A human smuggling ship reportedly was intentionally capsized by traffickers last week off the coast of Malta, killing all but four of the 100 Gaza residents on board who were part of "thousands" of Gazans fleeing the Hamas stronghold in recent months.
Osama, who lives in the United Arab Emirates and whose 23-year-old brother Yasser was on the ship, revealed to AFP details about Gaza's human trafficking network, which Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction exposed as being run by Hamas.
Yasser boarded the Italy-bound ship with 500 other passengers at Damietta in Egypt last week, after struggling to find work in Gaza following his graduation from a local Gazan university last year.
"There is no future for them in Gaza," Osama told AFP. "I tried to bring him to the Emirates but after seeing several of his friends reach Europe by boat, he decided to leave too." Osama said he still doesn't know if Yasser was among the ten total survivors of the shipwreck.
While Osama said Yasser crossed the Rafah crossing and paid "local Egyptians" $3,000 to fix passage to Europe, he added "you never know who you're giving the money too."
As noted, Fatah revealed this week that Hamas is running a human smuggling network, charging between $2,000 and $3,500 per person to traffic Gazans to Europe via Egypt.
"Thousands" have left Gaza in the last two months
Despite the recent Egyptian siege and Israeli blockade on the Hamas-enclave of Gaza, reportedly thousands of residents of the coastal strip of land have illegally made their way out in recent months through Hamas's smuggling tunnels to Sinai.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that some 2,890 self-defined "Palestinians" have arrived in Italy this year. Some doubt has been cast on that figure, as some migrants claim to be "Palestinians" to avoid repatriation to countries with extradition agreements with the European Union (EU).
However, a Gaza-based human rights worker confirmed the appraisal, revealing to AFP "we estimate that thousands of people have left the Gaza Strip clandestinely over the past two months, especially during the war," referring to Operation Protective Edge.
"Due to the fact they left through tunnels to Egypt - an illegal, secret way to leave - we have no precise figure," added the worker, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Hamas has remained markedly tight-lipped about the entire issue of residents fleeing their territory, where they are often used as human shields directly on top of targeted buildings, or indirectly due to Hamas embedding its terrorist infrastructure in civilian centers.
Hamas official Iyad al-Buzum claimed to AFP there are only "isolated cases (of emigration), which do not reach into the hundreds."
However, Raji Sourani, director of the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights, said if the numbers are indeed limited, it is merely because Hamas is not allowing residents to leave freely.
"If Gazans had the right to free movement, tens of thousands of young people would leave the country because all their opportunities are blocked here," said Sourani, incorrectly referring to Gaza as a "country."
The appraisal by the Gaza human rights director surprisingly dovetails nicely with the strategy proposed by MK Moshe Feiglin (Likud), who during the operation called on Israel to provide a financial stimulus for Arab residents to leave Gaza, allowing the Jewish state to declare sovereignty over the region.