Gazan’s death abroad shines light on middle-class exodus

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In this Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019, photo, relatives of Palestinian activist Tamer Sultan, 38 years old, mourn next to a picture of him on a wall in his family home during his funeral in the town of Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip. (AP)
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In this Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, photo, luggage of Palestinian travelers on the ground in from of the main gate of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, southern Gaza Strip. (AP)
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In this Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019 photo, relatives of Palestinian activist Tamer Sultan, 38 years old, set a picture of him in the middle of flowers during his funeral at his family home in the town of Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip. (AP)
Updated 08 September 2019

Gazan’s death abroad shines light on middle-class exodus

  • Sultan has left, following in the footsteps of thousands of other educated, middle-class Palestinians
  • The exodus has gathered pace in recent years

GAZA CITY: With a family of five, a two-story home and a pharmacy, Tamer Al-Sultan had a life many in the besieged and impoverished Gaza Strip would envy, but he still felt trapped.
Fed up with the heavy-handed rule of Hamas, Al-Sultan braved a treacherous journey in hopes of starting a new life in the West — only to die along the way. His death has drawn attention to the growing exodus of middle-class Gazans who can no longer bear to live in the isolated coastal territory.
It has also struck a nerve among many Palestinians because he appears to have fled persecution by Hamas, rather than the territory’s dire economic conditions following a 12-year blockade by Israel and Egypt, imposed when the Islamic militant group seized power.
Al-Sultan had vented about Hamas’ rule on social media and joined rare protests against a Hamas tax hike in March that were quickly and violently suppressed. Amin Abed, a friend who was arrested with Al-Sultan on three occasions over the protests, said they were doused with cold water and beaten with plastic whips.
So Al-Sultan left, following in the footsteps of thousands of other educated, middle-class Palestinians. The exodus has gathered pace in recent years, raising fears that Gaza could lose its doctors, lawyers, teachers and thinkers, putting the Palestinians’ dream of establishing a prosperous independent state in even greater peril.
He had planned to go to Belgium, where he had relatives, and bring his family after gaining refugee status. But his journey ended in Bosnia, where he died last month at the age of 38.
The exact cause of his death is not known. A purported hospital report from Bosnia circulated online says he had blood cancer, but the document has not been authenticated, and his family says he was in good health prior to the journey.
“He left Gaza because of the oppression,” his brother, Ramadan Al-Sultan, said at the family’s home in the northern town of Beit Lahiya. Mourners at the funeral last month marched with the yellow flags of the rival Fatah movement and chanted “Out, Out!” when Hamas supporters showed up.
Palestinians have long seen their steadfastness in remaining on the land as their best hope for one day gaining independence from Israeli military rule, and both the Western-backed Palestinian Authority and its rival Hamas are opposed to emigration. Hamas cleric Salem Salama recently issued a fatwa, or religious edict, against emigration, saying “those who leave our homeland with the intention of not coming back deserve the wrath of God.”
There is no official count of the number of Palestinians who have emigrated from Gaza. Israel does not control Rafah, the main exit point, and Hamas and Egypt do not track such figures.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says 104,600 Palestinians left Gaza in 2018 and 2019 and 75,783 returned. But it’s not clear whether all of the roughly 30,000 net departures are emigrants. Many Gazans leave for extended periods to study or work abroad, with the intention of returning.
“It’s certain that thousands have taken advantage of the opportunity to exit Gaza in the hopes of finding a better future, away from the poverty and feeling of hopelessness at home,” says Gisha, an Israeli rights group that advocates for Palestinian freedom of movement.
There is no official resettlement program, so many Palestinians resort to informal routes. Al-Sultan took one of the more popular ones.
He left through the Rafah crossing, which Egypt has kept open on a regular basis since May 2018 after years of largely restricting travel to humanitarian cases. From there, Al-Sultan went to Turkey, which welcomes Palestinian visitors. Then he took a rickety boat to Greece and worked his way up through the Balkans.
The International Organization for Migration says 1,177 Palestinians have crossed from Turkey to Greece by sea since the start of the year, the fourth most crossings by nationality. Over the past year, at least six Gazans have died on that route, including Al-Sultan, according to local media reports.
While Al-Sultan left to escape Hamas, many others have fled poverty and isolation. The blockade, along with Palestinian infighting , has devastated the local economy. More than half of Gaza’s labor force is unemployed and some 80 percent rely on food assistance. Daily power cuts last for several hours, and the tap water is undrinkable.
Mohammed Nassir graduated with a degree in information technology three years ago and opened a computer shop in his hometown of Beit Hanoun, but soon went out of business. He found a part-time job at an advertising company, but the firm shut down two months later.
Last week he waited outside the Rafah crossing, hoping his name would be called so he could board one of the three buses Egypt allows in every day.
“There is nothing left for us here,” he said. “No work, no present, no future, and above all, no hope.”
His uncle lives in Germany and is working on getting him a visa to travel there. Until then, he intends to sojourn in Egypt.
“If things don’t work out, I don’t know what I will do. But any place would be better than Gaza,” he said.
At the other end of the long and uncertain journey is Karim Nashwan, a prominent lawyer who left Gaza with his family in 2016 after his children graduated from university and now lives outside Brussels. He says he wishes he had left even earlier.
“My children decided to leave, and I agreed with them. They have no jobs, no safety, no future and no life in Gaza,” he said in a phone interview.
His wife and five children risked everything to travel the Turkey-Greece route before eventually flying onward to Belgium. He was able to join them later by traveling to Belgium legally under a family reunification program.
“The children learned the language and are integrating in the society,” he said. “We lost hope in Gaza.”


US warns Iraq of Baghdad embassy closure if attacks continue

Updated 28 September 2020

US warns Iraq of Baghdad embassy closure if attacks continue

  • US reacts to ongoing rocket fire from Iranian-supported groups on or near the vast US Embassy compound in Baghdad
  • Closing the facility, which is by physical size the largest US diplomatic mission in the world, would be a complex and time-consuming process

BAGHDAD: The Trump administration has warned Iraq that it will close its embassy in Baghdad if the government does not take swift and decisive action to end persistent rocket and other attacks by Iranian-backed militias and rogue armed elements on American and allied interests in the country, US, Iraqi and other officials said Monday.
As news of the warning sent shockwaves across Baghdad, Iraq’s military said a Katyusha rocket hit near Baghdad airport, killing five Iraqi civilians and severely wounding two others.
A US official said the administration’s warning was given to both Iraq’s president and prime minister but that it was not an imminent ultimatum. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The warning signals the administration’s increasing frustration and anger with ongoing rocket fire from Iranian-supported groups on or near the vast US Embassy compound in Baghdad as it steps up pressure on Iran with the re-imposition of crippling sanctions. However, closing the embassy and withdrawing US personnel from Baghdad would signal a significant retreat from a country in which successive administrations have invested massive amounts of money and lives.
The threat to evacuate the embassy, which has stoked concerns in Baghdad of a diplomatic crisis, was first delivered to President Barham Saleh on Tuesday in a phone call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Iraqi officials said. Pompeo then repeated the warning to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi on Saturday, the officials said.
Pompeo told Saleh that if the US presence continues to be targeted, measures would be taken to close the embassy and a “strong and violent” response would follow against the groups responsible for the attacks, according to three Iraqi officials with knowledge of the call.
Pompeo went further with Al-Kadhimi on Saturday, telling the prime minister that the US will initiate plans to withdraw from the embassy, according to the Iraqi officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
An official announcement has not been made by the Americans. But the Trump administration has not been shy about expressing its anger and concern about continuing rocket attacks by Iranian-backed groups on or near the embassy compound.
In a tangible sign of a strain in US-Iraq relations, the State Department shortened an Iran sanctions waiver deadline by 60 days last week. The previous waiver, crucial for Iraq to import badly needed Iranian gas to meet power demands, gave the government 120 days.
Without the waiver, Iraq would suffer crippling sanctions barring it access to US dollars.
Despite comments from US officials that a deadline on closing the embassy is not in place, Iraqi officials appeared to be under the impression they have until the waiver expires in two months’ time to take action.
“America will observe what measures the government of Iraq takes within two months,” one senior Iraqi official said. During this time, Al-Kadhimi’s administration must halt the targeting of foreign missions, military installations and logistics convoys destined for the US-led coalition or else, “aggressive” action would follow, the official said.
Iraq’s leadership is feeling the heat.
Al-Kadhimi, Saleh and Parliament Speaker Mohamed Al-Halbousi held a meeting late Sunday in which all three leaders said they supported measures to bring arms under the authority of the state and to prevent the targeting of diplomatic missions.
So far, Iraqi authorities have redistributed some security forces inside the Green Zone.
The Iraqi officials also said two factors might determine whether Iraq’s leadership can walk back from an impending diplomatic crisis: Security fallout from protests planned in the coming weeks to mark one year since mass anti-government demonstrations began, and domestic politics inside the US ahead of the November federal election.
“We expect large crowds,” said one official of the protests. “And we expect it will impact American thinking.”
Two Western diplomats said they had been informed that the US has started the process of closing its sprawling facility inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, but could not provide details. The US Embassy declined to comment.
Closing the facility, which is by physical size the largest US diplomatic mission in the world, is expected to be a complex and time-consuming process. The embassy was already functioning at minimum levels since March due to the coronavirus and ongoing security threats.
Diplomats were told the US had already started the process of closing but would “re-evaluate while progressing,” one Western official said, suggesting the decision was reversible if security inside the Green Zone improved. In 2018, Pompeo ordered the closure of the US consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Basra due to attacks by Iranian-backed militias.
As a member of Congress, Pompeo had been a strong critic of the Obama administration and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the deadly attack on US diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. He is loathe to see a repeat of such an attack on his watch, according to current and former US officials. In addition, Trump has been clear about his desire to reduce the US presence in the Mideast, although he has focused primarily on the military.
However, closing the embassy after the massive US investment of lives and money in Iraq since 2003 would likely draw significant criticism from Trump allies in Congress, including lawmakers who supported the invasion and ouster of Saddam Hussein. Ahead of November’s election, it is not clear if Trump would be willing to invite that criticism.
The State Department declined to comment on the calls between Pompeo and Iraq’s leadership, but said the US will not tolerate threats.
“We have made the point before that the actions of lawless Iran-backed militias remains the single biggest deterrent to stability in Iraq,” the department said. “It is unacceptable for Iran-backed groups to launch rockets at our embassy, attack American and other diplomats, and threaten law and order in Iraq.”
Meanwhile, attacks targeting convoys continue.
On Monday, five Iraqi civilians were killed and two severely wounded after a Katyusha rocket hit near Baghdad airport, Iraq’s military said. The rocket may have been targeting the international airport but struck a residential home close by instead, Iraqi security officials said, requesting anonymity in line with regulations.
Also on Monday, a roadside bomb targeted a convoy carrying materials destined for US forces southwest of Baghdad, two Iraqi security officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.