Overview September 2019

Palestinians fleeing the Gaza Strip on fishing boats to escape Jewish militias in 1948, Photo UNRWA

Palestinians fleeing the Gaza Strip on fishing boats to escape Zionist militias in 1948, Photo UNRWA

In the month of September 2019 Staat van Beleg could list 864 human rights violations (and 145 reports/ analyses). (see our archive). This month we write about the tragic fate of Palestinians that took the risk to escape their desperate situation and the Israeli occupation in the hope to find a better life abroad.

– Nederlandse tekst hier –

On 19 August we read in an article of The Times of Israel that according to a senior Israeli official Israel is actively promoting the emigration of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, and is working to find other countries who may be willing to absorb them. Israel is ready to carry the costs of helping people from Gaza emigrate, and would even be willing to consider allowing them to use an Israeli air field close to Gaza to allow them to leave for their new host countries. European and Middle Eastern countries had been approached by Israel to accept people from Gaza who want to leave the Strip, but none had agreed to absorb them.

With all what is taking place in the occupied territories and besieged Gaza we will not be surprised if the normalization of Palestinian displacement is a next step in the colonial project of the Israeli government. But we also wouldn’t be surprised when this statement was staged in the electoral battle in the run-up to the presidential election. For Palestinians both scenario’s will be experienced as a huge humiliation. The first scenario since it seems to ignore the Palestinian right of return, enshrined in international law. The second scenario since Palestinians that are not allowed to travel, to return, to have their own means of international transport are abused to attract voters. They are falsely given the impression of being permitted to legally travel from an Israeli airport.

Palestinians will not only experience feelings of humiliation. When we think of the Nakba in 1948 and in the following decades the risks Palestinians took to flee the occupation, which often resulted in death, we are talking about unimaginable feelings of grief. To illustrate this harrowing attempts in which Palestinians fled their homeland in despair in search of a better life we will take you on their journeys. We will follow their trails of escape, fleeing from one country to another. Many of them ended up in areas of conflict, deprived of human rights, not being welcome and often mistreated. We will also talk about the many Palestinians that drowned and ended up in the seabed.


Trails of fleeing Palestinians

It is very difficult to obtain total numbers of Palestinians that have died during their flight to other countries. We are talking about different refugee flows of Palestinians that were forced to flee during conflicts or from countries where they were not being registered. Lots of Palestinians ended up in the seabed and went missing. Their deaths can not officially being confirmed. What we can do is showing the immensely efforts of Palestinians in search of a safe haven that often resulted in a lonely dead. With the numbers that are given we will get a slight idea. We will here by way of illustration portray two of these trails.

Yarmouk is one of the 11 Syrian camps which were home to the 500,000 Palestinian refugees who fled during the 1948 Nakba and subsequent wars. Before the Syrian war there were 160,000 Palestinians living in the camp. In 2015 when Yarmouk was under control of ISIS there were 18,000 people, including Palestinians, living in the camp. The majority of camps in Syria have been completely destroyed, with possibly only two or three functioning camps left. During this time of war Palestinian refugees from Syria payed thousands of dollars trying to reach Europe by sailing in “boats of death” across the Mediterranean. Refugees, who typically pay thousands of dollars for the dangerous journey, have a 50 percent chance of dying at sea, It is believed that 7,250 Palestinians refugees have died in these boats (numbers of 2015). Others tried to flee to Lebanon over land where they were denied entry. On the other hand “Action Group of Palestinians in Syria “ has documented the death of 3,987 Palestinian refugees in Syria, including women and children, since 2011, as a result of war-related incidents.

Palestinian refugees shown queuing for food supplies in the Yarmouk refugee camp in 2014 ( AP )

Palestinian refugees shown queuing for food supplies in the Yarmouk refugee camp in 2014 ( AP )

Often the trail didn’t stop by the death in a rickety boat. Many of these refugees ended up in a ‘stopover’ often directed by their traffickers. One of these ‘stopovers’ is Egypt. What we see here is that Palestinians in their efforts to escape an unlivable place became more and more vulnerable and dependent on the good will of others, deprived of human rights. In November 2013 Human Rights Watch released a report, “Egypt: Syria Refugees Detained, Coerced to Return,” detailing the systematic abuses of Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Egypt. The report stated that “Egypt has detained over 1,500 refugees from Syria, including at least 400 Palestinians and 250 children as young as two months old, for weeks and sometimes months. Security officials have acknowledged that the refugees will be held indefinitely until they leave the country. Palestinian refugees from Syria are especially vulnerable because Egyptian policy prevents them from seeking protection from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), contrary to UNHCR’s mandate under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Egyptian authorities tell detained Palestinians that their only alternative to indefinite detention is to go to Lebanon, where they are only permitted to legally enter on a 48-hour transit visa, or to return to war-torn Syria. The report goes on to detail several instances of the life-and-death choices Palestinians face in Egypt, including embarking on rickety boats in the hope of reaching a country that would give them shelter. According to Human Rights Watch, some 300,000 Syrians are in Egypt, of whom 125,000 have been registered as refugees by UNHCR. In short, Palestinians that fled during the Nakba to Syria in 1948 and after, had to fled from another catastrophe. Some of them ended up in Egypt where they were forced to be detained unless they could obtain a 48-hour transit visa to Lebanon or to return to a war-torn Syria. As a result many of them fled Egypt in rickety boats.

The next trail we follow is of a group of Palestinians that basically traveled around the world looking for shelter. In June 2012 more than two dozen Palestinian refugees forced out of Iraq after the US invasion were feared lost at sea, including entire family groups with young children. They were among dozens of people aboard rickety boats that left Indonesia in late June that year bound for Australia. On the “Australian Border Deaths Database” it is mentioned on the date of 14 August 2012 “that a boat was known to have left Indonesia on June 28 and there is no evidence to show this boat arrived in Australia. 67 passengers on board. Palestinians including at least 1 child, lost at sea en route to Australia”. In the Database are high numbers of casualties listed with unknown nationalities.

The Palestinians were among hundreds who had made circuitous journeys over many years from Iraq to Jordan and then to Cyprus where their asylum applications were rejected and they faced harsh conditions. After reaching Cyprus, some set out for Malaysia, where it is possible under certain conditions for Palestinians to go without visas, and then onwards to Indonesia where people smugglers are paid to take them to Australia by boat.

Palestinians in Iraq faced violence and persecution after the 2003 US invasion. They were collectively blamed without any evidence for suicide bombings that were part of Iraq’s post-invasion sectarian civil war. Many spent years stranded at the Iraq-Jordan border. The grandparents of those missing were forced to flee their homes in the cities of Acre and Haifa in 1948 after the creation of Israel. After years of hardships, roaming from refugee camp to refugee camp in the Middle East, these families arrived, penniless and stateless, in Iraq.

Osama Qashoo, a film maker and human rights advocate rightly raises the questions: “What happened to the boats? Why did they sink? Did they sink? Why the silence in the media about such a tragedy which usually sparks front pages and comment pieces about asylum seekers and the status of refugees?” Qosama was right about the silence in the media since we never heard of it again.  And there are more questions. Before the American invasion in 2003 there were around 30,000 Palestinian refugees living in Iraq and after the invasion only 4,000. What happened to the 26,000 Palestinian refugees? In this report of the Palestinian Return Centre some answers are given but as we may conclude it is hardly possible to register all these refugee flows to different camps and countries.

Members of the Milhim family who are among those feared lost at sea. Picture source:  Electronic Intifada

Members of the Milhim family who are among those feared lost at sea. Picture source: Electronic Intifada


More deaths and disasters

Human rights activists in Gaza believe around 30,000 of Gaza’s population of two million have tried to leave the 145 sq. mile (375 sq. km) territory in the past decade, with a surge in numbers after a 50-day war in 2014. Why do people emigrate from the Gaza strip? Put simply, in order to escape the harsh outcomes of the strict and illegal Israeli blockade which has been in place for 13 years. In 2014 when lots of people fled Gaza most of them left through the tunnels and reach the Egyptian side of Rafah and from there they continue to Port Said. At that time people had to pay between $3500 to $4000 dollars a person for the trip.

The latest victims are Tamer al-Sultan and Saleh Hamad. Tamer al-Sultan (38), a father of three young kids, passed away last August while seeking freedom and a safe future for his family. According to family sources, Tamer’s last weeks were spent among the forests in Bosnia were he sustained several injuries. An injury in his left hand evolved into gangrene before he was hospitalized. His health condition deteriorated before he died in a hospital in Bosnia. On 10 September it was reported that Saleh Hamad (22), who went missing for 3 weeks, was found by the authorities in Bosnia, after he tried to immigrate to Europe to escape the dire conditions in the besieged Gaza Strip. The family said it was officially informed that its son drowned to death.

Here we find the tragic story of Malak Abu Jazar (11) who died in October 2018 while drowning in the sea near Bodrum, Turkey.

The above mentioned were only some of the latest isolated cases that reached the media but there were also major disasters at sea. In October 2013 Palestinian and Syrian refugees were buried by Italian authorities in nameless graves because their families could not collect their bodies. A total of 206 Syrians and Palestinians were rescued and dozens of bodies were recovered from a ship that sank near Sicily on 11 October en route to Europe from Libya. The number of missing victims amounts to over 200, consistent with the estimates made by the Maltese authorities.

In the same month on 2 October 2013, 360 persons, mostly Eritreans and Somalis, died when their boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Three dozen Palestinians were also among the dead in this earlier disaster.

In September 2014 The Palestinian Embassy in Greece reported that a 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.

In the same week at least 15 Palestinians drowned when another ship sank off the Egyptian coast near Alexandria in Egypt.

In September 2017 at least 50 Palestinian refugees from Syria drowned at sea as they embarked on a journey fraught with danger to Europe. A number of casualties died off the Libyan seashore on way to Italy while others sunk in Marmara waters as they tried to disembark in Greece.


“It’s better to die at sea than to die of despair and frustration in Gaza”

Resident of Gaza.


In Conclusion

It is clear that we cannot obtain exact numbers of Palestinians that died during their flight to a safe haven and freedom. Important to highlight is that we only described two ‘trails’, three isolated cases and five disasters in a time span of eight years. We did not mention the overcrowded refugee camps in several countries where Palestinian refugees are residing, many since the very early years of the Nakba. Many of these Palestinians died an early dead because of the dire living conditions in these camps, deprived of proper food, housing, healthcare and security. Also we did not mention the concentration and labor camps where many Palestinians died.

Painting of a Palestinian refugee camp at Nahr al-Barid in northern Lebanon, winter 1948 / By Anis Hamedeh - 2008

Painting of a Palestinian refugee camp at Nahr al-Barid in northern Lebanon, winter 1948 / By Anis Hamadeh – 2008

Now we can also better understand why Israel violently oppresses the weekly “Great March of Return” in Gaza. On 14 May 2018 alone Israeli snipers killed 59 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip as Great Return March protests culminate ahead of the 70th Nakba commemoration. Israel doesn’t want Palestinians to return to their homeland. And for the Palestinians living in the occupied territories and besieged Gaza, they can suffer and starve or leave to never return.

We may rightfully determine that Palestinians that have died during their escape or in miserable refugee  camps contribute to the extermination of Palestinians in general.

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