An incident involving a ship carrying Gazans that sank on its way to Italy taught amazed residents of the Gaza Strip about an entire industry essentially created during last summer’s war with Israel. A large but unknown number of Palestinians who left the Gaza Strip either through tunnels under the Gazan border with Egypt that had not been destroyed, or through the official border crossing at Rafah, paid large sums to smugglers on the promise that they would be able to make the trip from Africa to Europe.
The risks involved and the Gazans’ readiness to take them were matched by the pressing reasons they had to leave. Thus, there is no reason to be surprised about the prospect of some 170 young Palestinians who have tried to make the trip in another direction – into Israel itself from Gaza – since the beginning of the year, and certainly no wonder that the numbers have increased since the war.
The unemployment rate in Gaza is between 45 percent and 50 percent, and it’s 63 percent among those between the ages of 15 and 29. In a society where most of the population is young, it is easy to understand what has been pushing them to risk bodily harm, their freedom or their lives. The fact that more jobless young people without hope of finding work in the near future in Gaza have not tried to sneak into Israel is simply testimony to the ultimate effectiveness of Israel’s border fence.
The increase in the number of Gazans trying to get over the Israeli border since the war is natural. The huge destruction that the war wrought in Gaza brought with it the loss of 30,000 more jobs. The prospect of a recovery in the labor market from rebuilding and reconstruction efforts in the territory have been shelved for the time being. The pace at which cement and other raw materials are getting into the territory is very slow; donor countries that have promised aid for the reconstruction have also been slow in transferring the promised funds. The situation therefore not only involves a lack of work but also a lack of hope.
A researcher in the Strip told Haaretz that he is aware of about 50 young people who have tried to enter Israel since the war, including 11 from the Rafah area and 20 from the central Gaza Strip. Several of them have been injured in the course of their attempt to get into Israel, while others have been arrested.
Undoubtedly the vast majority hoped to find employment in Israel. Since the Israeli withdrawal from the Gazan interior in 2005, Israel has not allowed Gazans to work in Israel or in the West Bank. It appears, however, that in the collective memory of Gazan residents, employment in Israel has remained a logical and natural option. Over time, work in Israel has even developed mythological proportions. Forgotten are employers who exploited Gazans, or the long working hours. The legacy that remains of employment in Israel are the wages earned by family members, including women, that enabled them to earn a livelihood with dignity.
Among those who have tried to get across the border this year, there were those who knew very well they would be arrested. Arrest is a lot more honorable than humiliating dependence on assistance from aid organizations or from relatives, or the wait for sacks of food at an UNRWA relief center. Arrest and a trial in Israel may also lead to the detainee and his family qualifying for compensation from the Palestinian Authority, at least for the period in which the detainee is in confinement.
Israel is that place abroad that is never abroad, because it never stopped being their homeland.
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