Thousands of Palestinians have fled the Gaza Strip clandestinely with the help of tunnel smugglers in recent months due to the war with Israel and the declining economy.
Their flight came to light over the past week with the sinking of two ships carrying Palestinians from Gaza — one off the coast of Malta last week, and the other off the coast of Egypt — and the drowning of hundreds of passengers.
According to Wednesday's daily Haaretz, the Palestinian Embassy in Greece reported that the ship that sank off the coast of Malta was carrying more than 450 passengers, most of them Gaza Palestinians. Other reports say the vessel was rammed intentionally by another ship run by rival smugglers.
The Gaza-based human rights group Adamir collected the names of more than 400 missing people. “No one knows where they are; the whole Gaza Strip is talking about it. It’s such a painful story, as if it’s not enough what happened in the last war and now another blow comes,” Adamir director Halil Abu Shamala told Haaretz, noting that most of the passengers were young people but that there were also whole families aboard.
At least 15 Palestinians drowned when another ship sank off the Egyptian coast near Alexandria on Saturday.
Abu Ahmed, who lost his son on that ship, explained to Haaretz that most of the Gazans leave through tunnels that originate in the southern Gaza town of Rafah and come out on the Egyptian side of Rafah.
One Gazan involved in such operations told Haaretz: “This trip costs between $3500 to $4000 dollars a person. It’s a relatively small tunnel; most of the big ones have been blocked by the Egyptians. People crawl dozens of meters and at the end of the tunnel on the Egyptian side of Rafah a minibus or other vehicle waits for them and takes them to Port Said.”
He added that Egyptian security officials are bribed to look the other way.
Haaretz heard testimony that the refugees board small boats, sometimes dozens per boat. Once they leave Egyptian territorial waters they switch to another boat that in most cases sails to Italy. The trip usually takes about a week.
One refugee told Haaretz that when the boat approaches the shore it issues a distress call and Italian navy and Red Cross ships pick them up. In other cases, people jump into the water with life jackets, and are rescued by the Coast Guard or the Red Cross.
Four tons of rubble
Meanwhile, the World Bank reported on Tuesday that the Palestinian economy is expected to contract for the first time in seven years in 2014, the result of the recent Gaza war, continued Israeli and Egyptian restrictions on Palestinian trade and a drop in foreign aid.
In a report issued ahead of a meeting next week of donor nations to the Palestinians on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, the bank predicted that the Palestinian economy would shrink 4% this year, ending a period of growth driven largely by international aid that began in 2007.
The downturn is expected to be sharpest in the war-battered Gaza Strip, with a projected drop of 15%, the bank said. According to the bank’s projections, the West Bank economy is likely to stagnate this year, with about 0.5% growth.
And another report issued Tuesday says Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip this summer left four million tons of rubble, five times more than in the last conflict between Israel and the Hamas-controlled enclave in 2012.
Clearing the millions of tons rubble would require $30 million in aid and take between six to eight months, according to the Environmental Education Center of the Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Lands.
A recent study by the Palestinian Authority estimated that Israeli bombings razed about 17,000 homes and reconstruction would cost about $7.8 billion, two and a half times Gaza's gross domestic product.