlled imports and travel restrictions, the local government is trying to boost development with environmentally-friendly solutions. Still, farmers and workers struggle to make ends meet.
Tobail pointed out that over the past year, Israeli authorities, who are in coordination with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, have begun allowing workers from Gaza into the Israeli labor market. Somewhere around 19,000 Palestinians from Gaza are now holding entry permits to Israel.
Because of the economic devastation wrought by the Israeli blockade, Zaid is not alone in wanting to leave Gaza. Ahmad Shahin is a 36-year-old father of two sons. He was one of Zaid's fellows during failed migration attempts. But unlike Zaid, he no longer wants to leave because the crossing is so dangerous.
Ahmad is now back to his former job as chef for a local restaurant in Gaza city. He told me that after the horrors he had encountered off the Libyan shores, he dropped the thought of migration, once and for all.
"I blame the people in charge of the economy here. Once an employer pays a decent wage, [and] not only 20 or 30 shekels per day (US$6-8), myself and many others would have not thought of migrating. In addition, if those in authority come to terms and love each other, our situation would definitely improve," he said while busy serving shawerma, a local meal made of toasted chicken stuffed in a bread roll.
Elsewhere in the Gaza Strip, industrial facilities have been operating within limited capacities due to the Israeli siege of Gaza. Only one Israel-controlled commercial crossing is currently open. Thousands of raw materials are being blocked entry into Gaza, under what Israel calls "double use," meaning items that Israel believes could be used in so-called "militant activities."
Mohammad Abu Jayab, a Gaza-based economic expert, explained that once the industrial sector sees progress and development, young men in Gaza would find good alternatives for migration.
"This sector needs complementary industries that would boost the agricultural sector. I mean here turning to industries that are transformative, such as fruits and canned foods. Let me mention here a notable failure. The Palestinian Authority Prime Minister in Ramallah, Mohammad Shtayyeh, created a model that is based on European standards in both the West Bank and Gaza. This model is called the "cluster" industrial-agricultural project.
"For the West Bank city of Hebron, where grapes are the main crop, he created a chain of industries that deal with potential products of grapes, but the project had failed. For the Gaza Strip, he created a similar project for dates, but the project had also failed," said Abu Jayab "The projects that are running across the Palestinian territories, are unfortunately serving those in charge of the projects themselves, mainly."
According to Abu Jayab, in the Gaza Strip, there are 13 unions of various industries, such as garment, furniture, foods processing, and domestic chemical substances. Prior to the Israeli siege of Gaza in 2007, around 150,000 laborers worked in the industrial sector. Now, only 20,000 to 30,000 laborers are working.
Meanwhile, more than a few Palestinians from Gaza have either perished or gone missing from migration attempts, leaving behind grieving families.
In the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis, 73-year-old mother Om Nasr Allah Alfarra, lost her 45-year-old son Nasr Allah in November of 2021. Her husband Abu Nasr Allah died during the same month from a stroke, which was, apparently, over the grief of losing his son.
Om Nasr Allah said that her son Nasrallah was found dead off the shores of Turkey.
"Nobody is more precious than a son. I do still remember his kindness and generosity to me. He was extremely kind. The holy month of Ramadan is upcoming and I remember that he used to bring food to me during the holy month of Ramadan. What should I expect except a deep sorrow these times, after I lost him and his father in one month. Can you imagine? In one month. I constantly pray that both of them will go to paradise and eat from its fruits."
Freed from Israeli prisons after spending years behind bars, three Palestinian prisoners who were banished to Gaza as a condition of their release share their stories of separation and longing as they moved out of prison and into exile.
The political Palestinian split also remains a major obstacle towards the improvement of the Gaza Strip's economy. So far, a series of Hamas-Fatah unity deals have failed.
Key donor countries, including the United States and the European Union, have shunned the Islamist Hamas party since it won parliamentary elections in 2006, unless the party decides to recognize Israel, accept past signed peace accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and renounces violence.
"Hamas should go for reconciliation and end the split," says Naser Alsaweer, a Gaza-based veteran political analyst.
"For 15 years now, Hamas has been in control of the coastal territory, while it had no friends in the world except Qatar and Turkey. The rest of the world countries are boycotting Hamas or are foes to it. Therefore, Hamas should reconcile with the Fatah party, so that both parties could go open and united to the international community. Only by doing so, would they both find new good prospects for youth, who are being forced into illegal migration through oceans, where they encounter fatal deaths."
According to the Gaza-based labor ministry, there are currently 300,000 jobless Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, including 120,000 university graduates.
Until Gaza's economy is recovered, illegal migration remains a solution for many of Gaza's population, in spite of its high price.
That price is felt by family members like Jameela Baroud. She lives in the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza Strip. Her husband, Abu Alaa, has been missing since 2019, and the family still doesn't know what became of him.
Jameela says her husband worked as a carpenter, and the workshop he owned lost a total of US$15,000 before he decided to migrate to Europe through Turkish territorial waters.
"Can you imagine? I am only 42 years old now, and four years ago, when he migrated, I was 38 years old. My son, who was in the last year of secondary school, could not get the certificate out of sorrow over his missing father."
"I feel totally tired and down," she said. "Also, I had to accept the marriage of my daughter only one year after her father went missing, for concern about her in our conservative Gaza community. It was an extremely sad moment for me during her wedding."
She continued: "And despite the fact that she was surrounded by her cousins and uncles, her father's absence broke my heart. What kind of a situation is this?"