35,000 Palestinians Left Gaza in 2018; Hamas Blocking Doctors From Leaving

Most of those departing were young, educated and relatively well-off, and mainly reach Europe via Turkey and then Greece

Palestinians wait at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, November 2017.
Wissam Nassar / dpa Picture-Alli

Some 35,000 Palestinians who left the Gaza Strip via Egypt last year haven’t returned, according to Israeli estimates, most of whom were young, educated and comparatively well-off.

Their main motive for leaving was Gaza’s dire economic situation.

Among them were 150 doctors employed at Gazan hospitals. Fear that this brain drain would continue led the Strip's Hamas government to bar physicians from leaving the territory.

>> Gazans' only way out is through Egypt – if they can afford it | Analysis

Most of those who leave go to Turkey, where local middlemen put them on boats to Greece. From there, they continue to other European countries. The dozens of refugees who died last month when their ship sunk off the Turkish coast included 13 Palestinians from Gaza.

In November 2017, Egypt opened its Rafah border crossing with Gaza for the first time in a decade, thereby enabling significant numbers of Palestinians to leave the territory. Until then, Gazans had been able to leave only in exceptional circumstances, when they obtained an Israeli permit to transit through Israel to Jordan. Many Gazans saw the opening of Rafah as an opportunity to get out and hastened to make use of it, fearing that it wouldn’t remain open for long.

According to data compiled by aid agencies affiliated with the United Nations, 60,907 Palestinians left Gaza via Egypt in 2018 and only 37,075 returned, a net exodus of around 23,800. But other sources provide different numbers, and Israel’s estimate is that around 35,000 Gazans left for good.

The cost of getting from Gaza to Turkey – the cheapest and most popular destination – is estimated at $4,000. The money is usually raised from relatives, who sometimes take out loans to finance the trip in the hope that the person who leaves will get a job in Europe and be able to send money home. The preferred final destinations are Germany and Sweden.

Hamas initially viewed Rafah’s opening as a source of income, since anyone who leaves must pay it to obtain a passport, visa and other documents. Additionally, an industry of bribes soon developed, in which anyone who sought to obtain the documents quickly had to pay Gazan government officials hundreds of dollars.

But in recent months, Hamas realized that Rafah’s opening had allowed educated members of the younger generation to leave and sought to stem the brain drain. In particular, due to Gaza’s collapsing health system, it decided to bar doctors from leaving.

Egypt also earns money from the Palestinians who leave, as they have to pay for the trip from Rafah to the airport. To pass through Rafah, they must present a plane ticket for the day of their arrival, and they are not allowed to stay anywhere in Egypt except the airport.

After rising steadily for a long period, Gaza’s unemployment rate recently edged downward, from 50.5 percent at the end of 2018 to 46.3 percent in the first quarter of 2019. This may be due to an increased supply of fuel entering the territory, which has enabled more hours of electricity and therefore longer working days that in turn allow employers to hire more people.

But according to various sources, the decline may also be due to a change in the conditions for receiving aid from Qatar. Under the new rules, aid recipients have to spend some time at various make-work jobs.

The average wage in Gaza remains unchanged, at 63 shekels ($17.60) for a full day’s work.

Among people aged 20 to 25, the unemployment rate is much higher than the average, approaching 70 percent. Additionally, there are some 150,000 unemployed Gazans with college degrees; other college graduates are working as peddlers or doing odd jobs. These young college graduates have trouble envisioning a future in Gaza and are therefore trying to leave at any price.

Gaza’s intensifying economic distress has also led to an increase in prostitution and in the use of hard drugs. Another growing social ill is begging. Hamas fears that the growing number of beggars is inflaming Gaza’s population against its government, so over the past few weeks, it has worked to remove beggars from city centers.

Suicide rates among young people, which had been on the rise, have leveled off. But this is widely thought to be due less to any improvement in their situation than to the weekly demonstrations along the Israeli border, during which they can face off with Israeli soldiers. If they are wounded at those demonstrations, they are guaranteed a stipend from Hamas. And if they’re killed, their families will get the money.