Desperate Gaza Escape Try Leads to Death, and Recriminations

12:00 Dec 27 2015 Gaza

Ishaq Khalil Hassan's mother, Amna Hassan, showed photographs of her son and some of his education certificates. Credit: Wissam Nassar for The New York Times

On Sunday, Palestinians gathered to protest Mr. Hassan's death. Credit: Mohammed Salem/Reuters

Mr. Hassan's mother showed photographs of her son, as well as his education certificates. Credit: Wissam Nassar for The New York Times

By MAJD AL WAHEIDI and KAREEM FAHIM for the New York Times

GAZA — Something drove Ishaq Khalil Hassan, 28, into the Mediterranean last week, to walk naked in the shallow surf, to attempt what has become all but impossible for Palestinians: an escape from the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian officials insisted that Mr. Hassan, who tried to wade across the border into Egypt on Thursday, was mentally ill. His family said he was sane, but desperate — he had been trying all year, unsuccessfully, to enter Egypt legally for medical treatment for an old injury.

“Ishaq thought that Egyptians will be like Europeans, who deal with Syrians and welcome them,” said his brother, Ibrahim Hassan.

But as soon as Mr. Hassan crossed the frontier, Egyptian border guards opened fire, spraying the sea with bullets while ignoring a Palestinian guard who whistled and frantically gestured with his hands that Mr. Hassan had mental problems. A video that captured the shooting made at least one thing clear: Mr. Hassan appeared to pose no immediate threat to anyone.

When the firing stopped, Egyptian soldiers pulled Mr. Hassan’s apparently lifeless body from the water, as the camera kept rolling: an image that evoked the perilous journeys of migrants across the Mediterranean but also laid bare the hemmed-in lives of Palestinians in Gaza, unable to wander even a few steps from their own borders.

Over the past two years, Egypt’s border with Gaza has become an increasingly impenetrable front, fueling desperation among Palestinians trapped between Egypt and Israel, which also severely restricts crossings.

Egypt’s government, under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has kept the border closed for 339 days this year, according to the Interior Ministry in Gaza. More than 25,000 people are waiting to cross, including Palestinians seeking medical treatment, or trying to study abroad, ministry officials said.

The Egyptian authorities have also destroyed many of the smuggling tunnels under the border, one of the few links between Gaza and the outside world.

As they grapple with an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian officials have justified the border crackdown as a necessary measure to deter the flow of militants and weapons. At the same time, the border guards appear increasingly willing to use deadly force against anyone trying to cross. In the past six weeks, Egyptian border guards have fatally shot at least 20 Sudanese migrants trying to cross into Israel.

An Egyptian military spokesman declined to comment on the shooting on Sunday. But some hoped Mr. Hassan’s death might put more pressure on Egypt to ease its blockade.

“Perhaps Hassan broke the siege in his own way, and permanently got peace,” said Mohammed Lubbad, who organized a demonstration outside Egypt’s embassy in Gaza on Sunday.

The video of Mr. Hassan’s killing was first aired on Al Jazeera satellite channel, which said he had been mentally ill. Officials with Hamas, the militant group that governs Gaza, repeated the assertion. Iyad al-Bozum, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said that Palestinian border guards had tried to detain Mr. Hassan but that he escaped.

The Egyptians, he said, “killed him in cold blood.”

“This is a crime in daylight and a clear violation of international law,” he said, “because the man was completely unarmed and also mentally sick.”

But his family strongly denied that Mr. Hassan suffered from any mental illness, saying that he was preparing a new apartment and searching for a wife. They also said he had been studying English at an American nonprofit organization that provides education in the Middle East.

But he was frantic to leave Gaza, they said. He was still suffering from gunshot wounds to the leg he sustained in 2007, when he was struck while shopping during clashes between Palestinian factions, relatives said.

“He could not sleep at night due to the pain,” said his brother Ibrahim Hassan. He said Mr. Hassan had been able to travel to Egypt once, shortly after he was shot, for medical treatment. He tried to return three times this year, but the border was closed, his brother said.

So sometime Thursday, Mr. Hassan took off his clothes and laid them on a rock on the beach, near the border. He undressed, his family said, so that the border guards would know that he was a civilian and unarmed.

Palestinian officials failed Mr. Hassan, including by not preventing him from crossing, his family said. And the Egyptian government is proving itself as repressive, if not more so, than the Israeli government, they said.

“My pain is deep,” said Mr. Hassan’s father, Khalil Hassan. “They published the video on Al Jazeera, and I wonder why they did not stop him? Why did the camera keep filming?”

Mr. Bozum said the Egyptians had promised to return Mr. Hassan’s body in a few days. But his family said it had yet to receive any confirmation of his death.

Family members did not participate in the protest outside the embassy, which was organized by Hamas, but they appreciated the show of solidarity, said Mr. Hassan’s sister, Neama.

“This story is not just about Ishaq,” she said. “It became about everyone. Now people feel that their sons could be Ishaq at any moment.”

Majd Al Waheidi reported from Gaza, and Kareem Fahim from Cairo.
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