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The deadly crossing is an international disgrace

Death in the Mediterranean is no longer the exception; it is the norm. More than 3,000 would-be immigrants have drowned trying to cross into Europe this year alone. Recent estimates suggest that the number of those who actually made it has risen to 130,000 in 2014, up from 60,000 last year. While some have undertaken the perilous journey in pursuit of a better life in Europe, the vast majority are fleeing the wars that are spreading across the Middle East and North Africa. With the onset of the latest US-led Middle East war it is inevitable that the numbers will rise.

Iraq and Syria are not the only conflicts contributing to the exodus. Other regional struggles are displacing thousands. Whether it's the insurgency in the Egyptian Sinai; the sectarian confrontation in Yemen; the tribal wars in Libya and Somalia; or Israel's wars to expand and cement its occupation, they have all had the same consequences, including mass migration to Europe.

Most of the 3,000 refugees rescued by the Italian coastguard in the weeks prior to mid-September were Palestinians and Syrians; among them were pregnant women, children and even the disabled. Whatever commonalities the Mediterranean boat people may share, the Palestinians are unique in one respect. The vast majority are fourth generation refugees and their tragedy goes back to a common cause; the Israeli occupation and ethnic cleansing of their land. Their ongoing misfortune is also a consequence of Israeli policies. While the Palestinian refugees fleeing from Syria are denied their right of return to their homeland, the inhabitants of Gaza are besieged and bombarded so that they might leave.

Notwithstanding this fact, other regional actors have also contributed to the ongoing Nakba (Catastrophe). Unlike their Syrian counterparts, Palestinian refugees from Syria have found it much harder to relocate in Lebanon and Turkey. Enticed by human traffickers, many have invested their life savings or incurred debts in order to head for Europe.

In Gaza, the chair of the Oversight Committee in the Palestine Legislative Council, Yahya Moussa, accused the Israeli occupation authorities of instigating the migration of young Palestinians through a combination of harsh economic policies and military aggression; many have indeed decided to leave. This is a manifestation of what the British House of Commons Select Committee on International Development in 2004 described as "a deliberate Israeli strategy of putting the lives of ordinary Palestinians under stress." Zionist ideology calls it "silent transfer".

Since the end of the latest war on the Gaza Strip the number of such young Palestinians trying to make their way to Europe has risen. Living conditions in the devastated enclave are not for the faint-hearted. With the fast diminishing availability of safe drinking water the UN reckons that by 2020 Gaza will no longer be liveable. Worse still, unemployment in Gaza now stands at 36 per cent; the figure for the occupied West Bank is 27 per cent.

While the flight of young Palestinians from Gaza continues to make the headlines, the larger numbers leaving the West Bank go unreported. Either way, all those who perish in the Mediterranean or end up in European detention centres are victims of an entirely avoidable man-made catastrophe. Both the Israeli occupiers and the human traffickers who profit from their misery are culpable.

The record numbers of crossing attempts and deaths in the Mediterranean must elicit an urgent rethink of policy in the MENA region and across the EU. As a major trading partner, Europe could do much more to halt Israel's deliberate strangulation of the Palestinian economy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. By tacitly accommodating Israel's siege of Gaza they have in effect contributed to the intolerable conditions that are forcing young Palestinians to try their luck on the high seas.

From a purely economic point of view it would be more cost effective if European countries were to break the Israeli siege and enable the Palestinians in Gaza to live decent and dignified lives. In the case of Italy, for example, the $12 million per month being spent by the government on rescue operations could be reduced substantially and the money put to better use.

Regional governments can also play a more constructive role. Although the Egyptians have acknowledged that a "mafia network" is operating the human traffic across the Mediterranean, efforts to crack down can best be described as half-hearted. It is unlikely to be stopped completely without the consent and approval of Israel, which is the real beneficiary of "transferred" Palestinians. So terrified is the government in Tel Aviv about the presence of Palestinians in their historic homeland that it not only forces them to migrate, but it is also now contemplating restricting the birth rate of those under its jurisdiction.

As for Palestine, the flight of its young people, many of whom are university graduates, is nothing but a national disaster. No faction should try to score political points with the issue. The mudslinging, accusations and counter-accusations by Fatah and Hamas are counterproductive and only serve the interests of the occupation.

In as much as Hamas has stepped up security controls to stem the haemorrhaging of people from the Gaza Strip, the problem requires a comprehensive approach that includes economic as well as political measures. Sadly all of these will be insufficient as long as Israel's occupation persists. And with the spread of war and associated violence in the region, many more seem destined to die in the Mediterranean or be thrown into detention camps or prisons somewhere in Europe, when they all deserve to live in dignity and happiness. To let them gamble with their lives on the deadly crossing is an international disgrace.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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