When the only way out of the war in Gaza is to buy your way out

The only way for almost all Gazans to escape the horrors of the war between Israel and Hamas is to flee through neighboring Egypt.

And this is usually a complicated and expensive task, involving paying thousands of dollars to an Egyptian company that can put Palestinians on an approved travel list to cross the border.

Faced with high societal tariffs, as well as 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 like GoFundMe.

Dr. Salim Ghayyda, a pediatrician from northern Scotland, issued one such appeal in January after his sister texted him from Gaza to say their father had been having seizures.

Their father arrived at hospital and survived, but Dr Ghayyda, 52, who left Gaza in 2003, said the episode convinced him he had to evacuate his family at any cost.

“I thought one night I would go to sleep and wake up to the news that my family was gone,” he said. “I felt helpless and hopeless, but I knew I had to do something.”

Over the past eight months, around 100,000 people have left Gaza, Diab al-Louh, the Palestinian ambassador to Egypt, said in an interview. Although some have managed to escape through connections with foreign organizations or governments, for many Gazans exit from the territory is only possible through Hala, a company that appears to be closely linked to the Egyptian government.

Now the future of that avenue is uncertain, especially after the Israeli army launched an offensive against Hamas in Rafah and took control of the crossing, leading to its closure in May. No Gazans have been allowed to cross since then and it is unclear when it will reopen.

The New York Times spoke to a dozen people in and outside Gaza who were trying to leave the territory or help family or friends do so. All but one spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by Egyptian authorities against them or their relatives or friends.

There are other routes out of Gaza, but many of them also require large payments. One route is to pay unofficial intermediaries in the enclave or in Egypt, who ask for $8,000 to $15,000 per person in exchange for arranging their departure within a few days, according to four Palestinians who have made the payments or attempted to do so.

Palestinians linked to international organizations and governments, holders of foreign passports or visas, the injured, and some students enrolled at universities outside Gaza were able to leave without paying large taxes, but most of the more than two million people living in the enclave they don't fall. in those categories.

Hala charges $5,000 to coordinate the outings of most people 16 and older and $2,500 for most those younger than that age, according to seven people who have gone through this process or tried to do so .

Hala officials did not respond to emailed questions. But Ibrahim al-Organi, whose company, Organi Group, listed Hala as one of its companies and who describes himself as a shareholder, disputed that the company charged such amounts, insisting that children traveled for free and that adults they paid $2,500. He claimed that this amount was necessary because the service provided by Hala is VIP and claimed that operating costs had skyrocketed during the war.

Mr. Organi, a tycoon with a history of helping the Egyptian government fight extremists in the Sinai Peninsula, maintains close ties to senior Egyptian officials, according to three people who followed the report and spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their work in the region. He denied having unfairly benefited from his contacts.

A man living in a tent on the beach in Deir al Balah, a town in central Gaza, said he felt like he was dealing with war profiteers because he was being squeezed financially during the most vulnerable period of his life.

He felt he had no choice but to sign up with Hala. The man, 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 so far he's only been able to find $7,330 on GoFundMe.

“What is the alternative? There is none,” she said.

Hala makes people go through a complicated bureaucratic process to register their loved ones. According to Dr. Ghayyda and three other people familiar with Hala's payment process, the company requires a family member to visit its offices in Cairo and pay for the service with $100 bills issued since 2013. Mr Organi denied knowledge of the practice and said those who paid $100 bills were defrauded by illegal intermediaries.

In February, when Dr. Ghayyda traveled to the Egyptian capital to register his parents, sister and nephew, he took his 23-year-old son with him to avoid carrying more than $10,000. By then he had raised about $25,000.

“The whole process was quite long, complex and uncertain,” he said.

In an interview in his office in Cairo, Mr. Organi spoke at length and in detail about Hala's activities, although 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 appears to have been removed recently. Organi Group did not respond to a request for comment when asked why they removed Hala from their website.

Mr. Organi described Hala as a tour company, “just like any company that exists at an airport,” and said it was founded in 2017 to provide VIP services to Palestinian travelers who wanted a better experience crossing into Rafah.

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

Numerous Palestinians who used Hala's service during the war said they were not offered VIP service: they were taken to Cairo in a minibus and given basic food.

Mr Organi said increased wartime demand for services such as travel from Rafah to Cairo had forced the company to raise prices.

He spoke in an office where a large photo of him with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was displayed on one wall. When asked about Hala's ties to the Egyptian government and allegations that Hala profits from love contracts, he insisted he had been vilified by media outlets linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic political group that briefly held the presidency of Egypt more than ten years ago until The Egyptian army, led by el-Sisi, took power.

During an April visit to a towering stained-glass building in central Cairo that houses Hala's offices, 40 people lined up outside with stacks of photocopied documents and wads of cash in hand.

The gathered people chatted loudly about exchange rates in Palestinian Arabic as they waited for two Egyptian Hala employees to allow them into the building and as cars and taxis dropped off other customers nearby.

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

Mr Shoukry told Sky News in February that he did not condone Hala's collection of $5,000 in taxes and said Egypt would take steps to eliminate the taxes. The Egyptian government did not respond to a request for comment on his relationship with Hala.

COGAT, an agency of the Israeli Defense Ministry that implements government policy in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, declined to comment on what role Israel plays in the movement of Palestinians through the Rafah crossing. According to the COGAT website, Israel has facilitated the exit of foreign and dual citizens from Gaza in coordination with Egypt and the United States.

Israel has allowed almost no Gazans to seek refuge in its territory or to cross it to reach other places.

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

Contributors include friends, relatives and their social networks, but also strangers with no direct ties to the fundraisers.

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

He also resorted to a GoFundMe campaign. His family raised more than $55,000 to pay for the departure of 12 members. A month ago, he and his family arrived in Egypt.

In April, Dr. Ghayyda, the pediatrician, traveled to Egypt a second time, this time to reunite with his parents, sister and nephew, who had just managed to leave Gaza in time for Eid al-Fitr .

He was overwhelmed with joy, but still felt a huge burden: 28 close relatives were trapped in Rafah and Gaza City, and his parents would have to start a new life in Cairo, at least until the end of the war. (He secured the release of four other family members in May.)

“It's bittersweet,” he said. “It meant a lot to me to see my parents, my sister and my nephew. But I am still consumed by constant fears for my family who are still in Gaza. I won't feel like I can breathe normally again until I know I'm safe.”

Mother Mekay AND Viviana Yee contributed to the reporting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *