As Gaza unravels, Palestinians flee

Thousands have already left the coastal strip because of its social and economic degradation.

By the time the Islamic militant group Hamas declared victory in Gaza Thursday, thousands of Palestinians had already fled the coastal strip.

Recent figures collected by European monitors at Rafah, the crossing into Egypt, show that some 14,000 Palestinians have left Gaza in the past year, driven by a combination of political insecurity and economic strain.

Now, the violence between the two main Palestinian factions, which began to escalate Saturday and turned into brutal street warfare early this week, is driving even more Gazans to find a way out.

Hazem Balousha, a journalist, says that during the fighting between Hamas and Fatah, bullets and mortar rounds have been flying past his home at a furious clip.

"Some of the bullets entered my house," Mr. Balousha said in a phone call from his home. "It's a civil war. Why should I stay here? Hang around waiting to get killed?" Balousha is one of the relatively lucky ones. He's already been abroad – he did his B.A. degree and a master's in international relations in Turkey – and has recently obtained visas to more than one European country. The trick is getting out of Gaza itself.

"Today, there is no way to get out of Gaza. All passages are closed," says Shlomo Dror, Israel's spokesman for the coordinator for government activities in the territories.

"The real people controlling Rafah are Hamas, because they're just outside the checkpoint and they're controlling who can come and go," he says.

Palestinian officials had asked to close Rafah over the weekend when they saw they could not protect European monitors there, Mr. Dror says.

"We're not in charge there and we can't do anything about it. The only way we can help the Palestinians is to take over the area, which we don't want to do," he adds.

Dror says that Hamas militants have set up a checkpoint on the Palestinian side of the Erez Crossing into Israel, about 330 feet beyond the one Palestinian Authority police usually run, and are stopping cars to arrest anyone who's a member of Fatah. "It's enough for people not to even try to come to the checkpoint," he says.

Balousha's departure can be counted as one drop in the brain drain, occurring in the Palestinian territories, which also includes people who returned with the promise of peace in the mid-1990s. Equally desperate to leave are many Palestinians of extremely moderate means, some of whom are selling their homes and cars in order to pay travel agents and brokers able to arrange tickets and visas – often at exorbitant rates.

Moreover, the tortuous route out can often include obtaining false identification papers or scrambling for the fastest route to a Western European country in order to ask for asylum.

Gazans who hope to leave are turning to agents who demand sumsof several thousand dollars, a reporter for the Monitor in Gaza has learned. In exchange, they get a plane ticket and a visa. One well-worn route includes obtaining a visa to Cuba. The idea, however, is to get to Egypt, and then, when the plane stops somewhere in Europe on its way west, to get off the plane and ask for political asylum.

Assad Abu Nihad, who didn't want to use his full name for fear of legal problems or retribution, helped his young son get out this way. After paying $2,500 to a broker to arrange his trip this time last year, the 23-year-old got off the plane in Spain on his way to Cuba and told a story of torture to authorities that he knew would help his claim for asylum. After being held for six months in a detention center, he was granted the right to stay, and is now doing kitchen work in Madrid.

Without the money his son sends back, Abu Nihad doesn't know how the rest of the family would survive.

"I wish he could take me to Spain, and the entire family with him. But he's going to start gradually, by pulling out his mother, and she'll be able to take me later on," says Abu Nihad.

Another Gazan, Abdel Salem Halil, tried a similar route, which included the use of a forged Italian residency permit. But he was caught by an Al Italia official at the check-in desk in Cairo, who could tell that the identification card was fake. His choice: Face arrest or return home. He came back to Gaza reluctantly, but is still seeking to leave. He's trying to get a visa to any European country he can and to bring his whole family with him – or at least his oldest son, whom he fears will be recruited for a military faction soon.

"I'm fed up," says Mr. Halil, who worked as a dressmaker but closed his shop recently for lack of business: People have little disposable income to spend on clothes.

"I'm afraid for my children. My son is almost 19, and if I wait any longer, he will join one of the military groups," he says. "It's natural. If you are not backed by any faction, you are lost, and that's why we're planning to leave. I can't see any horizon for us here."

Mohammed Abu Jamal, who runs a travel agency in Gaza City, says that, on the average day in recent weeks, 200 people come in asking for his help in getting out. "Some people are so desperate," he says, "that they're willing to pay $3,000 or $4,000 for a ticket to somewhere."

Even for those with visas, the route out has huge hurdles. Rafah, the only crossing out of Gaza into Egypt, has been closed since Saturday. European monitors who have been on mission there since November 2005, as part of a US-brokered agreement that came on the heels of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, have been ordered to retreat to their headquarters in nearby Ashkelon, inside Israel.

"Due to the situation, the head of mission has declared the suspension of the operation until our security can be guaranteed," says Maria Telleria, spokesperson of European Union border-assistance mission. "We will go back to the border as soon as security will allow."

Some Palestinians are amassed near the border waiting for it to reopen, Ms. Telleria says, but the monitors are unable to estimate the number who are there.

Egypt's policy towards Palestinians seeking to cross over is unclear. Palestinians say that those over 40 years of age can go simply by showing a Palestinian identity card. Those younger than 40 need to show a visa.

An Egyptian official said that, technically speaking, Palestinians can come to Egypt by getting special stamps in their passport at the Egyptian Embassy. But in practice, passage is at the mercy of often-fickle guards.

"If the border guards don't want him to come into the country, then he can't come in, and that happens a lot," says the official, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. "The border at Rafah is very difficult.

"The guys on the border are very obstinate," he reiterates, "so if they don't like you, you can't come in."

For any person, and certainly for any Palestinian, leaving one's homeland is a difficult and loaded issue.

Many of the people interviewed for this article did not want their full names used out of fear of being viewed as deserters.

But Balousha says that his friends ask him why he hasn't gotten out already. Almost 30 and still single – most Palestinians his age are married with children – it's less complicated for you, they urge. But only slightly, he says.

"My friends say, 'If I were you, I would have gone by now.' But it's not so quick," he says. "Everyone wants to live in his home in peace. There are no words to describe the situation. It's a disaster.

"This is the lowest standard for a human being," he asserts. "You're in a middle of a war, and you cannot hope for anything except to survive."

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