“They treat us like a bag of money”: Dark network charges thousands of dollars from Gazans fleeing to Egypt | International

When the first lists of Egyptian citizens authorized to leave Gaza began to be published as part of the operations to evacuate foreigners stuck in the Gaza Strip with the start of the Israeli military offensive, some understood that something was wrong. wasn’t going. A young Gazan, who spoke to EL PAÍS on condition of anonymity for security reasons, explains that he found, among the lists, the names of members of wealthy families from Gaza who had no nationality other than Palestinian, a group of citizens who, in theory, had no right to leave.

In his entourage, it quickly became an open secret that, despite the official Egyptian policy of keeping the border closed to Gazans – to avoid participating in an ethnic cleansing of the Gaza Strip – there was a way to circumvent the veto. . “We knew (these families) well, so we wondered how they were coping. And we discovered that the border was open to everyone who had money,” says the young man, who was then in Rafah, in the south of the Gaza Strip next to the Egyptian border, after fleeing the Gaza city with his family under expulsion orders from the Israeli army.

The problem wasn’t that they were asking him for money to go out. But they asked for a lot of money: $10,000. Despite this, his entire family, after considering their options, decided that it would be best to use their savings so that at least he could leave Gaza and try to help them from the outside. The alternative was to all remain in the Gaza Strip, with no prospects for the future and with their money quickly evaporating due to high prices in the enclave. That’s when he went to a cold office where they took his name and collected the money. Only 48 hours later, in the night, the young man received a call asking him to report to the Rafah border post at six in the morning.

Once on the Egyptian side of the crossing, the Gazan says spending so much money did not prevent him from being the subject of a thorough investigation by local authorities, nor hours of waiting. Nor having to pay for everything: the visa, the exit form, the luggage, the transport. “You are certainly the exception,” he emphasizes, but “you only pay this money to get by,” adds the young man, who finally managed to leave Gaza and is now in an Asian country. “They treat us like a bag of money,” he laments.

Like him, Palestinian citizens of Gaza who want to leave the enclave are forced to pay an opaque network of intermediaries between 4,500 and 11,000 dollars (the equivalent between 4,150 and 10,150 euros) to obtain an entry permit. in Egypt, according to three testimonies consulted by this newspaper. To finance this process, many Gazans are engaging in numerous crowdfunding campaigns via the Internet. EL PAÍS was able to verify the existence of more than 100 operations of this type. In most cases, the amounts requested vary between $7,000 and $10,000, while for children, the amounts can fluctuate between $1,000 and $3,000.

Corruption accusations

Join EL PAÍS to follow all the news and read without limits.


The ins and outs of the process and how middlemen in Gaza move payers across the border are unclear. But a joint investigation by Egyptian media Sahih Masr and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project’s (OCCRP) global network of investigative journalists, based on more than a dozen interviews, shows that the ability to quickly obtain approval from the Egyptian security services controlling the border is giving rise to accusations that a system of corruption is in place. oil the machine.

The Chairman of the Egyptian State Information Service, Diaa Rashwan, who acts as the official spokesperson, called reports of the collection of fees from travelers at the Rafah crossing “false accusations” in a press release published at the end of January. And he called on Palestinian citizens to inform Egyptian authorities at the border crossing of any attempt or request to collect illegal taxes.

But this opaque network of middlemen and travel agents operating in Egypt and Gaza has been active for years, according to media and human rights groups. When times are calm, they expedite the obtaining of entry permits for Gazan citizens into Egypt. And in times of tension, when the border may remain closed, they make this possible. Between late 2014 and mid-2018, the Rafah crossing was closed almost every day, according to crossing data, due to Egypt’s counterterrorism operations in turbulent North Sinai. Since then, its openness has been constant. However, in 2016, the Qatari network Al Jazeera It has previously documented payments to middlemen of up to $10,000 by Palestinians in Gaza who wanted to leave the Strip.

According to a report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Since 2018, the departure of people via Rafah has been “confusing and opaque” due to the existence of two procedures. On the one hand, the official electronic process, managed by the Ministry of the Interior of the Band. And on the other, a list coordinated by the Egyptian authorities. The report warns against the payment of bribes in Gaza and Egypt to guarantee travel and a faster response in cases handled by the second track.

“In 2022, we publish a report to mark the 15th anniversary of the Gaza blockade, and difficulty getting out was one of the things we documented. The Israeli authorities have a great responsibility, but so do the Egyptian authorities, because they control the Rafah border,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, communications director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “From the testimonies we collected, we learned that some Egyptian authorities were asking for money from Palestinians who wanted to cross the border. Basically, they extorted them,” he says.

Another Gazan, who is still in the Gaza Strip and trying to get money to leave the enclave, says that although he has brothers with brain disorders, the amount the middlemen get him request is also $10,000 per person. “We are not receiving any help and we need this coordination to cross Rafah and enter Egypt, but it is very expensive and difficult,” he explains, on condition of anonymity.

“Coordination” is what the role of intermediaries who allow Palestinians to pass through the Rafah crossing via the unofficial list is locally called. The most important intermediary, according to testimonies reported by this newspaper and other investigations, is an Egyptian travel agency called Hala, which, according to its Facebook posts, has several agents in Gaza and periodically opens registration for citizens Egyptians in Franja to be able to begin the process of traveling.

The company belongs to Ibrahim al Ergany, a businessman close to the highest echelons of the Egyptian state and founder of a federation of families and tribes from North Sinai which has collaborated since 2017 with the army and the forces of Egyptian security in its fight against terrorism. in the area, according to independent Egyptian media Mrs. Masr. One of his companies, Beni Sinai, was a major beneficiary of plans to rebuild Gaza after the 2021 Israeli offensive. And Hala’s address in Cairo is the same as Beni Sinai’s headquarters , it shows your LinkedIn profile.

The third testimony collected by this newspaper, offered by a man who is in Europe trying to get his wife out of Gaza, indicates that there are other intermediaries who charge less than Hala and can lower the price to $5,000 . But this route offers few guarantees. “There are people who coordinate cheaply, but maybe they’re setting a trap for you, maybe it’s a lie, or maybe they’re giving you a mission,” explains he said without further details. “If I had $5,000, I would have already paid it, but I don’t have that amount yet,” he says.

Once they crossed the Rafah crossing, the first testimonies ensure that the treatment they received from the Egyptian authorities was generally disastrous. But he assures that the alternative is worse. “He is very tired. I survived six wars. (When I left) I was disappointed, I only thought that I had lost my university, I had lost my friends, my job, my career, my future. “I wasn’t going anywhere,” he slips. “But nothing was better than dying in war, I’m a survivor of a genocide, and anything is better than staying there .”

Follow all international news on Facebook And Xor in our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe to continue reading

Read without limits