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The only way to escape the Gaza war is to buy your way out


The only way for almost all of Gaza’s people to escape the horrors of the war between Israel and Hamas is to leave through neighboring Egypt.

It is often a complicated and expensive process that requires paying thousands of dollars to an Egyptian company that puts the Palestinian on a list of approved travelers and across the border.

Faced with the company’s high fees and widespread hunger in Gaza with no end in sight to Israel’s military campaign, many Palestinians have resorted to trying to raise funds through desperate appeals on digital platforms such as GoFundMe.

Dr Salim Ghayyda, a paediatrician in northern Scotland, issued such a plea in January after his sister texted from Gaza saying their father had suffered a seizure.

Their father was taken to hospital and survived, but Dr. Ghayyda, 52, who left Gaza in 2003, said the incident made him determined to evacuate his family at all costs.

“I went to bed one night expecting to wake up to the news that my family had all passed away,” he said. “I felt helpless and hopeless, but I knew I had to do something.”

An estimated 100,000 people have left Gaza in the past eight months, Palestinian Ambassador to Egypt Diab Lu said in an interview. While some have managed to leave through connections with foreign organizations or governments, for many Gazans, the only way to leave the area is through Hala, a company that appears to have close ties to the Egyptian government.

Today, the future of the crossing is uncertain, especially after the Israeli army launched an offensive against Hamas in Rafah and seized the crossing point there, leading to its closure in May. Gazans have not been allowed to cross the crossing since then, and it is unclear when it will reopen.

The New York Times interviewed more than a dozen people inside and outside Gaza who have tried to leave Gaza or help family members or friends leave. All but one spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals by the Egyptian authorities against them or their friends and relatives.

There are other ways to leave Gaza, but many of them also require significant fees. One way is to pay unofficial middlemen in the Gaza Strip or Egypt who demand between $8,000 and $15,000 per person in exchange for arranging a departure within a few days, according to four Palestinians who paid or tried to pay the fees.

Palestinians associated with international organizations and governments, holders of foreign passports or visas, the injured and some students attending universities outside Gaza can leave without paying large fees, but most of Gaza’s more than 2 million people do not fall into those categories.

Hala charges $5,000 to coordinate the exits of most people 16 and older and $2,500 for most people under 16, according to seven people who have gone through or attempted the process.

Harrah officials did not respond to emailed questions. Ibrahim OganyiHis company, Organi Group, lists Hala as one of its subsidiaries and he claims to be a shareholder, and he disputes the fees, insisting that children travel for free while adults pay $2,500. He says the money is necessary because Hala provides a “VIP” service, arguing that operating costs have soared during the war.

Mr. Oghani, a tycoon who helped the Egyptian government fight extremists in the Sinai Peninsula, maintained close ties with top Egyptian officials, according to three people who tracked the relationship and spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their work in the region. Mr. Oghani denied that he had benefited unfairly from those relationships.

One man living in a tent on the beach in the central Gaza city of Deir el-Balah said he felt as if he was dealing with war profiteers because he was being financially squeezed at the most vulnerable moment of his life.

He felt he had no choice but to sign up with Hala. The 48-year-old must raise money to support his wife and seven children, some of whom must pay adult fares. That means he needs $37,500, he said, but so far he has raised only $7,330 on GoFundMe.

“What other options are there? None,” he said.

Hala requires people to go through a complex bureaucratic process to register their loved ones. According to Dr. Ghayyda and three other people with knowledge of Hala’s payment process, the company requires family members to visit its office in Cairo and pay for its services using $100 bills issued in 2013 or later. Mr Oganyi denied any knowledge of the practice and said those who paid with hundred dollar notes were being duped by illegal brokers.

When Dr. Geida traveled to the Egyptian capital in February to register his parents, sister and nephew, he took his 23-year-old son with him so he wouldn’t have to carry more than $10,000 in cash. By then, he had raised about $25,000.

“The whole process is very time-consuming, complicated and uncertain,” he said.

In an interview at his Cairo office, Ogani spoke at length about the activities of the Harrah Group but said he had a limited role in the company and was just one of many shareholders. Harrah Group had long been listed on the Ogani Group’s website as one of the group’s companies, but that reference appeared to have been removed recently. Ogani Group did not respond to a request for comment when asked why it had removed Harrah Group from its website.

Mr. Oghani described Hala as a travel company “like any company that has a presence at the airport,” and said it was set up in 2017 to provide VIP services to Palestinian travelers who wanted an upgraded experience when crossing the Rafah crossing.

“I help them only if they want to come into the lounge, have breakfast, take a nice BMW to Cairo, rest a bit and then go to their destination,” he said. “Our job is to provide the best possible service, nothing more.”

Several Palestinians who used Hala services during the war said they did not receive VIP treatment: they were taken to Cairo in minibuses and given basic food.

Mr. Ogany said increased wartime demand for services such as the Rafah to Cairo ride forced the company to raise prices.

He spoke in an office where a large photo of him and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi hangs on one wall. Asked about Hala’s ties to the Egyptian government and allegations that he profited from sweetheart contracts, he insisted he was being defamed by news outlets linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political group that briefly served as Egypt’s president more than a decade ago until el-Sisi’s military seized power.

In April, a reporter visited the towering stained-glass building that houses Hala’s offices in downtown Cairo and found 40 people lined up outside, clutching piles of photocopied documents and bundles of cash.

The people gathered there discussed exchange rates loudly in Palestinian Arabic as they waited for two Egyptian Harrah employees to allow them into the building, while cars and taxis nearby brought in more customers.

When asked about the allegations against Egypt in this article, the Egyptian government referred The New York Times to Previous Comments Egyptian officials, including Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, made the decision.

In an interview with Sky News in February, Shoukry said he could not tolerate the $5,000 fee charged by Hala TV and said Egypt would take steps to eliminate the fees. The Egyptian government did not respond to a request for comment on its relationship with Hala TV.

COGAT, an Israeli Defense Ministry agency responsible for implementing government policy in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, declined to comment on Israel’s role in the Palestinian process through the Rafah crossing. Israel works with Egypt and the United States to assist foreigners and dual nationals in leaving the Gaza Strip, according to COGAT’s website.

Israel allows almost no Gazans to seek asylum in its territory or to travel through it to other places.

GoFundMe said in a statement in mid-May that it had received more than $150 million in donations for fundraisers related to the Gaza war and that there were about 19,000 fundraisers on its platform, including for evacuations, medical care and food.

Donors include friends, relatives and their social networks, as well as strangers with no direct connection to the fundraiser creator.

A 30-year-old Palestinian man who had been crammed into a small tent in Rafah said he decided to leave in January. He could no longer tolerate the unsanitary conditions. To shower, he had to boil water on a makeshift wood stove and pour the water into a plastic bucket, which he dragged into a dirty room that only had a toilet. He used a bottle to pour water over himself to simulate a shower, a process he described as inhumane.

He also participated in a GoFundMe campaign. His family raised more than $55,000 to cover the expenses of the 12 members’ departure. He and his family arrived in Egypt a month ago.

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

He was ecstatic but still stressed—28 relatives were still trapped in Rafah and Gaza City, and his parents needed to start a new life in Cairo, at least until the war ended. (In May, he successfully rescued four more family members.)

“It’s really bittersweet,” he said. “Seeing my parents, my sister and my nephew means everything to me. But I’m still afraid for my family still in Gaza. I can’t breathe normally again unless I know they’re safe.”

Emmad Mekay and Yu Weiwei Contributed reporting.

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