Gaza fence jumpers looking for work find prison instead – but keep trying anyway

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Desperate Palestinians who reach Israel find a country different to the one theyd imagined, but with few options, many say they will keep trying to cross

Where the scrubby fields of central Gaza meet the Israeli border fence, there is a locked gate. Beyond is a dirt road patrolled by Israeli soldiers, a second barrier of barbed wire, and behind that, fields Israeli ones this time dotted with eucalyptus trees.

The gate is unremarkable on a border marked by towering concrete walls, cameras, watchtowers and observation balloons.

But for an increasing number of young Palestinian men, the gate has become a magnet. Get past the gate, over the wire and finally across the fields so the idea goes and a days walk away is a world of work and opportunity in the Israeli city of Beer Sheva.

Last year, according to official and media accounts, between 150 and 200 Gazans were caught jumping the fence. Most were in pursuit of work, although at least two people caught this year according to recent claims by Israel were activists with Hamas.

And despite the recent Israeli focus on Hamass tunnels, with two more discovered in recent months, most Palestinians who have entered Israel since the end of the 2014 Gaza war have come over the fence.

The young men the Guardian meets are more desperate than dangerous, most having grown up during the decade-long Israeli siege of Gaza, and many have unrealistic notions of what lies beyond the fence.

If there is a motor still driving the jumpers, despite the increased Israeli military activity on the border searching for tunnels, it is that no other escape exists. Egyptian efforts have closed many of the southbound tunnels at the border town of Rafah, and passage is costly.

Poverty and unemployment in Gaza are continuing to worsen. Scaling the fence, for all its risks including being shot costs nothing to try.

Mohammed Nashwan, 18, is one of those who heard the stories and decided to jump. Released from an Israeli prison four months ago, he is luckier than most.

Mohammed
Mohammed Nashwan works in his bicycle repair business his father paid for after his return from an Israeli prison four months ago. He had jumped the Gaza border fence to Israel in search of work. Photograph: Peter Beaumont for the Guardian

His father, Hani, who earns a living from commissions on property rentals, sold some of his wifes jewellery to set Mohammed up repairing bicycles so he would not risking jumping again.

I went over the fence last August, Mohammed recalled. I did six months in prison before I was released. And then 11 days in a Hamas jail. I was going to find work. I discussed it with the two friends who went with me who worked part-time in construction. We didnt have a plan except jumping the fence.

At 5 oclock one morning, thats what they did. We got through. Then we ran and sat and rested and ran again. They finally caught us when we made it to an asphalt road. We had jumped over another fence and then an army jeep appeared.

Hani continues the story. For 10 days we didnt know whether he was alive. Then the Red Cross got in contact and said he was in an Israeli prison.

There, Mohammed received two salaries: the 400 shekels a month paid to prisoners by the Palestinian Authority, and another 400 from prison work.

I had a friend who had gone before, Mohammed adds ruefully. I met him again in prison.

A few miles away the Guardian meets another extended family. Selim Sanaa is absent in an Israeli jail, serving his second sentence for fence jumping. His brother Suleiman is present, as is Faris, arrested with Selim during a 2013 attempt to jump the fence.

This is Selims second time in prison, says Suleiman. Last time he got nine months. This time he is serving 19.

His brother, he explains, dropped out of school at 16 years old. He too was working part-time in construction. He thought if he crossed the fence he could get to Beer Sheva. He thought it was easy to go in the dark when the soldiers were sleeping. The first time he got 200 metres. Last time, he got 50 metres in before he was surrounded.

The reasons are simple. He was 21. He had no work. Then there is the constant psychological pressure of being in Gaza. And you earn money in the Israeli prison.

Faris tells his own story. The first time he jumped with Selim they were caught and later returned by Israel through the Erez crossing a few hours later after questioning.

The second time, he made it three kilometres inside the border, far enough to meet a group of Palestinian agricultural day workers who advised him to hide.

Faris
Faris Sanaa served time in an Israeli prison for jumping the fence from Gaza looking for work. He says he would have tried again but his family stopped him. Photograph: Peter Beaumont for the Guardian

But another in his party had already been caught. Arrest came quickly after.

The Guardian asks the group if they have heard of anyone who made it to Beer Sheva and worked.

Suleiman has only heard of one case a friend who fell in with some Palestinians from the West Bank and worked in a vegetable shop for six months before he was caught.

But the men cheated him of his wages. He never saw a penny.

Another of Selim and Suleimans brothers appears, Hamdi, a Hamas policeman in a black uniform.

Hamdi laughs when he is asked if he would try to stop Selim if he went to jump the fence again after his next release.

Who am I to tell him anything? he asks. Im a policeman. But Im a policeman without a salary, he adds, referring to Gazas crippling financial problems.

Faris says he would try again. He would have gone with Selim when he was arrested the second time, he says, but his family stopped him. He says many young men in the villages and towns in this area of Gaza still talk of trying. Perhaps more than ever.

In his bicycle workshop, Mohammed Nashwan rejects the idea. When I crossed the fence, it wasnt what I expected. I thought there would be crowds of people. I thought I could just blend in. You have to have papers. Now I know it is impossible.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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