More than 18,000 Gazans have rushed to join an exodus from the enclave since its border crossing with Egypt opened in mid-May. They sought to seize the opportunity to escape the bleakness of Gaza before the crossing closes again, for who knows how long.
But it's an exodus of the elite.
Most of those who are leaving aren’t ordinary Gazans, because getting out of Gaza requires financial resources, political networking, energy and initiative and - above all - somewhere to go to, in a world increasingly hostile towards immigrants. Hence, most Gazans who make it out are necessarily Gaza’s most resourceful, highly-educated, promising, accomplished, and sometimes wealthiest people.
The exit of these Gazans over the last few months constitute a clear attenuation of the territory's future: A mass brain drain and human capital flight.
On May 14, Egypt announced reopening its rarely-opened Rafah border crossing with Gaza. As death tolls of Gazan protesters at the Great March of Return peaked at 62, Egypt’s President Abdul-Fatah al-Sisi personally ordered the opening of the Rafah crossing, Gaza’s main gateway to the world. It would, he announced on May 14, remain open throughout the month of Ramadan. The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process called for further regular openings to "de-escalate the explosive atmosphere in Gaza."
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Such news resonated amongst the beleaguered and claustrophobic Gazan population.
Local sources estimate that about 100-160 doctors have made it out of Gaza lately, including medics and university professors pre-eminent and indispensable in their field. One of Gaza’s top doctors, Muntasir Ismael, a university professor and consultant surgeon at the European Gaza hospital who announced he was leaving for Qatar "for many years to come." Another Vascular Surgery department head in a main Gazan hospital – who was a significant figure in treating serious casualties from the border marches, has also left.
A senior Hamas leader scorned the doctors who left Gaza and demanded that Hamas follow Saddam Hussein's lead and "ban indispensable doctors from leaving." He went to say that when more than 4,000 Gazan protesters were seriously wounded by live fire and explosives, the departure of such critically-needed competences should be seen as a "great betrayal of medical principles” and an “abandonment of those in severe need."
Yet, after with some of the doctors who left and others staying in Gaza, they all concur that even these highly-charged appeals to their conscience wouldn't stop them leaving. They quite naturally felt they also needed to prioritize their own families' basic survival.
In addition to Gaza’s well-known catastrophic "living" conditions, highly-educated Gazans, not least doctors, if lucky enough to find a job by divine intervention, are still seriously underappreciated, grossly underpaid, and horribly overworked. Young doctors work for over 70 hours a week in return for a monthly salary of about $280, while senior doctors have, for months, received less than 40% of their salaries due to the Palestinian Authority's sanctions on Gaza.
Moreover, as many of the people I talked to stated, it’s almost taken for granted in Gaza that if you don't die from poverty, the next war on Gaza would do the job.
Hamas, Gaza’s de facto authority, persistently underestimates, ridicules, and dismisses this brain drain as unworthy of note. Yet at the same time, it does its best to incapacitate the maximum number of people from leaving, through stringent and inconsistent criteria governing who’s eligible to sign up for departure. Despite its protestations to the contrary, Hamas is deeply concerned about a depopulation of Gaza's most competent inhabitants, and getting the blame for it.
Paradoxically, the stricter Hamas’ criteria become, the less likely people who make it out feel about returning to such an oppressive regime, and the more people in Gaza are eager to leave.
Hamas leaders dismiss the numbers of emigrants as a "small fringe." However, had it not been for the Egyptian’s pre-specified capacity to process about 500 people a day (of which 400 are from an endless waiting list and about 100 "coordinated passages" – the result of bribes), the numbers would certainly have been far more shocking.
Almost everyone I know in Gaza, especially young people, either have made it out, or are desperately fantasizing about leaving. And young Hamas members are no exception; of the ten staffers I know at a senior Hamas leader’s office, seven have made it out, and the ones left, including the Hamas leader himself, long to get out, but are prisoners of their posts.
"People no longer discuss politics," a Hamas friend grudgingly observed about a city whose people used to almost talk about nothing else. He went on: "You hear nothing else in the streets other than dreams of traveling. Everyone is discussing ways to leave and destinations to pursue."
Turkey is a major destination for young people and families. It's gained that preference thanks to its relatively easy-to-obtain tourist visa, its supposedly hospitable and pro-Palestinian reputation that Gazans assume will make it easier to resettle there and start a new life, and its imagined gateway to "the promised lands" of Europe. A friend who works for a Gazan travel company informed me that they had received more than 3,000 visa applications for Turkey over the last week alone.
But getting past the Hamas filter is only the first barrier to leave; Egypt has actually stricter criteria than Hamas regarding who is allowed out of Gaza.
The Egyptian authorities deny departure to about 50 travelers each day, most of whom are Turkish visa holders. Paying your way on to the list of guaranteed "coordinated passages" is the only way to ensure maneuvering past both Hamas and Egypt. But that costs the exorbitant sum of $2000-$10,000 per person, paid to Egyptian intelligence through local dealers. That means many in Gaza are obsessed with finding a way to accumulate such an astronomical bribe.
The Gazans who seek to leave don't usually spend too much time thinking about the reality of life outside Gaza's “toxic slum" in which Gazans are necessarily “caged from birth to death,” in the words of UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein earlier this year. Most Gazans don’t have any conception of what world lies on the other side and how would they survive it.
Therefore, many are throwing themselves into the unknown – and are critically unprepared. A source at the Palestinian Embassy in Cairo, for instance, estimates that more than 16,000 Gazans are living illegally in Cairo alone; not allowed to work or obtain residence, unable to travel further, and terrified of having to return to Gaza.
Similarly, in Turkey, many Gazans have no option but to stay illegally beyond their tourist visa. They live a life of paranoia, trying to avoid security checkpoints in the streets, at which Arab-looking pedestrians are usually stopped and asked a single fateful question, to which the wrong answer might mean harassment, incarceration or deportation: "Are you Syrian?" Gazans are mostly let off the hook.
A Gazan friend was stopped and checked three times in one day, and the last time he was asked if he was Syrian, he sarcastically answered, "I wish if I had that honor." He was held for an hour in detention for his impertinence.
A few particularly well-connected and well-established Gazan families manage to obtain Turkish residence permits by purchasing properties and investments. Others try to enroll in public universities and language courses to obtain temporary residence permits while seeking almost non-existent pathways to Europe or part-time jobs.
They spend their time in a never-ending wait, usually with no means of making a living except eking out savings, relying on families back home, or if lucky, working in grossly underpaid black market jobs.
Young Gazans are thus caught in a miserable trap: pursuing virtually non-existent opportunities abroad or returning to the Gazan cage. Thus far, they still prefer to try their luck abroad; those who give in and return soon re-join the cycle of those trying to leave again.
"Gaza is nothing but a trap," I am told, unanimously, when I broach the idea of returning to Gaza even for a short visit. "Returning would be the worst decision you made in your entire life.You'll regret it so dearly that you'll think of nothing else but escaping again."
For a Gazan emigrant generation, the questions we now face are common to the millions of displaced people from the Mideast desperately searching for a place of rest in Europe: "Where can we escape to? Is there anywhere else that will let us call it home – perhaps indefinitely?"
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2