Fifteen Palestinian migrants attempting to flee the besieged and war-torn Gaza Strip died Saturday after their boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of northern Egypt, media sources said.
The migrants' bodies were pulled from the water by the Egyptian military after they received a distress call from the vessel, Palestinian news website Maan News reported. Egyptian navy and border guards rescued at least 72 others, among them Egyptian and Syrian citizens.
As political instability widens in the Middle East and North Africa, increasing numbers of undocumented migrants have attempted to reach Europe in boats and makeshift rafts — many drowning along the way.
Sources told Maan that the Palestinians who drowned on Saturday fled Gaza into Egypt through underground tunnels, after which they boarded the ship bound for Italy.
An estimated 10,000 Palestinians have so far fled Gaza in 2014, sources told the Palestinian News Network (PNN). However, numbers have swelled since July, when Israel launched a 50-day military operation against Palestinian political faction and armed group Hamas.
The offensive, dubbed “Operation Protective Edge,” killed more than 2,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians; displaced hundreds of thousands of residents; and destroyed much of Gaza’s infrastructure. Aid groups estimate that reconstruction could take as long as 20 years.
Hamas, for its part, killed 66 Israeli soldiers during ground combat and six civilians by rocket fire.
With nearly 2 million people living on 139 square miles of land, Gaza is one of the world’s most densely populated territories — where economic opportunity and even safety are in short supply.
Since 2006, when Hamas swept parliamentary elections, Israel has imposed a debilitating economic siege on the territory, restricting the flow of civilians and goods – including food, medicine and building supplies – for stated security purposes. Coupled with numerous deadly military incursions, including “Operation Cast Lead” in 2009 and “Operation Pillar of Defense” in 2012, residents have found it necessary to escape.
However, for most Gazans obtaining a permit to cross into Egypt or Israel is extremely difficult, with both countries maintaining tight control of border crossings and only allowing passage under special circumstances. As such, residents have increasingly turned to smugglers.
PNN reported that the average cost to be smuggled into Egypt through a tunnel and to Europe on a raft is about $4,000 per person, and that the journey is extremely dangerous — with families encountering criminals and treacherous conditions along the way.
In its latest war with Israel, Hamas aimed to leverage a cease-fire in exchange for an easing of restrictions on travel and goods. An agreement was ultimately signed. However, due to ambiguous terms, it remains unclear to what extent Israel has followed through on its commitments.
For now, Israeli and Egyptian border crossings remain largely closed to Gazans.