The Cost of Leaving Gaza

For Palestinians desperate to flee the war, the price of safety is up to $10,000 — per person

The Cost of Leaving Gaza
A woman reacts as she and her family prepare to flee north from Rafah, southern Gaza, on Feb. 13. (Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images)

“But where should they go?” When Israeli spokespeople say they are trying to minimize casualties in Gaza by warning civilians to evacuate ahead of a military incursion, interviewers almost invariably ask the obvious follow-up question. The Israeli officials’ response is evasive; they know that for people in Gaza, many of whom have been displaced several times since the war began, there is no safe place left. The north of the territory has been all but flattened and cut off from the south, which is under bombardment, while battles between Hamas and the Israeli military are ongoing in the center.

The only possible route out of the besieged territory, apart from the two now-closed crossings into Israeli territory, is via the crossing at Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, which borders Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. But escape to Egypt is possible only for the few who have the documents, the connections and — most importantly — the money.

Leaving Gaza via the Rafah crossing was not a simple matter even before Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. Permissions had to be obtained, money paid and weekslong bureaucratic delays endured. But since the war began, the price of a crossing permit has skyrocketed. Egyptian brokers once charged a few hundred dollars per person for a permit; they liaised with Hamas border officials and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli Ministry of Defense unit that deals with civilian matters in the occupied Palestinian territories. (COGAT has final approval over the lists of applicants for crossing permits.) Now, according to a detailed investigation published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a cross-border, nonprofit investigative journalism collective, the price of a permit ranges between $4,500 to $10,000 per adult and $2,000 to $5,000 per child. Gazans who hold Egyptian nationality must pay a bribe of $650 to $1,200 per person to enter their own country.

While few people in Gaza have the money to pay the brokers, some have friends and relatives abroad who are trying to help. On Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, people are posting fundraising appeals accompanied by heartbreaking stories — to help their family, their friends and their colleagues stuck in Gaza. Mohammed Awad, a British Palestinian from northern Gaza who lives in the U.K., posted a GoFundMe titled “Lifeline: Help Evacuate My Family From Gaza,” illustrated with a photo of his parents and six siblings in his hometown of Jabalia. He is trying to raise 50,000 pounds ($63,000) for the crossing permits and travel-related expenses. As of this writing, the GoFundMe shows donations of just over 4,100 pounds ($5,200), far short of his goal.

“Only the rich can get out,” he said during a phone interview with New Lines. In addition to the crossing permit fees, he needs money for the cost of his family’s travel from Rafah to Cairo, their accommodation and expenses in Cairo, and flights to London. Besides the challenge of raising the money, he faces monumental bureaucratic and connectivity obstacles that sound all but insurmountable. His family is trapped in Jabalia in northern Gaza, living in their mostly destroyed house, cut off from aid trucks, potable water and electricity. They have run out of staples like flour and cooking oil, said Mohammed. Their only food is meat, which they purchase from farmers who are slaughtering their animals, and whatever they can forage.

With cellphone access to Gaza cut off, his family pays to use someone’s eSIM card for a brief conversation once or twice a week. Mohammed’s brother-in-law was killed early in the war, leaving his widowed sister with three young children and the discovery that she was newly pregnant. Another obstacle: Only Mohammed’s mother has a valid passport. His younger sister was just short of her 16th birthday when the war began, so she does not even have an identity card. Palestinian Authority travel documents and identity cards can only be obtained from Ramallah, in the West Bank, but even if Mohammed could contact the office there, getting the documents to Gaza would be impossible. Mohammed could not answer the question of how he would arrange crossing permits, airline tickets and visas for his undocumented relatives, even if he did succeed in raising the necessary funds.

International aid agencies estimate that there are now about 1.7 million displaced people huddled into an area of about 24 square miles at Rafah, the southern city that borders Egypt. Before the war, Rafah had a population of about 280,000. The displaced are living in nylon tents, if they can get one from the inadequate number of aid trucks allowed into the besieged territory. The lucky ones are staying at the homes of relatives. Some are simply sleeping on the street. There is very little infrastructure. Potable water, food and medical care are scarce and there is no sewage treatment anywhere in Gaza, since the Israeli army cut off electricity on Oct. 8. International aid agencies now frequently warn of an impending health catastrophe from disease and hunger. According to a Feb. 20 communique from the World Health Program, people are “already dying from hunger-related causes.”

On top of all this unfathomable misery, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now says he has ordered the Israeli military command to prepare plans for a major ground assault on Rafah, where Israel believes the leadership of Hamas’ military wing is hiding. The goal, said Netanyahu, was to “finish the job” of defeating Hamas and freeing the remaining 132 hostages. Most of the people trapped between the Israeli army and Rafah crossing have very few options left and have been uprooted several times over the past four months, moving when the Israelis ordered them to evacuate ahead of a military incursion. Some are packing up and heading north again, despite the ongoing fighting there. Others are staying in Rafah and hoping that the international community dissuades Netanyahu from ordering the incursion.

Egypt is worried that if there is a massive Israeli military incursion into Rafah, a critical mass of people, kettled between the Israeli army and the Egyptian border, will run to the crossing and try to push through. To prevent this from happening, the Egyptian army has increased its security presence on the Sinai side of Rafah. Egypt is also preparing a contingency plan if a large number of people do break through the crossing. According to reports published by major media outlets including The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and The Associated Press, satellite images show workers on the Egyptian side of Rafah using heavy machinery to flatten earth and erect concrete walls topped with watchtowers around an 8-square-mile strip of land. The enclosed area could, according to these reports, house about 100,000 people. But the images do not show any infrastructure, such as shelters, water supply or toilets.

Israeli television news reports almost nothing of what is happening to civilians in Gaza; the only images they show are of ruined houses, earth churned up by armored personnel carriers and flattened landscapes. The images of overflowing emergency rooms with wounded children lying on the floor, of rescuers pulling people out of crushed buildings, of mass graves and the tent camp at Rafah, are entirely absent. This selective reporting is not new — I described the same phenomenon in a 2009 piece for the Columbia Journalism Review about the Israeli media’s coverage of Operation Cast Lead.

As I wrote then, and this remains true today, Israelis have always felt that they face constant existential threats from their neighbors and that a powerful military response is the only possible deterrent. They are still utterly traumatized by the attacks Hamas carried out on Oct. 7; it’s fair to say that, more than four months later, they are still living the events of that terrible day, which many — perhaps most — see as proof that peace with the Palestinians is impossible. In this atmosphere, there is no appetite for self-criticism or compassion for the other side, so television news is patriotic about the war, highlighting soldiers’ bravery and showing only scenes devoid of humans in Gaza; the destroyed buildings are described as Hamas hideouts or places where soldiers discovered weapons caches. This coverage reinforces the widespread conviction that “their” soldiers don’t deliberately harm civilians, that people die because Hamas uses them as human shields, and that the international media is axiomatically anti-Israel.

Most Israelis speak English well enough to follow the news about Gaza in the international media, but for the most part they choose to let their own media act as gatekeepers. In this role, a television news presenter will summarize an article or television report critical of Israel that was published in an international media outlet and hold it up as evidence that the world doesn’t care about Israel’s trauma, or doesn’t understand its need to reestablish security after the Hamas incursion of Oct. 7. Scrolling through Israeli social media makes clear that the vast majority of Israelis are either unaware of what Palestinians are enduring in Gaza, or simply do not believe the reports in the international media.

During a recent episode of Haaretz newspaper’s twice-weekly news analysis podcast (in Hebrew), there was a revealing exchange that illustrated the strong and prevailing sense of national victimhood in Israel. The host, Lior Kodner, asked Einat Wilf, a former Israeli politician who was a member of the Knesset for the Labor Party, where Palestinians trapped in Rafah should go. This, she answered dismissively, was not Israel’s problem. Let the Egyptians take care of them, she said. Kodner pressed: And what about food for hungry dispossessed people? Under no circumstances, said Wilf, should Israel send food aid through its crossings — not after what Hamas had done to Israelis on Oct. 7. Let the Egyptians feed them, she said. Kodner moved on without asking her why the Egyptians were responsible for taking care of the Palestinians that Israel had dispossessed. Nor did he comment on what was implicit in Wilf’s comments — i.e., that ordinary Palestinians in Gaza were complicit in the Oct. 7 attacks and should be held responsible.

Egypt is, of course, not responsible for the catastrophic situation in Gaza, nor does it want that responsibility. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is particularly wary of any temporary influx of Palestinians, certain that Israel would never let them return. (Israel seems to be in the process of confirming this belief by making the territory uninhabitable.) Nor does the Egyptian government relish the thought of Palestinian exiles who will include Hamas supporters — the Palestinian Islamist organization that has controlled Gaza since 2007 is an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, formerly led by Mohamed Morsi, whom Sisi toppled from the presidency in a bloody coup in 2013.

Who are these Egyptian brokers charging astronomical fees for crossing permits? Whom do they work for and do they represent Egypt’s government?

According to several media reports, most notably the Jan. 25 OCCRP investigative feature mentioned above, the brokers charging these fees work for a Cairo-based agency called Hala Tourism and Consulting. Several people interviewed by New Lines confirmed that they contacted Hala through the company’s Facebook page.

Hala is under the umbrella of the Organi Group. Headquartered in Cairo’s Nasr City, the group owns companies that deal in several sectors of the economy, ranging from mining and construction to hospitality and transportation. The CEO is Ibrahim al-Organi, who is leader of the powerful Tarabin tribe in north Sinai and apparently has direct ties to the highest levels of the Egyptian government. Since all crossing permits approved by Egyptian intelligence must also be approved by COGAT, this means that al-Organi’s organization is coordinating with Israeli military intelligence as well.

One person involved in setting up a philanthropic organization to help evacuate wounded Gazans for medical treatment told New Lines that al-Organi was “a thug,” describing him as a drug and arms dealer. The charity refused to pay al-Organi for permits to evacuate the wounded children, so he prevented them from setting up operations on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing.

For reasons that are unclear, the Sisi regime has given al-Organi the power to enrich himself by charging enormous bribes from dispossessed people desperate to escape Gaza.

There is one group of Palestinians in Gaza who are legally entitled to leave — and who are exempt from paying a bribe to Hala Tourism and Consulting for a crossing permit. These are Gaza’s Israeli citizens. Gisha, a human rights organization in Israel that protects the legal rights of Palestinians in Gaza, has facilitated the departure of approximately 71 Israeli citizens through Rafah since November. In most cases, they or their mother were born in Israel, the West Bank or East Jerusalem, then met and married Palestinians from Gaza during the period between 1967 and 1991. This was years before Israel implemented its security barriers, checkpoints and closures; back then, Palestinians in the occupied territories had relative freedom of movement. Someone from East Jerusalem could work in Gaza, for example, or a student from Gaza could study in the West Bank. Bedouin women from Israel’s south would marry men in Gaza and settle there. (Israel’s 2003 Citizenship and Entry Law bans Palestinian citizens of Israel from extending their citizenship or residency to non-Israeli Palestinian spouses.)

Tania Hary, the executive director of Gisha, said that one of the women who managed to get out of Gaza through Rafah was a pregnant mother of two whose Jewish Israeli mother had married a Palestinian man and settled with him in Gaza. Another woman who lives in Israel had simply been visiting a close relative in Gaza when the war broke out; she was trapped for weeks before finally managing to make the harrowing, dangerous journey from northern Gaza to Rafah.

The Israeli authorities were not inclined to repatriate the Gazan women and children with Israeli citizenship. Gisha was forced to petition the Israeli courts, which agreed that the law was clear: COGAT was legally obligated to arrange for the women to leave Gaza. The state acquiesced, but imposed cruel conditions. Israeli citizenship can only be passed on for one generation, so a woman born in Gaza to an Israeli mother is an Israeli citizen, but her children are not. Hary said Gisha saw several cases of women who were eligible to leave but refused — because doing so would have meant leaving their children behind. COGAT refused to give permission to non-Israeli spouses, so many women desperate to save their small children were forced to leave without their husbands. The process of coordinating the permits for these women took many weeks. Meanwhile, said Hary, they were stuck in Gaza under bombardment, suffering from hunger.

Even after COGAT granted permission for the women and children with Israeli citizenship to leave Gaza, there were still more obstacles. Somehow, they had to get to Rafah, traveling through a war zone where civilians are frequently shot by snipers. In Rafah, they had to find a place to stay while they waited, for an undetermined number of days, to be called to the crossing. On at least one occasion, COGAT told a group of women and children to present themselves at the crossing, only for them to learn upon arrival that the Egyptians were not coordinating that day. So the women and children had to return to Rafah and wait several more days.

The Israeli authorities would not allow these Israeli citizens to be repatriated via Kerem Shalom, the crossing at the point where Gaza, Israel and Egypt intersect. This would have been a journey that could have been made in a few minutes. Instead, they had to leave via Rafah and travel by bus through Sinai to the Taba border crossing, then enter Israel via Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city. The one-hour journey cost each passenger $75.

Once at Taba, there was another hurdle: The women had to pay for a genetic test to prove they were really the children’s mothers — as if, Hary said incredulously, a woman would leave behind her own children and take someone else’s. COGAT’s insistence on the genetic test to prove maternity was absurd for another, more tangible reason: Israel controls the population registry in Gaza and the West Bank, so the children had been registered as Israeli citizens at birth. But the women could not enter Israel without taking the test, and it was not free. The cost of sending each saliva sample to a lab was 1,899 shekels ($524). And they had to pay a fee of 10,000 shekels ($2,760) per child as a guarantee while they waited at Taba for the genetic tests to be processed. Once the tests confirmed that the children were really theirs, the 10,000 shekels were returned. Somehow, usually with the help of their extended family in Israel, these exhausted, dispossessed women came up with the fees. And they still had no idea when — or if — they would be reunited with the spouses they had been forced to leave behind in Gaza.

The through line in this sad tale is cruelty. Al-Organi is not the only warlord to enrich himself by taking bribes from civilians desperate to escape to safety. Nor is this the first time the Israeli authorities have imposed cruel conditions on Palestinian civilians. But against the backdrop of the daily videos of unrelenting horror in Gaza, the details of the cruelty are cumulatively overwhelming.

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