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Palestinians stranded in Gaza after paying Egypt $5,000 each to flee

Palestinians ride on a vehicle as they flee Rafah after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation in the eastern part of the southern Gaza City, 13 May 2024 (Reuters/Mohammed Salem)

Hundreds of Palestinians were due to leave the enclave this month, but the Israeli seizure of the Rafah crossing has left them in limbo

The Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza has been closed indefinitely since the Israeli military seized the crossing on 7 May, a closure which has left thousands of Palestinians in limbo.

Since the beginning of Israel’s war on Gaza in October, and the subsequent closure of all other crossings, the Rafah crossing with Egypt has been the only passageway for civilians fleeing the conflict.

An Egyptian company with exclusive control on exits and transfers via the terminal had been charging Palestinians at least $5,000 per adult and $2,500 per child to cross to the Egyptian side.

In April, Hala Consulting and Tourism Services, a firm owned by Sinai tribal leader and business tycoon Ibrahim al-Organi, made at least $2m per day from Palestinians, Middle East Eye has revealed.

Now, those who were due to travel in May after paying thousands of dollars in advance have no clear means of getting a refund.

And they do not know if they will ever leave Gaza via Egypt, as Cairo has refused to work with Israel to operate the crossing. 

Samer*, 29, paid Hala $20,000 before Israel shut the Rafah crossing. He wanted to leave Gaza along with his new wife and his elderly and sick parents.

To raise the money, he had to borrow from friends and family, and sell his car and all his electronic goods. 

“I cannot believe that as soon as I got the money and was supposed to travel three days after the invasion, I am still here,” he told Middle East Eye. 

“I feel like a rat in a box running around trying to find an exit, and as soon as I see a hole in the box, someone shuts it.”

People are unsure when they might get their money back, or how to reach out to Hala for assistance.

Hala has yet to provide a clear communication channel or timeline for resolving these issues, and does not respond to emails or social media messages.

The company did not release any official statement or comment to explain to thousands of Palestinian customers what they needed to do to either obtain a refund or keep their names registered. 

An employee from Hala told MEE on condition of anonymity: “We are overwhelmed with calls and complaints. The company is trying to figure out a solution, but we don’t have any concrete answers at the moment.”

Hala’s official Facebook page is full of messages from Palestinians asking how they can get a refund, and asking what will happen if the borders remain shut. 

Others asked anyone who managed to get a response from Hala to share the information, as all their attempts to contact the office had failed.

Thousands of Palestinians are believed to be in the same position. The daily lists published by Hala in April showed that between 300-400 Palestinians left via the Rafah crossing on a daily basis. Applicants register and pay for these lists weeks in advance.

Tough choices

Sahar*, 36, has a close relative in Egypt who registered her for travelling with Hala’s office in Cairo. Sahar was supposed to leave Gaza on the same day Israel invaded the crossing. 

When her sister went to the Hala office, she was told that they could issue a refund, but she would have to wait some time to receive it.

However, when – and if – the Rafah crossing reopens, Sahar will have to go through the registration process all over again, and the company would not guarantee her exit then.

“I decided not to get a refund. I just want to know that if the crossing reopens ever again, I have a way out. I had already said my goodbyes the night before the invasion,” she told MEE.

“We should not be paying money to leave to begin with. Now, even when we manage to get the money, we cannot leave.”

Yosef*, 39, paid $13,000 to Hala before the Israeli operation, to travel with his wife and two children. 

Yosef’s wife sold all her gold jewellery to pay the travel fees. She had always thought she would sell the gold to use as a down payment for a house in Gaza City.

“I am torn between two tough choices. Either ask for a refund, which takes a long time to get, but that means if the border opens again we lose our ‘turn’ and we will have to go on a waiting list again,” Yosef told MEE.