Why Gazans are dying at sea to be free

Escaping one hell for another: Why Gazans are dying at sea to be free
6 min read
29 Nov, 2021
Many young Palestinians are risking their lives at sea or forced into an endless limbo in a European camp, all to escape the monstrosity that is the blockade on Gaza, writes Muhammad Shehada.
Palestinians fishermen on their small boat to fish during sunset off the coast of Gaza City, on 24 November 2021. [Getty]

On Sunday morning, 14 November, Gazans from all political backgrounds and walks of life swarmed to the house of Ayman Abu Rujaiyla in Khan Younis to march at the funeral of his son Anas.

Mourned as a "martyr," Anas's body was washed ashore on 9 November in Turkey. Two days earlier, the body of his neighbour, Abu Adham al-Farra, a husband and father, was similarly discovered on a Turkish beach.

The two had boarded an unseaworthy and compassless dinghy from Turkey's Bodrum the preceding Friday, along with nine other Gazans, hoping to reach the Greek Island Kos and apply for asylum. Their vessel capsized midway, and the passengers were stranded at sea in the dark fighting for their lives until three of them drowned. The rest were caught by Turkish authorities.

"They are intimately familiar with the despair that compelled those 11 asylum seekers to risk their lives on an unseaworthy dinghy to escape the mouth of a shark that Israel's blockade has turned Gaza into"

The only wish of the three victims was to live; they died while desperately trying to find a life for themselves and their families.

The Gazan public was shocked to their core by a brief audio recording from one of the survivors, Yahia Barbakh. With an anguished and panicking voice, he told his mom how they were "drowning at sea for two hours," during which he helplessly watched his neighbour and friend Abu Adham die before his eyes.

"Abu Adham's dead. He drowned, mom…The fish ate him…He's gone…Tell his family," he said.

The pain and anguish in Yahia's voice resonated deeply with Gaza's beleaguered population. Giant crowds showed up at Anas's funeral because most young Gazans can easily relate to his tragic story. They are intimately familiar with the despair that compelled those 11 asylum seekers to risk their lives on an unseaworthy dinghy to escape the mouth of a shark that Israel's blockade has turned Gaza into.

Although amongst the region's most highly educated populations, Gaza's youth have been rendered futureless and unemployable by 15 years of draconian Israeli siege, punctuated by periodic military assaults that have compromised the enclave’s economy and pounded its infrastructure.

Voices

The UN estimates that Israel's blockade alone has cost Gaza more than $16,7 billion between 2007-2018 (more than Palestine's entire GDP of $15.56 billion). Israel's arbitrary restrictions and sanctions are compounded by repeated Israeli targeting of economic facilities and vital infrastructure in Gaza, both of which have had disastrous consequences on the population's livelihood and workforce.

Reaching a staggering 44.7%, Gaza's unemployment rates are amongst the highest in the world, with two-thirds of women and young people being unemployed. Gaza's unparalleled poverty rates also bespeak a humanitarian disaster, where 80% of the population are aid-dependent.

This adds to a long list of manmade crises, including electricity shortages for more than half of the day, water contamination levels nearing 97%, not to mention the risk of losing one's life at any second in an Israeli airstrike, drone attack or artillery fire.

That is why Gazan youth are literally dying to escape Israel's draconian siege that turned the enclave into an uninhabitable slum. It is why those eleven Gazans chose to take their chances on what Palestinians call a "death boat" and reclaim their fate than to continue dying slowly in Gaza.

With the Israeli government killing any chance for Gaza's development or basic survival, the choices its youth have been left with are to either drown at sea or drown in debts, despair, need and want.

Such a trip is not cheap. Like a growing number of despairing Gazan youth, the victims of this death boat travelled to Turkey on a tourist visa that costs roughly $US 200 to obtain in Gaza. Some then pay an extra $US 500-1,200 to the Egyptians as a bribe to be allowed out of Gaza faster, and after that, hundreds of dollars are paid in shuttles and flights to reach Turkey. These figures are astronomical relative to Gaza's compromised economy and cash-strapped youth, whose families usually sell much of what they own and borrow money heavily to finance this trip.

Anas, for instance, was stuck in Turkey for 11 months, unable to obtain a residence permit that would allow him to find work. He lived on meagre handouts his family borrowed from friends and neighbours. He then had to pay $US 1,500 to smugglers to be allowed to board the dingy that took his life. His heartbroken family has now been left with the anguish of losing a loved one and the distress of facing significant debts to repay for the money they borrowed hoping to get him to Europe.

What is even more heart-wrenching is the fact that Anas and his friends did not want to leave Gaza, but felt forced to. In an earlier recording from Yahia, he tells his mom while crying that he was "burned down" by his attempt to escape.  "I want to return to Gaza, O God! I swear. Gaza's better for me," he said.

"That is why it should be very telling of Gaza's current living conditions that the blockade has reduced the dreams and aspirations of an entire generation to being endlessly stuck in a camp in Greece"

Had those young Gazans had even the slightest semblance of a normal life in Gaza or the slightest chance to secure barebones subsistence, they would have never left.

As they risked their lives, the passengers of that death boat probably knew that even if they had successfully reached Greece, it would have been far from ushering a happy ending to their story.

In recent years, EU countries like Greece, Malta and Italy grew increasing inhospitable and hostile towards asylum seekers and refugees. The Greek government has been accused of adopting pushbacks and violence against asylum seekers as a de facto border policy. Those who successfully make it are then put in unsafe camps and detention centres indefinitely while waiting for their applications to be processed. The conditions in most of those camps are appalling, to say the least, in which migrants suffer from overcrowding, inadequate access to food, running water,  or basic hygiene.

That is why it should be very telling of Gaza's current living conditions that the blockade has reduced the dreams and aspirations of an entire generation to being endlessly stuck in a camp in Greece. This monstrosity must end immediately and unconditionally.

Muhammad Shehada is a Palestinian writer and analyst from Gaza and EU Affairs Manager at Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor.

Follow him on Twitter: @muhammadshehad2

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.