GAZA-ISRAEL BORDER (Reuters) - From his spartan room in the Maghazi refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, 18-year-old Abdalla al-Haddad could glimpse a narrow chance at a better life: it was less than a mile and a 3-1/2-metre fence away.
So on a chilly night in February, he and a friend made a dash for it, scrambling over the heavily secured steel and wire barrier that separates Gaza from Israel.
“I was not thinking,” he told Reuters, back in the three-room home he shares with 11 family members.
“Ten minutes after we jumped, illumination rounds were fired, there was a lot of gunfire and we were surrounded by Israeli army forces, who arrested us,” he said.
He spent the next three months in an Israeli jail.
“I was desperate because there is no work in Gaza,” he explained, describing his daily life as sleeping and playing football, with little prospect of finding a job.
While it is by no means a mass phenomenon, a rising number of Palestinians are trying their luck at jumping the fence from Gaza into Israel. Barely a week goes by without a report from Israeli security forces of another attempt.
The Israeli military says it has caught 130 in the past year. It won’t provide comparative figures, but the anecdotal evidence from Gazans and organizations that monitor the trend is that numbers have been climbing steadily.
Poverty and the lack of prospects in Gaza are driving young people to take ever-greater risks. That is particularly true after last year’s war between Israel and Hamas, in which the economy and infrastructure took another devastating hit.
In May, the World Bank said Gaza’s economy was in the worst state in the world, with the world’s highest unemployment rate at 43 percent, rising to nearly 70 percent among 20-24 year olds. Those figures do not fully express the human toll for 1.8 million residents confined to an area of 160 sq km (60 sq miles), unable to leave without permits, its report added.
Palestinians in Gaza, unlike those in the West Bank, are not permitted to work in Israel, which stopped issuing work permits to Gazans when the strip fell under control of Hamas, designated a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.
The lure of work is strong. A day’s labor on a construction site without a work permit in Israel can pay around 250 shekels ($66), according to Israeli watchdog Workers Hotline. In Gaza, it would be a fifth of that.
But jumping the fence comes with huge risks.
Israeli law allows punishment of up to 5 years in jail for unarmed infiltration across its borders. Crossing with a weapon risks up to 15 years in jail and crossing with a firearm or explosives can carry a life sentence.
An Israeli military officer in the Gaza Division said most border-jumpers are unarmed teens looking for work or to escape family hardship. For some, jail may be more appealing than life in Gaza, with three meals a day and a chance to study.
“Sometimes they cross with a knife or a grenade in their pocket, they don’t come with the intent of doing anything with it, they cross the fence, raise their arms and show you the grenade so that the sentence they get will be higher and they spend more time in jail,” the officer said.
According to the Israeli Prison Service, 50 Gazans are currently in jail for crossing the border. The average prison term is 11 months, an Israeli justice official said.
Hamas has its own reasons for trying to stop them and has increased security along the border, according to Hamas interior ministry spokesman Eyad al-Bozom. The fear is that some of the fence jumpers will be pressured by Israel into becoming collaborators - supplying intelligence on Hamas.
Acknowledging an increase in the numbers over the past two years, Bozom said most of those stopped on the Gaza side are aged 17 to 25. “They have poor education and believe life across the fence will be better,” he said.
Israel enforces a 300-meter no-go zone on the Gaza side of the fence, an area where dozens of Palestinians have been shot and wounded by Israeli gunfire this year.
For 22-year-old Mohammed, that was a risk worth taking when he decided to try to hop the fence.
“We tour the streets looking for work every day and every day we ask the same people and get the same answer: no work,” said Mohammed, asking not to give his full name for fear of reprisals from Israel and Hamas.
After setting out at night to the fence, he was stopped by his brother a few meters from the border and turned back.
“Gaza is one big prison anyway,” he said. “We are all prisoners, a prison here or a prison there, what’s the difference?”
Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Luke Baker and Peter Graff