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More Palestinians Flee Homelands

Saturday, December 9, 2006

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(12-09) 10:42 PST GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) --

A technician armed with $7,000 in savings and a tourist visa plans to seek political asylum in Europe. Travel agents report a brisk demand for visas to Cuba, one of the few places that welcomes Palestinians. More than 20 factories have moved out of Gaza in recent months.

Driven by fear of civil war and increasingly bleak economic prospects, Palestinians are fleeing their violence-wracked lands in growing numbers. Many are skilled and educated, and are leaving behind an increasingly impoverished and fundamentalist society.

The brain drain reverses a trend of the 1990s when, fueled by peace hopes, thousands of well-to-do Palestinians returned from the diaspora to the West Bank and Gaza, building homes and setting up businesses.

Palestinians have emigrated in large numbers before, a response to decades of war, unrest and displacement, but Palestinian government officials fear this is a particularly strong wave.

The emigration is hurting Palestinian prospects for statehood, says pollster Nader Said. "What Israel couldn't do by force," he said, "we were able to do with internal dispute, lack of leadership, accompanied by economic pressure and the siege on Gaza."

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, citing reports from Palestinian missions abroad. He did not have comparisons to previous years or a breakdown of destination countries.

Emigration from Gaza, in particular, has picked up.

Life in the fenced-in strip has become increasingly difficult following 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 Hamas came to power in March, ousting the Fatah movement of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

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.

Although Palestinian society tends to stigmatize its emigrants as deserters, 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.

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

"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 and obtain citizenship by marrying nationals of their host countries.

Two popular destinations for Gazans are Canada, which still offers legal immigration, and Cuba, which imposes few restrictions on Palestinian travelers.

Those with tourist visas to Cuba often don't plan to go there. Instead, they get off in transit at a European airport, rip up their Palestinian travel document and seek asylum.

Travel agencies in Gaza 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.

Palestinian, Egyptian and European officials have begun to tighten restrictions in an attempt to stem the flow. Travel agent Mohammed Mouin said 65 of his clients with Cuban visas were sent back from Egypt, but that many more are trying. "Traveling to Cuba has become a fad," he said.

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, 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.

Mohammed Fares wants to join his two children studying in Egypt, and needs to sell his Gaza City gym and beauty parlor.

He's 52 and says: "I don't have any more time to waste."

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