Exploiting the Palestinians

Houses destroyed in airstrikes in Rafah (on Sunday): Last Hamas-dominated town in the Gaza Strip
Death and destruction in Gaza: 1.2 million Palestinians are currently in acute danger. This is because many fled south from northern and central areas of the Gaza Strip because it was safer there (image: picture-alliance)

In view of the catastrophic situation in Gaza, Palestinians all over the world are trying to get relatives out of the sealed-off enclave. Unscrupulous Egyptian businessmen are cashing in on people's desperation. Qantara.de reports from Cairo

By Birgit Svensson

It began in Saarbrucken during Ramadan. Many had accepted an invitation from the intercultural association "Dar-in" for iftar, the traditional fast-breaking meal after sundown. Among the guests, Palestinians who had come to the ceremonial hall in Meerwiesentalweg directly after their regular Saturday demonstration in the city centre. 

The mood was subdued, not as spirited as it has been on such occasions in previous years. A podium discussion before the meal underlined the frustration felt about the problematic German media coverage of the Middle East conflict. The war currently raging in the Gaza Strip is on everyone's mind. Every Palestinian family in Saarbrucken has lost at least one member, said a young woman with a headscarf. 

As the iftar gathering began to eat, more than 30,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were already dead. For sure, those are Hamas figures, an Egyptian guest conceded, but even if the real number is only half that, it's still too many, he said. Women and children are the hardest hit, he added, and there's no explaining that away. "The Egyptians don't like Hamas," he continued, "but these are civilians dying here, not just Hamas fighters as the Israelis always claim."

By bicycle if necessary: some 100,000 people are expected to leave the city of Rafah
On Monday (6 May), the Israeli army ordered around 100,000 people in the eastern part of Rafah to move to the Al-Mawasi camp on the Mediterranean a few kilometres to the north. Observers see this as preparation for an Israeli offensive in the city in the southern part of the Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt (image: AFP/Getty Images)

Paying any price out of desperation

Abu Ismael seemed rather more relaxed than the other Palestinian guests at Dar-in. But still, he spoke of the immense destruction and the unprecedented scale of deaths and injuries caused by this latest war in Gaza. The Palestinian, who came to study in Germany in 2001 when he was 24 years old.

He graduated in business administration and was granted German citizenship. From 2011 to 2020 he went back to the Gaza Strip, where he comes from, and experienced the Israeli army's last ground troop deployment. "No comparison to today," he recalls. 

When Israel pledged to retaliate after the Hamas massacre of Israeli civilians in early October, he knew what dimensions it would assume. He reacted and was one of the first to get his family out of the Gaza Strip. For the "bargain price" of 26,000 U.S. dollars, as he reported with a grin, 26 people were able to leave: his mother, his brother, two sisters and all their family members. 

Now, rescuing someone from Gaza costs five times, sometimes even ten times as much. A cousin got out of the Gaza Strip a week ago – for 12,000 U.S. dollars. Women and children are cheaper than men, said Abu. "They pay just 5,000."

Khan Younis, where his family lived, is particularly hellish, he said. International headlines have been dominated by the bitter battles going on there in recent weeks. That's why Palestinians all over the world, but mainly in Europe, are trying to buy their relatives' freedom. "Yes, it's human trafficking," admitted Abu Ismael in Saarbrucken, "but our desperation drives us to resort to any available means."

Playing with people's hopes

I continue my research in Cairo. The agency that got Abu Ismael's family out of the Gaza Strip is located just off the wide Al Manteqah as Sadesah Street in the Nasr City district. This is the office of "Hala". Long queues in front of the building indicate that this is no ordinary travel company. 

Hala is an agency that takes Palestinians over the border from Rafah in the Gaza Strip to Egypt. Online, it advertises "the highest level of travel, tourism and VIP services for Rafah". Even before the outbreak of the Gaza war, Hala offered its service to Palestinians travelling out of the territory, arranging exit documents, logistics and transport including food and drink en route, as far as Cairo. 

Now, Hala is earning up to a million dollars – daily, according to a recent estimate by the British TV broadcaster Sky News

"You have to get in the queue at 8 am to get a number," says a waiting Palestinian who was himself able to leave the Gaza Strip just a few days earlier and now wants to get his family out. "Then you're allowed to go up to the fourth floor where you can have the names of your relatives noted down." 

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Rafah offensive drives up prices

Once the personal details have been checked, the applicant's name is called. He pays the money, his relatives are put on a list at the border crossing in Rafah, which is presented to officials there upon exit. The Palestinian who recently got out says he paid 10,000 dollars. 

"The prices vary from day to day, depending on the baksheesh (bribe) that needs to be additionally paid to the border guards," he says. The more desperate the plight of the Palestinians now in the border city of Rafah, the greater the demand for an exit plan and the higher the prices.

Eyewitnesses report that the Israeli army has already prepared everything for an offensive in Rafah. On Monday (6 May), the Israeli army ordered around 100,000 people in the eastern part of Rafah to move to the Al-Mawasi camp on the Mediterranean a few kilometres to the north. 

This would put 1.2 million Palestinians in acute danger. This is because many fled to the south from northern and central areas of the Gaza Strip because it was safer there. 

At the start of their campaign against Hamas, the Israelis also called on people to flee south. After six months of fierce fighting Israel has now set its sights on the south, first and foremost Rafah on the border with Egypt. It suspects the last Hamas battalion is holed up here, and above all the mastermind behind the 7 October attacks against Israeli civilians, Yahya Sinwar. 

People waiting at the Rafah border crossing
People waiting at the Rafah border crossing: Egyptians control this trade in Palestinian lives, reveals an insider who does not wish to be named. The informant is aware that Hamas recently tried to secure its slice of the pie, but the Egyptians immediately shut the border until Hamas relented (image: Khaled Omar/Xinhua/picture alliance)

German citizens allowed to leave

The Gaza Strip has been sealed off since the Israeli army's ground invasion. Border crossings to Israel and Cairo are officially closed. Egypt wants to avoid a Palestinian exodus at all costs. Aid is entering the Gaza Strip from Egypt once the shipments have been cleared by the Israeli authorities.

International organisations load the goods onto lorries at the Mediterranean port of El-Arish in North Sinai or the airport there and drive them to the border. Once there, the vehicles often have to wait several days before they get the green light to enter the Gaza Strip. Those exiting the territory include people with serious injuries, who are then treated at the hospital in El-Arish, aid agency staff and foreign nationals.

In recent months, Germany has managed to get many of its citizens out of the Gaza hell hole. Most of those passing through the Rafah border crossing had German passports. Employees of German organisations like GIZ have also been able to leave the Gaza Strip. A laborious procedure, according to embassy sources in Cairo. 

An Egyptian representation in Ramallah registers German citizens wishing the leave the country. Then, the embassy begins running the gauntlet: securing agreement from the Israelis, Hamas and finally, the Egyptian authorities. 

Once the person is listed for departure, a member of staff from the consulate in Cairo has to travel eight hours over the Sinai Peninsula until they arrive in Rafah on the Egyptian side of the border crossing to receive the individual leaving the Gaza Strip. 

This individual is then allowed to remain in Egypt for 72 hours before travelling on to Germany. Egypt wants rid of them as quickly and it is the embassy's job to ensure they leave.

"King of the border crossing"

Hala arrangements are different. Those who pay can stay in Egypt. Illegally and without documents. A grey area that's being tacitly tolerated. The business with the fate of the Palestinians is firmly in Egyptian hands, reveals an insider who chooses to remain anonymous. Official minders outside the Hala office register every conversation in the queue.

The informant is aware that Hamas recently tried to secure its slice of the pie, but the Egyptians immediately shut the border until Hamas relented. The man at the helm of the Hala agency is a certain Ibrahim al-Argany, a shady businessman described as the "border crossing king" by Mada Masr, the only remaining critical media outlet in autocratic Egypt

Mada Masr, no longer published in paper form and now only online, staffed by journalists who regularly end up in jail, discovered that Argany's contacts extend as far up as the entourage of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.

Argany played a key role when the Cairo leadership's control of the Sinai threatened to slip away after the mass demonstrations and the toppling of long-time president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. When jihadists from the Sinai joined IS in 2014, the loyalty of local clans became a central issue for the Sisi regime. At the time, Argany spearheaded the merger of several tribes and in 2017, he set up a militia to support the Egyptian military in its fight against militant Islamists.

Now, the Argany Group is omnipresent in Egypt. It develops property on a huge scale, organises aid shipments to the Gaza Strip and supports security companies. But right now, the refugee business is likely its most lucrative.

Birgit Svensson

© Qantara.de 2024

Translated from the German by Nina Coon