Violence, politics cause Palestinians to look abroad
RAMALLAH, West Bank, Nov 22: Imad Hassan, a Palestinian electronics engineer and lecturer, never thought he would want to leave his homeland.
Now lawlessness, Israeli raids and political in-fighting have prompted Hassan to look seriously into emigrating. Canada is his favoured destination.
''I have been holding on to my country. Not anymore,'' said Hassan, a 35-year-old father of two from the West Bank city of Ramallah, the administrative heart of the Palestinian areas.
''It is not just the (Israeli) occupation but because we have lost our sense of personal security. It's not safe for my wife to go shopping in Ramallah.'' Hassan is not alone. Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmed Soboh said in October that 10,000 Palestinians had left since June, while 45,000 others had applied to do so.
Many educated Palestinians packed their bags after a Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000 following the collapse of peace talks with Israel.
Some officials say the pace of emigration picked up when Hamas took office in March this year and the West imposed crippling economic sanctions over the Islamist faction's refusal to recognise Israel and renounce violence.
Then, the capture of an Israeli soldier in a deadly cross-border raid by militants in June triggered an Israeli offensive in Gaza which has killed more than 370 Palestinians, about half of them civilians.
A poll published by the An-Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus this month found one in three Palestinians wanted to emigrate.
The 1,350 people surveyed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip cited dire economic conditions as the first reason, followed by lawlessness, political deadlock and fears of civil war.
Political analyst Ali Jarbawi said the departure of the most educated Palestinians created a vulnerable society.
''Our situation is like an egg. If the shell is gone, then what's the importance of the content of the egg?'' he said.
''It's the elite that counts, not 100 greengrocers.'' About 3.8 million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
RISE IN DEMAND TO EMIGRATE
Hamas's rise to power sparked a power struggle with the once dominant Fatah of President Mahmoud Abbas. Both sides are trying to forge a unity government, although some Palestinians doubt this will succeed and fear a possible civil war.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the exodus of educated professionals began before the Islamists assumed power.
''It is clear that when there is no political, economic or security stability these people will look elsewhere to be creative and productive,'' Barhoum said.
''The current government should not shoulder the blame for the brain drain. It is not imposing the siege.'' Several foreign embassies in Israel as well as diplomatic missions in Ramallah said there had been a rise in Palestinians approaching them about emigration.
''We used to get an average of one or two inquiries (a day) but we are getting more than seven inquiries these days,'' said one foreign official in Ramallah who declined to be identified.
Last month, police in Gaza said they had seized 1,200 forged immigration visas for Europe.
The establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 after the signing of the Oslo peace accords was a boon to educated Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. It also attracted many expatriates scattered across the world.
But that optimism has waned over the years.
Indeed, the World Bank said in September that Israeli restrictions and the Western sanctions could make 2006 the worst economic year since the Palestinian Authority was set up.
The bank estimated growth per capita in the Palestinian territories would fall by 27 per cent in 2006 from last year.
''In each major event in Palestine, such as previous wars and then the intifada (uprising), a very professional segment of the population leave,'' said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a senior Abbas aide.
''This has a negative impact on building the future state.''
EMPLOYEES STRIKE HELPED
Government workers have been on strike over unpaid wages since September, although teachers went back to work this month, and daily life has largely come to a standstill. Many of the 165,000 state workers have joined non governmental organisations in the Palestinian territories, gone to rich Gulf states or sought to emigrate after going unpaid for weeks following the Western sanctions.
''If this continues there will be a huge problem,'' said Mohammad Shtayyeh, a former public works minister. The ministry's two best civil engineers have gone to work in the Gulf.
Unemployment and crime have spiked, police said.
Adnan al-Dumeiri, police spokesman in the West Bank, said 11 Palestinians were killed there in criminal violence in October compared to three people in May.
Abu Ahmad, a senior banker, recently applied to emigrate to Canada to give his three children a better future.
''The kids need to live an ordinary life, without militants and without Israeli army raids,'' said Ahmad, from Nablus, scene of frequent clashes with Israeli soldiers and an incubator for militants.
Another Palestinian, who declined to give his name because he said it might affect his chance of moving to Canada, is well established in Ramallah, has a nice apartment and a good job.
He decided to leave after two of his children were nearly killed on their way home from kindergarten when militants started shooting in protest after Israeli soldiers killed one of their brothers in arms.
''I want my kids to live in a civil society, not a shooting one,'' he said. ''Here there is no protection. The police cannot even organise the traffic.''