KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — Thousands of people turned out Sunday for the funerals of eight young Palestinians who drowned off the Tunisian coast nearly two months ago as they tried to sail to a new life in Europe.
The drownings have reverberated across Gaza, drawing attention to dire conditions in the territory after a 15-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade, and also drawing some rare public criticism of the ruling Hamas terror group.
“The government that governs us here is the reason. It’s to blame It’s to blame,” said Naheel Shaath, whose 21-year-old son Adam was among the dead. “I blame all the officials here who don’t care about the young people or give them job opportunities.”
Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after Hamas seized control of Gaza from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007.
Israel says the closure, which restricts the movement of people and goods in and out of the territory, is necessary to prevent Hamas from arming itself. Israel and its Western allies have branded Hamas, an Islamic group that has vowed to destroy Israel, a terrorist group. Critics say the blockade amounts to collective punishment.
The blockade has stifled the economy of Gaza, where unemployment hovers at 50 percent, and residents are quick to blame Israel for difficult conditions. But increasingly, families have begun to complain about Hamas’ leadership, citing high taxes, its heavy-handed rule and a growing stream of leaders, including its supreme leader, Ismail Haniyeh, who have moved abroad to more comfortable with their families.
“Our children are drowning in the sea and your children are enjoying luxury. Isn’t this unfair?” said Mrs. Shaath.
The eight men who were buried on Sunday, all from the southern city of Khan Younis, were among some two dozen Palestinians who drowned in the past three months en route to Europe.
In recent years, thousands of migrants from poverty-stricken or war-torn countries in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan have perished on the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea.
Ms Shaath said her son had studied hairdressing but was unable to find a decent job. Even when he was hired at a local barbershop, he was earning only 10 shekels, or about $3, a day.
“If there were jobs here for those sad young people, would they have left and emigrated?” she said.
He followed a path taken by thousands before him, fleeing to Turkey, one of the few countries that accepts Palestinians from Gaza, on a perilous journey destined to reach Europe.
From Turkey it went to Egypt and then to Libya. The family said she lost contact with him on October 4, hoping that she had somehow made it to Belgium. But the bad news came on October 24: he was on a ship that sank off the coast of Tunisia.
According to Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, a Geneva-based non-profit organization, since 2014, around 360 Gazans have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean on smuggling boats.
The bodies of the eight Palestinians on Adam’s boat were returned to Gaza on Sunday, via the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. Eight ambulances took the bodies to a hospital, where thousands of people joined in a mass funeral.
The procession was divided into smaller funerals, as each family brought their son home for the last goodbye before burial.
The al-Shaers, another family, buried their 21-year-old son, Mohammed. But his younger brother, Maher, 20, is still missing. They were on the same doomed ship.
His mother, Amina, blamed Hamas for the family’s misery.
“What do we see in Gaza? We only see oppression,” she said. “They are suffocating the youth and the youth are fleeing because of their suffocation.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.