Even Egyptian passport holders charged $650 to $1,200

Gazans reportedly charged exorbitant sums by Egyptian company to leave Strip

Fees levied to go through Rafah said to reach $10,000, making exit impossible for most Gazans; many resort to crowdfunding, while some relatives of Hamas members have already fled

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Travelers crossing from the Gaza Strip enter the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing with the Palestinian enclave following their evacuation on December 18, 2023. (AFP)
Travelers crossing from the Gaza Strip enter the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing with the Palestinian enclave following their evacuation on December 18, 2023. (AFP)

Faced with displacement, bombings and dire food shortages, thousands of Gazans have attempted to make their way into Egypt through the Rafah border crossing since the start of the war on October 7. Profiting off their desperation, so-called brokers are reportedly demanding exorbitant sums for passage through the only open land corridor leaving the Strip.

International media sources have reported that Gazans have been paying amounts ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 per person to flee the embattled enclave.

Leaving Gaza was already a complicated matter before the start of the war due to the blockade imposed by both Israel and Egypt since 2007 on the Hamas-run enclave, aimed to prevent the import of weapons and other materials for the Hamas war machine.

Waiting lists for Hamas’s approval could take months, but back then, Gazans had the option of paying several hundred dollars to one of a handful of Egyptian brokers to skip the line and have their name placed on a separate list of travelers approved by Egyptian authorities, distinct from the lists handled by Hamas.

Since the start of the war, cross-border travel managed by Hamas authorities has been halted. Those allowed to leave are mainly foreign and dual nationals, as well as injured people seeking treatment in Egypt.

For Palestinians without a foreign passport, the only way out is now through an Egyptian travel agency called Hala. Every few days the company releases a list of hundreds of names of Gazans who are permitted to cross the border into safety.

The Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip, on January 29, 2024. (Said Khatib/AFP)

According to a report last month on Israel’s Channel 11, the company has been charging $2,500 for children below the age of 16, and $5,000 for people above 16. Other sources such as The Guardian report that the cost for an adult can reach up to $10,000, while Egyptian passport holders are said to be charged between $650 and $1,200, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

The fees are said to be paid in cash, sometimes paid by relatives abroad to middlemen based in Europe and the US. Foreign nationals have also faced difficulties leaving Gaza without paying, according to a Sky News report.

Among the thousands who have managed to escape the war-torn Strip are relatives of high-ranking Hamas members, who tend to be much wealthier than the general population. Israel’s Channel 12 revealed last week that without Israel’s knowledge, recent travel lists included five nephews of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar from the Mahmoud family, as well as the two children of Hamas police spokesman Ayman Albatanji, and the wife and children of Sameh Al-Siraj, a member of the Hamas politburo.

Many Gazans who do not have the financial resources of Hamas members have resorted to online crowdfunding campaigns to collect the necessary funds, which can amount to tens of thousands of dollars for large families. The GoFundMe website lists hundreds of appeals of Gazans, usually residing abroad, raising money for their relatives to pay the exit fees.

Screengrab from the GoFundMe crowdfunding page with campaigns to collect money for Gazan families, March 6, 2024.

Egyptian authorities say they have put an end to the lucrative business of exorbitant border-crossing fees. The London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported in February that Cairo ordered the Hala company to suspend its services following the uproar caused by media reports on its border dealings.

In an interview with Sky News last week, Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry said Cairo would “take action vis-à-vis anyone who has been implicated in such activities.”

Cairo’s claims, however, have been met with skepticism by those who maintain that the powerful Egyptian army, which controls the border and is a prominent player in the Egyptian economy, must have been complicit in the racket.

Amr Magdi, an Egypt expert at the Human Rights Watch organization, told Sky News that “there can’t be such economic activity, especially when it is a monopoly, without a green light from the military and without actual connections to the military.”

A top businessman appears to profit from Gaza’s calamities

The Hala travel agency is part of the Abnaa Sina (Sons of Sinai) company, a construction and contracting firm owned by Sinai businessman Ibrahim al-Organi, and part of his vast Organi Group.

A tribal chieftain and militia leader, Organi built a smuggling empire two decades ago that crossed the Sinai Peninsula and reached into Gaza and Israel. The oligarch has ascended to prominence in Egyptian business and high society, and is today considered one of the closest allies of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and the Egyptian military.

Ibrahim Al-Organi, founder of the Egyptian Organi Group business conglomerate (from the Organi Group website)

Some of Organi’s companies have joint ventures with the Egyptian army and the security services, according to the Middle East Eye news site, and the Organi group is a sponsor of Cairo’s celebrated Al-Ahly Football Club, one of the most successful soccer teams in Africa.

Organi’s companies appear to have profited from the misery of Gazans not just through passage fees for desperate civilians. Middle East Eye reported in late January that the Sons of Sinai firm charged private humanitarian organizations up to $5,000 for each aid truck that crossed into the Strip.

Former US diplomat Alberto Fernandez, a veteran Middle East expert and vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), said in a recent article that Organi’s construction companies have been involved in the building of a walled enclosure outside Rafah that could house 100,000 Gazans in case of a mass exodus, and his construction empire is likely to profit from the postwar reconstruction of Gaza.

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