- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Driven by fear of civil war and increasingly bleak economic prospects, Palestinians are fleeing their violence-wracked lands in growing numbers, and travel agents report brisk demand for visas to Cuba, one of the few places that welcomes Palestinians.

Many of the emigrants are skilled and educated, who are leaving behind an increasingly impoverished and fundamentalist society.

“What Israel couldn’t do by force,” said pollster Nader Said, “we were able to do with internal dispute, lack of leadership, accompanied by economic pressure and the siege on Gaza.”

The brain drain reverses a trend of the 1990s when, buoyed by peace prospects, thousands of well-to-do Palestinians returned from the diaspora to the West Bank and Gaza. They built homes and set up businesses.

Some 10,000 Palestinians emigrated between June and October and another 45,000 have made preparations to leave, said Ahmed Suboh, a Palestinian Foreign Ministry official.

Emigration from Gaza, in particular, has picked up.

Life in the fenced-in strip has become increasingly difficult since Israel’s pullout last year. Access to neighboring Egypt is easier, but crossing points into Israel have remained closed most of the time because of Israeli security concerns.

Palestinian rocket fire and the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier have unleashed Israeli military offensives. Deadly clashes between rival militias intensified after the Islamic militant group Hamas came to power in March, ousting the Fatah movement of moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Yesterday, Palestinian gunmen ambushed a Hamas commander outside a Gaza courthouse, forcing him to his knees and killing him gangland style. The slaying forced Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas to rush home from a trip abroad.

The attack was the latest in a wave of bloodshed that began Monday when unknown assailants gunned down the three young sons of a Fatah-allied security officer in Gaza City.

The World Bank estimates 70 percent of Gaza’s 1.4 million people live in poverty, defined as living on less than $2.30 a day. A recent poll indicated that the number of young Palestinians willing to leave if given a chance has jumped from 25 percent to 44 percent over two years.

Mohammed, a 25-year-old technician from Gaza City who would not give his last name for fear of repercussions, has a tourist visa to Italy, but plans to go on to Norway, counting on liberal laws that bar the deportation of asylum seekers.

“People don’t have money and we are on the verge of a civil war, which will be followed by a massive Israeli incursion,” he said of Gaza’s prospects.

Many countries make it difficult for the stateless Palestinians to obtain even tourist visas, because they often overstay them. But two popular destinations for Gazans are Canada, which still offers legal immigration, and Cuba, which imposes few restrictions on Palestinian travelers.

“Traveling to Cuba has become a fad,” said travel agent Mohammed Mouin.

Travel agencies arrange for fictitious invitations, hotel bookings and Cuban visas for their clients, a Palestinian security official said. The cost of the service has gone up from $200 to $1,500 because of the high demand and increasing risk, the official said.

Those with tourist visas to Cuba often get off in transit at a European airport, rip up their Palestinian travel document and seek asylum.

Businesses are also leaving.

More than 20, including clothing and plastic factories, have moved to Egypt or Jordan in the past six months — as many as in the previous six years — taking 12 percent of Gaza’s scarce jobs with them, according to Gaza’s Federation of Industries.

In September alone, 35 factory owners applied to relocate their machinery abroad, said Mohammed al-Kidwa, governor of Gaza City. Some who left came back because of the difficulties of doing business abroad.

Haidar al-Nimer, 45, who sold spare parts for cars with four of his brothers, moved to Tunisia in September and invested $100,000 in a new business there.

On a recent trip back to Gaza, Mr. al-Nimer said he left because of growing lawlessness in Gaza. “If you have a car accident, someone can come down and pull a gun at you,” he said.

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