Geopolitics Military Affairs

Life in Gaza is about the choice between displacement and death. Only a fraction of Palestinians manage to escape

Bianka Niňajová

The Gaza Strip is currently the most isolated piece of land. Its inhabitants have been taken hostage by the radical government of the Islamist Hamas movement and have been the victims of attacks by the Israeli army. Current estimates speak of nearly two million Palestinian people who Israeli attacks have displaced. This is almost 85% of the total population of Gaza. The number of casualties on the Palestinian side has already exceeded 28,000 and tens of thousands more are injured. Houses and buildings are destroyed. Gaza officials claim that more than 50% of residential buildings have already been destroyed or damaged since the beginning of the conflict.  Food, water and fuel supplies are also limited. Humanitarian aid reaching the Strip is well below pre-war levels. The health system in Gaza is collapsing, attacks on medical infrastructure have reduced the number of functioning hospitals and the World Health Organisation warns of the spread of disease. The risk of famine is also increasing and many children are suffering from malnutrition. “Living conditions In Gaza are abysmal. People lack the basic necessities to survive, stalked by hunger, disease and death,” said the UN aid coordinator.

Months of fighting began in early October last year when Hamas militants stormed across the Gaza border into Israel, killing more than 1 200 people. Terrorists forcibly took a further 253 Israelis into Gaza territory, where many are still being held captive. The government in Israel immediately responded to the Hamas attacks with a massive military operation. The Israeli Defence Forces launched both an air and a ground invasion, and bombardments were also launched from the sea. The attacks initially concentrated on northern Gaza, particularly Gaza City and the tunnels underneath it, which Israel believed to be the centre of Hamas military operations. The government in Tel Aviv had warned Palestinians in advance of the planned attacks so that they could leave their homes in the north of the enclave in time to move to safe zones further south. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have left their homes in an attempt to protect their own lives are fleeing to the southernmost parts of Gaza, as far as the border with Egypt. However, the intense bombardment of recent days has shown that even here the Palestinians are no longer safe. More than half of Gaza’s original 2.3 million inhabitants are crowded into the city. Some shelter in hospitals or makeshift shelters, but thousands sleep on the streets.

The situation is critical and there are few options for saving the Palestinians. The truth is that escaping Gaza to safety is almost impossible these days. The Gaza Strip is a 41 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide area stretching between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. In the north, the Gaza Strip borders with Israel, which controls not only the common Erez border but also the airspace and the movement of people and goods. On the opposite, southern, 12-kilometre border between Gaza and Egypt lies the town of Rafah, often referred to as a rescue area for the people of Gaza. It is an important link to the outside world and plays a key role in evacuations and the delivery of humanitarian aid. However, the border crossing is not open daily. Due to the blockade imposed on Gaza by Iran back in 2007, the border is rarely open to Palestinians. It is even said that in the last ten years, the border between Gaza and Egypt has been closed more than it has been open.

In the current situation, the Rafah border is the only possible way out of war-torn Gaza for the Palestinian people. But leaving the Strip is far from easy. Anyone wishing to cross the Rafah crossing must first register with the local Palestinian authorities. Those who can afford to pay more often try it through Egyptian officials. But UN information speaks of non-transparent procedures by the authorities on both sides. The process is lengthy, and people can wait weeks or even months for a permit. Desperate Palestinians also try through various brokers and couriers, to whom they pay huge sums of up to $ 10,000. This is supposed to be a coordination fee for brokers with links to Egyptian intelligence services. A Palestinian man claims to have paid $9,000 to get his wife and children on the list of people who can leave Gaza. On the day of departure, he was informed that his children were not on the list and so had to pay an additional fee of $3,000. The brokers are simply taking advantage of suffering people to get as much money as possible for their services. A network of brokers, based in Cairo that has been helping Palestinians leave Gaza for years was offering its services for $500 per person before the war. After the outbreak of the war, prices began to rise sharply. Some Palestinians even launched crowdfunding campaigns on social media to raise money to leave the Strip.

Egypt and Jordan, Arab countries that have taken in thousands of Palestinians in the past, are staying out of this war. They fear that Israel is seeking the permanent expulsion of Palestinians and the destruction of their demand for statehood in Gaza, which would mean that the displaced people would not be able to return after the war. In addition, 9 million refugees and migrants, including 300,000 Sudanese who fled the war, have already taken refuge in Egypt, where the economic crisis is currently raging. Egypt is also nervous about the idea that millions of people could flee to the Sinai Peninsula, which would pose an additional security threat if Hamas militants were to infiltrate the civilian population.  The relationship between Egypt and Hamas is tense. The Egyptian President condemns the actions of Hamas, which, incidentally, is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organisation and former opposition movement in Egypt. As a result of the mutual negotiations, only 1 100 Palestinians have so far crossed the Rafah crossing into Egypt. The easiest and quickest way out of Gaza to safety is for Palestinians who hold a foreign passport. But this often means leaving behind all their possessions, abandoning their loved ones and going into the unknown. There are also rare cases of Palestinians who have used the money they have saved to buy property in Turkey, obtain citizenship through an investment scheme and thus be free to leave.

Turkey is, together with Greece, the main destination in south-eastern Europe for fleeing Palestinians. Both countries are vocal opponents of Israel with strong ties to Palestine. In 2023, Turkey registered 18,113 Palestinians as irregular migrants. This is a threefold increase compared to 2022. In the first 18 days of 2024, Turkey has already registered 515 Palestinians. The Turkish government has also agreed to transfer several dozen injured Palestinians to Turkey for treatment. In the early days of the conflict, Erdogan used moderate language, but with the rising military power of the Israeli army, Turkey has clearly sided with the Palestinians. The Turkish president has described Hamas fighters as ‘freedom fighters’ and refers to Israeli actions as ‘genocide’. Erdogan hopes that such rhetoric will bring him more support, as the issue of support for Palestine also plays an important role in Turkey’s domestic politics. Statistics on how many Palestinian migrants in Turkey have received temporary or international protection are lacking.

Greece, which has long presented friendly relations towards Palestine, has for years been a popular destination for refugees from Palestine, especially its islands of Kos and Samos. But the fact is that the number of Palestinians in Greek refugee camps fell slightly from 3,000 to 2,100 between October last year and January. Nevertheless, Palestinians are the third largest group in Greece’s closed refugee centres. They are primarily young men who have come to Greece seeking international protection.Information in recent weeks has also suggested negotiations on “voluntary” resettlement of Palestinians from Gaza. Israel is reportedly in talks with several countries that would be willing to accept Palestinian migrants. The most frequently mentioned country is the African Congo. However, experts dare not predict how the war will turn out or what will ultimately happen to the thousands of homeless civilians. For most Gazans, life now seems to have become a stark choice between displacement and death.

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