Leaving the Strip will cost you 10,000 dollars

Rafah border crossing between Gaza Strip and Egypt
The Rafah bottleneck: the border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt is currently the only way to escape the horrors of Gaza (image: Firas al-Skaer/newsroom/picture-alliance)

Scores of Palestinians desperately want to escape from the Gaza Strip, but very few get out. Smugglers are demanding thousands of dollars. Egyptian officials are also rumoured to be involved

By Johannes Sadek

Having been displaced six times within Gaza by fighting during the war, Mohammed's fate was decided. "I couldn't stand living in a tent," says the 45-year-old, who was last accommodated in Rafah and has since made it to Cairo with his wife and four children.

The price he paid for this was 15,000 US dollars. After four weeks of waiting, he received a message from the agent: he and his family were to make their way to the Rafah border crossing. "When I arrived at the Egyptian border, I felt like I had been reborn," says Mohammed.

A network of travel brokers and so-called fixers in Egypt and Gaza has existed for years. They promise an accelerated exit from the sealed-off coastal area and currently charge Palestinians between 4,500 and 10,000 US dollars per person, as the investigative network OCCRP found out.

Previously, the price depended, among other things, on how often the Rafah border crossing was opened. Since the start of the war, however, it has risen significantly.

About 85% of Gaza's population of almost 2 million has been displaced and most have been forced into southern Gaza, near the Egyptain border.
Around 85 percent of the approximately two million people living in the Gaza Strip have been driven from their homes and are now in the southern part near the Egyptian border

The business of desperation

The greater the desperation in Gaza, the better for business. Brokers promise a "100 percent" guaranteed departure. "Do you have people in Gaza who want to leave for Egypt? How many?" wrote one of the providers when asked at the beginning of January. 

His offer arrived a few days later. The "coordination" would cost 8,000 dollars for an adult and 1,500 dollars for a child. Registration would be handled by an office in eastern Cairo. Departure from Gaza "within 72 hours". Assuming the security authorities had no objections, the border would be crossed with a probability of "100 percent".

Very few of Gaza's 2.2 million inhabitants can afford such sums. Before the war, the average annual income for a household in Gaza was 1400 dollars. Some people in Cairo say they sold all their family jewellery to leave the country. Others have relatives or friends and supporters abroad, for example in the USA or Dubai. A Palestinian woman living in Egypt has so far collected the equivalent of around 28,000 euros in an online campaign because she wants to bring her three sisters from Gaza to Egypt.

Border crossing as bottleneck

Rafah, the only access point to Gaza in north-east Egypt that is not controlled by Israel, was a bottleneck even before the war began. It was never possible to predict when it would open or close. To leave the Strip, a formal application had to be made to the Ministry of the Interior, controlled by the Islamist Hamas since 2007.

Authorisation could take months. Leaving the country via Eres to Israel and on to the West Bank or Jordan was only possible in very few exceptional cases. Gaza does not have a major harbour or airport due to Israel's blockade.

During the first weeks of the war, thousands of foreigners and Palestinians with second passports began fleeing the Gaza Strip. A small number of the many injured – now more than 65,000 people according to Palestinian figures – were also able to leave for medical treatment. Hundreds of thousands are still trapped in the area between rubble or in emergency shelters. 1.7 million people have been displaced within Gaza. 

Because the coastal strip is sealed off, they are streaming from the north to the south or back. "My father is a businessman and has good relations with the Egyptian authorities, but they couldn't help us," says a young woman called Haja.

The family endured horrific nights in Gaza city during the war, in which according to Palestinian figures more than 27,000 people have now been killed. "We thought we would never survive," says the 29-year-old. Her father finally decided to pay 7,000 dollars for everyone in the family of eight. They have been in Egypt since November. 

Destruction in Rafah in the Gaza Strip
A picture of destruction: Rafah in the Gaza Strip (image: Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Company with links to the security authorities

Paying the money doesn't mean you'll be able to leave the country, however. A man living in Gaza named Abed says he handed over 8,000 dollars about four weeks ago – and is still waiting. "It's a high price, but there is no other way to escape death," the 35-year-old told the German Press Agency. Three interviewees in Gaza told the OCCRP network that they had been cheated by brokers and lost all their money. 

There are repeated allegations that Egyptian officials are directly involved in the deals. The head of the State Information Service (SIS), Diaa Rashwan, recently rejected these as "false" and "based on untrustworthy and unverified sources". Attempts to demand such "illegal fees" should be reported immediately by Palestinians to the Egyptian security forces in Rafah.

One name keeps popping up among the providers, however: an Egyptian company called Hala Consulting and Tourism. It has offered a "VIP service" for travelling via Rafah since 2019. The company advertises online with illustrations of minibuses, departure lounges and a man in a suit with a wheeled suitcase at an airport.

With close ties to Egypt's security authorities, the company employs ex-military officers, as the human rights organisation Human Rights Watch reported in 2022. This would "reduce delays at checkpoints between Rafah and Cairo". 

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UN office: bribes likely on both sides of the border

As early as 2018, the UN emergency aid organisation OCHA reported that there were two lists for exiting via Rafah: one from the Ministry of the Interior, controlled by Hamas, and one "coordinated by the Egyptian authorities". Bribes are apparently being paid on both sides of the border, OCHA wrote. 

The process is "confusing and opaque". Corruption is part of everyday life in Egypt, even if there has been some progress in the fight against it. 

The route via the second list, known as "tansik" (coordination), has been the "only way out" since the start of the war, a spokesperson for the Hamas-controlled border authority told the OCCRP network. Around 200 Palestinians and Egyptians are currently leaving the country via Rafah every day. When asked, a provider said that registration with Hamas was not necessary.

Leading agent Hala does not promise that travellers will be able to leave the country nor that the U.S. dollars will otherwise be refunded. On request, it sends a written declaration that travellers must sign in advance.

Part of the declaration is the agreement that there is no "specific travel date" and that "the full amount will not be refunded" after the name appears on the "coordination list". The agent writes: "If you want me to sign you up, send me your details."

Johannes Sadek

© dpa 2024