When the only escape from war in Gaza is to buy a way out

For many Palestinians, securing approval to exit the territory is possible only after raising thousands of dollars to pay middlemen or an Egyptian company

Palestinians holding foreign passports arrive at the Rafah border crossing and wait with luggage to cross to the Egyptian side as Israeli attacks continue on Gaza. Photograph: Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images

The only way for almost all people in the Gaza Strip to escape the horrors of the Israel-Hamas war is by leaving through neighbouring Egypt.

And that is usually a complicated and expensive ordeal, involving the payment of thousands of dollars to an Egyptian company that can get Palestinians on an approved travel list to cross the border.

Confronting the company’s stiff fees, as well as the widespread hunger in Gaza where there is no end in sight to Israel’s military campaign, many Palestinians have resorted to trying to raise money with desperate appeals on digital platforms such as GoFundMe.

Dr Salim Ghayyda, a paediatrician in northern Scotland, posted one such plea in January after his sister texted from Gaza to say that their father had suffered seizures.

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Their father made it to a hospital and survived, but Ghayyda (52), who left Gaza in 2003, said the episode convinced him he had to evacuate his family at any cost. “I thought I’d go to sleep one night and wake up to the news that my family is gone,” he said. “I felt helpless and hopeless, but I knew I had to do something.”

Over the past eight months, an estimated 100,000 people have left Gaza, Diab al-Louh, the Palestinian ambassador to Egypt, said in an interview. Though some managed to get out through connections to foreign organisations or governments, for many Palestinians, exiting Gaza is possible only by way of Hala, a firm that appears to be closely connected to the Egyptian government.

Now the future of that avenue is uncertain, especially after the Israeli military launched an offensive against Hamas in Rafah and took over the crossing there, leading to its closure in May. No Palestinians have been allowed to pass through it since, and it is unclear when it will reopen.

Palestinians with their packed belongings continue to depart from the eastern neighborhoods of Rafah in Gaza due to ongoing Israeli attacks. Photograph: Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images

The New York Times spoke to a dozen people inside and outside Gaza who were either trying to leave the territory or help family members or friends to do so. All but one spoke on the condition of anonymity over fears of retaliation by the Egyptian authorities toward them or their relatives or friends.

Other pathways out of Gaza exist, but many of them require large payments, too. One route is to pay unofficial middlemen in the enclave or in Egypt, who demand $8,000 (€7,500) to $15,000 per person in exchange for arranging their departure within days, according to four Palestinians who either made the payments or tried to.

Hala charges $5,000 to co-ordinate the exits of most people 16 and older and $2,500 for most who are below that age, according to seven people who have gone through this process or tried to do so

Palestinians connected to international organisations and governments, holders of foreign passports or visas, wounded people and some students enrolled in universities outside Gaza have been able to leave without paying large fees, but most of the more than two million people in the enclave do not fall into those categories.

Hala charges $5,000 to co-ordinate the exits of most people 16 and older and $2,500 for most who are below that age, according to seven people who have gone through this process or tried to do so.

Officials at Hala did not respond to questions sent by email. But Ibrahim al-Organi, whose firm, Organi Group, has listed Hala as one of its companies and who describes himself as a shareholder, disputed that the company charged those amounts, insisting that children travelled for free and that adults paid $2,500. He said that amount was necessary because the service Hala provides is a “VIP” one and he argued that operating costs had skyrocketed during the war.

Al-Organi, a tycoon with a history of helping the Egyptian government fight extremists in the Sinai Peninsula, maintains close connections to top Egyptian officials, according to three people who have tracked the relationship and spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their work in the region. He denied he was benefiting unfairly from his connections.

One man who lives in a tent on the beach in Deir al Balah, a city in central Gaza, said he felt as if he was dealing with war profiteers because he was being financially squeezed during the most vulnerable time of his life.

He felt he had no option but to register with Hala. The man, aged 48, has to raise money for his wife and seven children, some of whom have to pay the adult fare. That means he needs $37,500, he said, but he has managed to come up with only $7,330 on GoFundMe so far.

“What’s the alternative? There is none,” he said.

Hala makes people go through a complicated bureaucratic process to register their loved ones. The company requires a family member to visit its offices in Cairo and pay for the service in $100 bills issued in or after 2013, according to Ghayyda and three other people with knowledge of Hala’s payment process. Al-Organi denied knowledge of the practice and said those who paid in $100 bills had been scammed by illegal brokers.

In February, when Ghayyda travelled to the Egyptian capital to register his parents, sister and nephew, he brought his 23-year-old son with him to avoid carrying more than $10,000 by himself. By that time, he had raised around $25,000.

“The whole process was quite time-consuming, complex and uncertain,” he said.

In an interview at his office in Cairo, al-Organi spoke at length and in detail about Hala’s activities, though he said his role in the company was limited and that he was just one of many shareholders. Hala has long been listed on Organi Group’s website as one of the conglomerate’s companies but the reference appeared to have been removed recently. Organi Group did not respond to a request for comment when asked why they had removed Hala from their website.

Multiple Palestinians who used Hala’s service during the war said they were not offered a VIP service: They were driven to Cairo in a minibus and were given basic food

Al-Organi described Hala as a tourism company, “just like any company that exists at an airport”, and said it had been set up in 2017 to provide VIP services to Palestinian travellers who wanted an upgraded experience crossing through Rafah.

“I help them only when they want to get into the VIP hall, to have breakfast, to be driven to Cairo in a nice BMW, to have a rest stop, and then go on to their destination,” he said. “Our role is to provide the best service possible, that’s it.”

Multiple Palestinians who used Hala’s service during the war said they were not offered a VIP service: They were driven to Cairo in a minibus and were given basic food.

Al-Organi said increased wartime demand for services such as the drive from Rafah to Cairo had forced the company to raise its prices.

He spoke in an office where one wall displayed a large photograph of him with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. When asked about Hala’s ties to the Egyptian government and accusations that Hala profits from sweetheart contracts, he insisted he was being slandered by news outlets linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, the political Islamist group that briefly held Egypt’s presidency more than a decade ago until the Egyptian military, led by Sisi, seized power.

On an April visit to a towering tinted glass building in central Cairo that houses Hala’s offices, 40 people were lined up outside with stacks of photocopied documents and bundles of cash in hand.

Those gathered were chatting loudly about exchange rates in Palestinian Arabic as they waited for two Egyptian Hala employees to allow them to enter the building and as cars and taxis dropped off more customers nearby.

When asked about the accusations against Egypt cited in this story, the Egyptian government referred the New York Times to previous comments made by Egyptian officials, including foreign minister Sameh Shoukry.

Shoukry told Sky News in February that he did not condone Hala’s collecting $5,000 in fees and said that Egypt would take measures to eliminate the fees. The Egyptian government did not respond to a request for comment on its relationship with Hala.

Cogat, an Israeli defence ministry body that implements government policy in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, declined to comment about what role Israel plays in the movement of Palestinians through the Rafah crossing. Israel has facilitated the exit of foreign and dual nationals from Gaza in co-ordination with Egypt and the United States, according to Cogat’s website.

Israel has allowed almost no Palestinians in Gaza to seek refuge in its territory or to travel through it to reach other places.

In a statement in mid-May, GoFundMe said that more than $150 million had been contributed to fundraisers related to the war in Gaza and that about 19,000 campaigns had been created on its platform, including for evacuations, medical care and food.

The contributors include friends, relatives and their social networks, but also strangers without direct connections to those promoting the fundraisers.

A 30-year-old Palestinian man, who had been living cramped into a small tent in Rafah, said he had made the decision in January to leave. He could no longer bear the unsanitary conditions. To bathe himself, he had to heat water on a makeshift wood stove and transfer it into a plastic bucket, which he lugged into a dirty room containing only a toilet. Using a bottle, he would pour water over his body, simulating a shower, a process he described as deeply inhumane.

He, too, resorted to a GoFundMe campaign. His family raised more than $55,000 to pay for 12 members to leave. A month ago, he and his family made it to Egypt.

In April, Ghayyda, the paediatrician, travelled to Egypt a second time, this time to reunite with his parents, sister and nephew, who had just made it out of Gaza in time for Eid al-Fitr.

He was overwhelmed with joy, but he still felt an enormous burden – 28 close relatives remained trapped in Rafah and Gaza City, and his parents would need to start a new life in Cairo, at least until the war ended. (In May, he secured the release of four more family members.)

“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “It meant the world to me to see my parents, sister and nephew. But I am still consumed by constant fears about my family that’s still in Gaza. I won’t be able to feel like I can breathe normally again until I know they’re safe.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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