Thousands of Gazans Fleeing to Europe via Tunnels, Traffickers and Boats

'It’s better to die at sea than to die of despair and frustration in Gaza,’ says resident of Strip.

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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Gazans escape to Europe.
Gazans escape to Europe.
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

Thousands of Palestinians have left the Gaza Strip for Europe using tunnels, traffickers and boats, testimonies obtained by Haaretz show.

Gazans have been fleeing the Strip since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, but their escape was hardly covered in the media since they have been leaving clandestinely, with the help of paid smugglers.

The sinking of two ships carrying Palestinians from Gaza — one off the coast of Malta last week, and the other off the coast of Egypt — and the drowning of hundreds of passengers have focused attention on the trend.

The Palestinian Embassy in Greece reported yesterday that the ship that sank off the coast of Malta was carrying more than 450 passengers, most of them Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, and that it was rammed intentionally by another ship run by rival smugglers.

The Gaza-based human rights group Adamir has collected the names of more than 400 missing people. “No one knows where they are; the whole Gaza Strip is talking about it. It’s such a painful story, as if it’s not enough what happened in the last war and now another blow comes,” said Adamir director Halil Abu Shamala, noting that most of the passengers were young people but that there were also whole families aboard.

At least 15 Palestinians drowned when another ship sank off the Egyptian coast near Alexandria on Saturday.

Abu Ahmed, who lost his son on that ship, explains how the system operates. “There are a few people who left the Gaza Strip through the Rafah [border] crossing, mainly humanitarian cases. But most of the people leave through the tunnels and reach the Egyptian [side of] Rafah and from there they continue,” he said.

One prominent smuggler leader named Abu Hamada Asuri oversees a network that brings people out of the Gaza Strip to Europe by sea. He lives in Egypt but has representatives in the Strip, some of whom are well-known figures there.

One, who asked that his name not be used, told Haaretz: “This trip costs between $3500 to $4000 dollars a person. People who want to go make arrangements ahead of time to come to the entrance to a tunnel in Palestinian Rafah. It’s a relatively small tunnel; most of the big ones have been blocked by the Egyptians. People crawl dozens of meters and at the end of the tunnel on the Egyptian side of Rafah a minibus or other vehicle waits for them and takes them to Port Said.”

The man said that once they get to Port Said or other locales, they wait in an apartment or other building that has been prepared for them ahead of time. He added that Egyptian security officials are bribed to look the other way and stamp passports with forged stamps.

Haaretz heard testimony that the refugees wait until they get word from the smugglers to proceed to Alexandria, where they board small boats, sometimes dozens per boat. Once they leave Egyptian territorial waters they switch to another boat that in most cases sails to Italy. The trip usually takes about a week.

One refugee who managed to get to the Italian coast told Haaretz that when the boat approaches the shore it issues a distress call and Italian navy and Red Cross ships pick them up. In other cases, the boat approaches the shore and people jump into the water with life jackets, and are rescued by the Coast Guard or the Red Cross.

Most of the refugees say they are Syrians or Palestinians who have arrived from Syria seeking safe haven from the war in that country. The refugees are transferred to special facilities where they wait for a few days. They say the long arm of the smugglers reaches right into those facilities; representatives of the smugglers sign papers releasing them from the facilities, and then onward to their destinations. Some want to leave Italy for another country where they have relatives.

One Gaza resident, who had planned on leaving the Strip in the next few days, told Haaretz he had changed his mind after he heard about the drownings. People hear about how to leave Gaza by word of mouth, he said. “Some people came and told about the good life and the normal conditions and of course ...anywhere in Europe is better than here. Whether you get through the whole trip safely depends on what kind of luck you have.”

The Gaza resident said one woman survivor of the ship that sank off the coast of Alexandria said Egyptian smugglers had rammed it and that they saw people were drowning and offered no help. “But I don’t think even such a terrible incident will stop the phenomenon because people are completely desperate and want to leave. They say clearly it’s better to die at sea than die of despair and frustration in Gaza,” the resident said.

The Palestinian Authority yesterday warned Palestinians to be wary of the smugglers. But the government cannot act against those who flee because its security forces don’t have control over the smuggling routes, which are in the hands of influential people who are close to the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip.

A boat off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt. At least 15 Palestinians fleeing Gaza drowned on Saturday when their boat sank nearby. Credit: Reuters
UN High Commissioner for Refugees special envoy Angelina Jolie on a patrol boat off the coast of Malta, where hundreds of migrants, including many Gazans, drowned last week. Credit: Reuters

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