For some of Gaza’s jobless, Israel is not that hostile territory
GAZA CITY - Braving the wind on a cold February morning, 17-year-old Jamal Musleh set off from the Gaza Strip to try to sneak into Israel. He did not plan to attack Israelis but was seeking work to help his father provide for their family of eight.
“Sneaking from Gaza into Israel needs a strong heart,” Musleh said. “The horrible living conditions here, such as the high unemployment and poverty, force young men like me to look for better opportunities, even if that means in Israel.”
Musleh is one of more than 200 young Palestinian men who have tried to cross Gaza’s border into Israel this year, according to Palestinian statistics. The number was similar the past three years.
Gaza has been under a crippling Israeli embargo since Hamas took control of the territory by force in 2007. The Israeli siege includes strict monitoring of Gaza-bound imports and bans the travel of its residents. Israel has fought three wars against Gaza since the Hamas takeover, with the latest in July 2014 that left more than 2,000 Palestinians and 71 Israelis dead.
Since many Arabs refuse to deal with Hamas, Gaza has become isolated. Iran halted financial aid to Hamas, which is believed to be one of Tehran’s main Arab supporters, after the militant group took sides against Syrian President Bashar Assad, a longtime Iranian ally.
Subsequently, Gaza unemployment hit a record 50%, while poverty afflicts more than 70% of the population.
With a ban on travel to the West Bank and tunnels, once used for smuggling goods, escaping and launching attacks on Israel, under the border to Israel and Egypt sealed off, Gaza residents think Israel is their best available option out of their predicament.
That thinking was reflected in a 2014 poll, conducted by a Palestinian pollster for David Pollock, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The results indicated that the average Palestinian man wanted a steady job in Israel, not war with it. More than 70% of 450 respondents said they wished Israel would open its borders so they could go there to work.
Musleh said he arrived at a deserted area along Gaza’s 40-kilometre-long fence with Israel, crossing on foot and walking for two hours before the Israeli Army picked him up.
“They saw me on monitoring cameras, which I failed to notice when I surveyed the area earlier for two months,” he said.
Musleh said the Israelis jailed him for five months, during which he was questioned several times. “Each time, Israeli police asked me if I was sent in by Hamas or another militant group to do something bad in Israel,” the teenager said.
“I was candid,” he said. “I told them that I was not a member of any militant group and nobody sent me to Israel, only our poverty.” The Israelis eventually let him go.
Musleh said that during interrogation he completely disengaged from politics, hiding his feelings towards Israel’s “crimes” against Gaza and its people. He maintained that he had no plans to attack Israel, just to work there.
“I told the police that the main reason that pushed me to sneak into Israel is the hard living conditions of my family and that I wanted to look for a job in Israel because there are no jobs in Gaza and life is very difficult there,” he said.
“I thought that in Israel, I can find a good job and I can earn a good income to help my family,” added Musleh, who dropped out of high school two years ago to support his father, a construction worker, who has been jobless for five years.
Musleh’s father, Karam, 45, said that he did not know his son was planning to sneak into Israel.
Abdul Nasser Ferwana of a Hamas-run department monitoring Gaza prisoners in Israel urged Palestinian security forces to clamp down on young men from Gaza sneaking into Israel. “This is becoming a phenomenon, with more than 200 people who went there and got arrested,” he said.
Ferwana said that the infiltrators were young males aged between 18 and 24.
Eyad al-Bozzom, spokesman of the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, said security has been beefed up along the Israeli border. “Our young men are getting hurt when Israeli border authorities shoot at them,” he said.
Bozzom dismissed that there was a rise in infiltrations and insisted that “the situation is under control”.
Essam Younis, director of the al- Mizan rights group in Gaza, said most of Gaza’s young men who head to Israel have nothing to lose. “They believe that life in an Israeli jail is better than in Gaza, which they see as a big jail, anyway,” he said.
Musleh said he will try again, claiming: “I’ll sneak in again and do what I want: work in Israel”.