Fallout of Hamas's rule spurs Palestinian desire to flee

A poll shows that a third of Palestinians want to leave because of violence and economic woes.

Ahmed Hushiyeh holds degrees in political science and communications, and dreams of becoming a photojournalist. But after a futile search for a job, the young Palestinian works as a janitor at his alma mater, Birzeit University.

He is saving money in the hopes of moving to Europe, enrolling in another university, and finding work. Political paralysis during Hamas's brief tenure leading the Palestinian government and escalating violence between rival security forces has convinced Mr. Hushiyeh that his career path lies abroad.

"I am not optimistic. The situation is only deteriorating. Maybe outside, the opportunities are much better," he says. "Every young man wishes to have a job and have a life. But when he sees what we have here: occupation, siege, a low standard of living, security crisis – all of this creates a desire to leave. I want to get out of this crisis."

Like Hushiyeh, a growing number of Palestinians are openly saying they'd like to leave the West Bank and Gaza if given the chance, raising concern about the possibility of a Palestinian brain drain. The sentiment, which flouts the long-held Palestinian belief that Israeli occupation can only be resisted by staying put, is yet another indication of the deepening despair since Hamas was elected to run the government.

This desire to flee also comes amid ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip. On Monday, Israeli troops killed at least seven Palestinians in one of the deadliest days of fighting following the June 25 capture of an Israeli soldier.

Birzeit University pollster Nader Said, who has monitored emigration attitudes for 12 years, says the percentage of Palestinians willing to relocate once hovered just below 20 percent. When that figure jumped to 32 percent in a September survey, Mr. Said says he was shocked.

The catalyst, the pollster says, has been Palestinian disillusionment following Hamas's half-year in government. "What the Israelis were unable to do – try to push the Palestinian out of the country – the internal strife is achieving," he says.

Even more telling, adds Said, is that the percentage surges to 44 percent among Palestinians in their 20s and 30s. Among young men, it surges beyond 50 percent.

Malik Shawwa, a consultant specializing in obtaining Canadian visas, says his workload has jumped by two-thirds over the past seven months as more Palestinians ask about leaving. "This is the most important subject in the Palestinian territories," he says. "It's not just a matter of a lack of jobs. It's the situation. They're not secure. They don't trust the government."

Among Palestinians, the mere mention of hijra – Arabic for emigration – is enough to stir up painful memories of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that left hundreds of thousands of Palestinians stranded outside the newly independent Israeli state.

"Emigration means that you are escaping the occupation and that you don't want to liberate your land. It's a shame on you," says Abdel Nasser Najjar, a columnist for the Palestinian daily Al Ayyam. "Now it's different. There are many pressures: economic pressure and psychological pressure. Many people are speaking out."

Riad Malki, the director of Panorama, a Ramallah nonprofit that promotes democracy in the West Bank and Gaza, confesses that he is giving more thought to the idea of relocating. But the broader trend of an exodus by the middle class and young males stirs up fear that Palestinian society may be stripped of its next generation.

"We are going to lose the dynamo of the Palestinian state," he says. "If we lose them how will we set up the offices of Palestine?"

But there are no signs that a critical mass of Palestinians is leaving just yet. The distance between pondering a move and acting on it remains considerable because of the hurdles in establishing residency in a new country. "For the most part, it's a very loud protest statement against the political actors," says Said. "Palestinians have given [Hamas and Fatah] an opportunity to deliver."

And yet, there is evidence that Palestinians are acting on this sentiment. The Ramallah branch of Mr. Shawwa's visa consultancy gets 30 calls a day while the Gaza city office fields 10, he says. Though only a fraction qualify to apply for a Canadian visa, Shawwa says, Palestinians are nonetheless desperate to leave.

"They come to me and cry," he says. "We are doing a much better service for the Palestinian people than the people who are fighting. We are saving a lot of young people from being destroyed."

Back on the Birzeit University campus, a trio of students admitted that the topic of emigration remains sensitive among family and friends. But at the same time they reject the suggestion that moving abroad constitutes any betrayal.

"If I leave then I'll be lucky," says Birzeit law student Masaad Masaad, who hopes to move after graduating and a two-year internship. "The country hasn't provided anything for me. The government has failed ... No attention is given to the citizens."

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