Last week, an overcrowded, unseaworthy dinghy lacking any navigational tools capsized between the Greek island of Kos and Turkey’s Bodrum resort. Eleven Gazans on board were stranded at sea for two hours in pitch darkness until eight of them were arrested by Turkish coastguard and brought to shore.
A brief audio recording from one of the survivors, Yahia Barbakh, has been the talk of town since. "Mom, it’s Yahia. Me, Boji and Al-Hinjir’s son were dying at sea. We were drowning for two hours," he says, in a tearful, terrified voice. "The police took us, and Abu Adham’s dead. He drowned, mom…the fish ate him. He’s gone."
The Gazan passengers on this death boat had been stuck in Turkey for months living in harsh conditions, unable to obtain a residence permit that would allow them to find work and earn a living, cash-strapped and dependent on meager handouts borrowed from friends and neighbors.
In an earlier audio message from Yahia, he told his mother, crying, that he’s "exhausted," "tired" and "burned down" by his attempted escape. "I want to return to Gaza. I swear. Gaza’s better for me."
None of those young men chose to leave Gaza: they were forced to. They would never have left their loved ones had they had even the weakest flickering chance of even a barebones subsistence.
But 15 years of a draconian Israeli siege, punctuated by periodic military assaults, along with 14 years of intra-Palestinian division, Hamas’ repressive rule and PA indifference, have completely hollowed the life out of Gaza and rendered its hopelessly caged youth unemployable and despondent. The only options left for Gaza’s immiserated population are to drown at sea, or be suffocated by debts, humiliation, despair, fear and want.
It is now the norm in the beleaguered enclave to see highly educated engineers, nurses or accountants, who have reached their mid-thirties but have never been able to provide for themselves, never fallen in love, not started a family and never really tasted life at all.
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It’s almost customary to see young men and women limping in every corner and street, who lost arms and legs from Israeli snipers during the protests at the Gaza-Israel border, known as the Great March of Return.
And it is no longer extraordinary to read in the news about someone attempting suicide. In the last ten days alone, three young Gazans from Rafah, Khan Younis and Beit Hanoun took their lives. Such dark thoughts have crossed the minds of most people I know in Gaza.
That’s what compels many Gazans to knowingly embark on such a lethal journey. The Palestinians who are risking their lives to escape are choosing the last path they know to prove they still have agency.
What other options are there? If they turn to the borders, Israel will shoot them dead. If they turn to the Egyptians, they would be confronted by extortion: a demand for astronomical bribes to simply live, but not work, in Egypt, and subject to deportation at any minute. If they turn to the Palestinian Authority, they won't be heard: Abbas is playing deaf. If they turn to the street against Hamas, they would be violently dispersed.
And all of this is happening amidst the shameful inaction and acquiescence of governments in the U.S., Europe and the Arab world.
To make things worse, around the same time of the refugee tragedy at sea, a particularly pointed photo leaked from the wedding of a moderate Hamas leader's son went viral. It showed the groom’s 22-year-old sibling, Mohammed, gifting the couple two plane tickets from Cairo to the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, along with a full stay at the 4-star Domina Coral Bay.
Ironically, Mohammed’s father heads Gaza’s Ministry of Social Affairs, which oversees financial aid to poor families. Although the father is thought of as decent, pious, and philanthropic, his son – like the children of many Hamas leaders – has been accused of relishing a lavish lifestyle.
Two years ago, a similar controversy erupted around the same son, spurred by footage of his birthday featuring expansive tables of food some of which was used for a food fight. It was an otherworldly, profligate and debauched scene for most Gazans.
The juxtaposition of these two incidents, death boat and extravagance, prompted the widespread contention that there are two Gazas; one for the spoiled kids of apathetic Hamas leaders, accessorized with SUVs, the latest iPhones, flashy parties and jaunts to Istanbul and Cairo; and one for the rest, of hunger and hopelessness, targeted by predators both literal and political on land and at sea.
There are two blockades; one that impoverished already poor Gazans, and one that enriched the Hamas elite. The sons of Hamas leaders are rarely unemployed; they are never seen standing in queues for UNRWA food stamps and they never board death boats.
Israel’s government undoubtedly loves to exploit the Hamas clique's images of corrupt and conspicuous consumption in Gaza to divert blame from its brutal siege and to hamper international funding to Gaza, by insinuating that the only reason for Gaza’s unparalleled unemployment and skyrocketing poverty rates is because "Hamas steals aid."
The truth, however, is that Hamas leaders who have become richer today owe this in great part to Israel’s siege, and to the intra-Palestinian division. Both have left Hamas in sole charge of Gaza for 15 years, unchallenged by rivals, having disabled the political opposition's ability to unseat it by democratic elections, or to hold it accountable.
While hurting the population severely, Israel’s blockade has empowered Hamas. It lends credence to its monopoly on resistance, gives it a pretext to suppress opponents, to brand critics as agents of Israel (or Ramallah), and to divert criticism away from its repressive and dysfunctional government.
All this means Hamas wins further immunity, let along substantial assistance, from the Muslim world. Israel’s collective punishment of Gaza spurs substantial sympathy towards Hamas’ platform and rhetoric and prompts donations to the movement that is then framed as the defender and avenger of Gaza (and, more recently, of Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa).
Crucially, Israel’s arbitrary restrictions and sanctions have prevented Gaza’s reconstruction and infrastructure development while incapacitating most of its private sector, which could have offered at least a rudimentary alternative power center or source of pushback to Hamas.
But sanctions have done the opposite, by further empowering Hamas, which has skillfully mastered ways to smuggle what it needs to Gaza and to grow numerous business activities at home and abroad to generate revenue and to fund its patronage system.
It’s entirely preposterous to live in a situation where it’s way easier for Hamas to receive cash from Qatar through Israel in cartoonish money bags than for a local business to import chocolates, knock-off cargo gloves, or low-quality water pumps, all of which Israel has recently confiscated under the pretext of fighting terrorism.
The division between Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza has similarly given Hamas the convenient pretext of Mahmoud Abbas’s sanctions on which to hang all blame. Alongside the siege, that division has contributed to cutting Gaza off from the world, depriving it of an internationally recognized government, subject to international anti-money laundering regulations or anti-corruption mechanisms.
This helped create a black market economy that’s far easier for Hamas than most other actors to both navigate and thrive in, including access to weaponry. It’s easier to get an RPG on the black market than to legally import construction materials under Israel’s incapacitating Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism.
The outcome is that Gazan children, women, and young people are hit hardest by Israel’s blockade and by the absence of Palestinian unity. They are hitting one rock bottom after the other, in a slum of endless torments.
It is Hamas that has learned to adapt and thrive in this environment, and tragically it is Gaza’s grassroots activists and youth, who could have challenged Hamas’ rule, who are desperately seeking an escape route out, despite knowing the price it could exact from them.
Reversing this trend does not require rocket science, but it does require the good faith of common sense and a genuine commitment to the basic human right to life.
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2