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What does it take to flee Gaza? Thousands of dollars, paid to an Egyptian broker

Palestinians holding foreign passports collect their luggage as they prepare to cross to Egypt from the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing on Feb. 6.
Abed Rahim Khatib
/
dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images
Palestinians holding foreign passports collect their luggage as they prepare to cross to Egypt from the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing on Feb. 6.

TEL AVIV — As the death toll in the Gaza Strip rises daily, and Israel threatens a ground operation in the last sliver of Gaza where about 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering during the war, the demand to leave is soaring.

But Gaza's only open border for travelers is tightly controlled. Only the lucky few with a foreign passport, a foreign country appealing on their behalf or approved medical treatment in Egypt have managed to secure free passage at Egypt's Rafah border crossing.

For most in Gaza, the only pathway out is to pay.

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Before the war, it cost a few hundred dollars. Now it costs $5,000 per adult and $2,500 per child, according to Palestinians who have recently left Gaza.

"After we lost everything in Gaza, all our possessions, we have to collect the amount of money, which is a big sum, just to buy our lives," says Mazen, a mechanical engineer.

He was at the Rafah crossing recently with his family of four, waiting for his name to be called on a loudspeaker by a Palestinian border official. It cost them $20,000 to leave.

"I had to borrow it. It took a long time," Mazen says. "Not only time, not only money. You pay your money to be insulted."

He and other Palestinians interviewed for this story declined to give their full names to protect their residency status in Egypt, which is hosting them now.

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To be able to afford the fees is a pipe dream for most families in Gaza, living in poverty, and a small fortune even for well-to-do Palestinians who have fled their homes and struggle to obtain basic necessities during the war.

Palestinians who hold Egyptian citizenship papers are charged a discounted rate of $650.

The border fee service, known as "coordination," is operated by a singular entity: Hala Consulting and Tourism, an Egyptian company with reported ties to Egypt's security services, whose sister company runs the business in charge of aid transportation into Gaza.

Hala provides a crucial service: registering names on the Egyptian list of travelers approved for entry from Gaza, and operating transportation from the border to Cairo.

Each night, the list of travelers approved for the following day is published on several Facebook pages and Telegram channels.

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On March 1 alone, around 400 Palestinian travelers, including those with Egyptian citizenship papers, who exited Gaza paid an estimated combined total of around $1.3 million, according to an NPR analysis of the published traveler lists and an estimate of the fees paid for adults and minors.

Nearly every morning, hundreds of Palestinians who have paid the wartime prices cross the Rafah border for the privilege of exiting through Gaza's only portal to the outside world.

A murky process

Applying is complicated, fees have fluctuated and the rules often change. Palestinians in Gaza need a relative in Egypt to apply to the Hala company on their behalf. Hundreds wait outside the company building in Cairo to pay the fee in dollars, with cash. Some say they have paid thousands of dollars on top of the standard fees just to get in the door. Approvals can take months.

One man, Mohammed, said he had a relative pay $17,000 for himself and his four children to be able to leave Gaza in recent weeks, including an extra $2,000 to be able to sign up after the company paused new registrations due to a backlog.

"Actually, it's a bribe, but what we can do. This is the only options and solution that we have," he says.

Egypt needs dollars

Palestinians paying to exit Gaza is not a new phenomenon. In recent years, as Israel and Egypt have imposed strict border controls to contain Hamas' rule in Gaza, the Hala travel company offered regular border fee services on Egypt's border.

The company is owned by Egyptian businessman Ibrahim Al Organi. He has helped Egyptian security services build contacts with tribes in the Sinai border region near Gaza, where security services battled extremists for years, according to Haisam Hassanein, an Egyptian American researcher and an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Al Organi's connections are key to running his Gaza border fee service, Hassanein says.

Palestinians who are foreign passport-holders get their documents checked to enter Egypt from the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border on Feb. 6. For most in Gaza — without foreign passports or approved reasons to leave such as for medical care — the only pathway out is to pay.
Abed Rahim Khatib / dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images
/
dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images
Palestinians who are foreign passport-holders get their documents checked to enter Egypt from the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border on Feb. 6. For most in Gaza — without foreign passports or approved reasons to leave such as for medical care — the only pathway out is to pay.

"There is no way they will be operating such a company in such critical times without the Egyptian security approving or having full knowledge of that," Hassanein says.

Egyptian officials, Hassanein alleges, profit from the wartime fees Gazans are paying to cross the border.

"Nowadays, it's seen as an opportunity to get more dollars into the Egyptian market," says Hassanein.

Egypt's economy is struggling, inflation is high and the country is desperate for dollars to purchase wheat and pay off its mounting debt. Since the start of the Gaza war, Suez Canal revenue has tanked, as cargo ships avoid it because of Houthi missile attacks in the Red Sea.

The high fees also reflect Egypt's policy on absorbing Palestinians during the war, Hassanein says. Egypt does not want a permanent mass displacement of Palestinians, and does not want any Islamist militants to enter from Gaza.

"They are trying to condition mainstream Palestinians that coming to Egypt wouldn't be an easy option," says Hassanein.

The Hala company did not immediately respond to NPR's request for comment.

In a statement, Dia Rashwan, head of Egypt's State Information Service, denied Egypt collected additional fees at the Rafah border crossing and called on Palestinians to report any "illegal fees" charged.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told Sky News that Egypt does not condone Hala's practice of charging $5,000 per Palestinian to cross. "We will take whatever measures we need so as to restrict it and eliminate it totally," Sameh said.

The topic is sensitive in Egypt. Days after independent Egyptian news outlet Mada Masr published a report on Al Organi's role in the movement of people and aid at the Rafah border crossing, the outlet said its editor-in-chief was questioned by Cairo prosecutors on charges related to a report on the possible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt. She was released on bail and the case remains open.

Raising money on GoFundMe

To buy their way out, many Palestinians are crowdfunding through GoFundMe.

Reem Ziad, a Palestinian in London, is seeking donations to help pay for 25 relatives to get out of Gaza: her parents, her sisters and their families, including 14 children.

"It might be seen as bribe, but it is actually about saving people from death," Ziad says. She said her sister's husband was killed in an Israeli strike.

At the time of this story's publication, Ziad had raised only about 2% of what she'll need to pay Hala for her family to get out of Gaza.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Estrin
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.