Reportage. Two million three hundred thousand Palestinians are prisoners inside. Getting out is a complicated business and a matter of economic privilege.

To leave Gaza, you must be sick, injured or rich

If you turn your back to the Rafah crossing and go across the clearing to the right, next to a couple of minibuses with open luggage racks and dozens of suitcases, you’ll see a group of men wearing bibs from the Hala company. They’re smoking cigarettes and passing a bottle of water from one to the other. Beyond them, through an opening in the concrete wall, one can see more minibuses. They are the representatives of the Egyptian company that has monopolized the market for exiting the Gaza Strip for years.

With aid frozen at the Egyptian border, the traffic at the crossing is different now. There are Palestinians who want to get in, to go back home, and Palestinians who want to get out. Under the great arch that marks the border, Scott Anderson, UNRWA’s head of operations in the Strip, tells us that “if they opened the crossings now, half of Gaza would flee.”

Many are saying they wouldn’t, since leaving Gaza would mean they could never return, as has happened before. But it’s true that this is a “strange” offensive: there is no right to escape. Two million three hundred thousand Palestinians are prisoners inside. Getting out is a complicated business and a matter of economic privilege.

“Every day, 30-35 wounded Palestinians get out,” says Mohammed Noseer, head of operations for the Egyptian Red Crescent in al-Arish. “Their families come with them: we’re talking about a maximum of 200 people a day, often much fewer. And then, there are those who don’t need medical attention – hundreds more per day. Each person leaving has to coordinate their plans with COGAT (the Israeli Civil Administration for the Occupied Palestinian Territories). The Israeli authorities carry out security checks to make sure there are no Hamas militiamen among them.”

If the bus on which they’re traveling to the crossing on the Palestinian side doesn’t have COGAT clearance, they’ll shoot at it, without warning, Noseer adds. Without an Israeli green light, there is no way to leave Gaza.

But then, another green light is also needed, from the Egyptians. After the start of the Israeli offensive, on October 7, lists of people to evacuate appeared, put together by Egypt, which guaranteed the exit of its own citizens, and by foreign countries that managed – after weeks and with enormous effort – to evacuate their citizens and their family members, if any. Then, there are the wounded or chronically ill, who have no way to receive adequate care and treatment anymore in the broken Gaza health care system.

One of them is Bisan. She is just 2 years old and has been admitted to the Italian Hospital in Cairo for a week and a half. She is accompanied by her mother, Samal. Bisan has intestinal issues, and in their town, Deir al Balah, they have suspended all treatment since the beginning of the offensive. “It was the hospital that reported her case,” her mother said. “They formed a committee. We received permits to leave from COGAT after three weeks. We were lucky. It usually takes longer.”

Samal left three other children behind in Deir al-Balah; they’re staying with their father. She says she hopes to find good treatment and then go back home. Jidana has other hopes: to get to Italy. Her son Ahmed is just three and a half years old and has an amputated leg. He’s lying in a bed at the Italian Hospital, with a blanket on him, facing the wall, looking at no one, concentrating on his phone. “They amputated his leg at Khan Yunis Hospital,” says Jidana. “He was injured in October when our house was bombed in Nuseirat. They struck at night, when we were sleeping. When he woke up from surgery, he asked me where his leg had gone.”

In a few hours, a temporary prosthesis is set to arrive for him from the Egyptian Ministry of Health. Then, Jidana hopes for Italy. She, too, left two daughters behind, who are at home with their grandmother. Her husband is in Suez with another daughter, also wounded in the war. Jidana and Samal say they didn’t have to pay anything: transfer out of Gaza is free for the ill and the wounded.

“The ministries in Gaza can no longer cope with the requests for help. They have imploded,” says Marwan Jilani, vice-president of the Palestinian Red Crescent, who arrived from Ramallah. “Even the Health Ministry, which used to take care of patient transfers. We, the Crescent, are only in charge of transportation, of accompanying them by ambulance to the Rafah crossing.”

However, actual exit is never a given. We’re told there have been cases of sick or injured Gazans with Israeli COGAT permits being turned back on the Egyptian side of the border. Again, for “security reasons” – a justification that holds little water for women and the elderly. Nevertheless, so many chronically ill people have been sent back, without justification, just a few steps after the border.

The rest – those who aren’t ill – have to find a way for themselves. Looking at the numbers gathered by international news agencies, they’re more than a few: so many are leaving because they can’t take it anymore. And for them, things get complicated. According to humanitarian sources, there is no standard procedure: there are those who manage to end up on external lists, those who try to make use of internal connections, whether political or patronage networks, and those who do it with the help of private agencies. This is where Hala’s name comes up. It’s nothing new: for at least five years, the Egyptian company has had a monopoly on the exits from the Strip. Investigations by independent news agencies, such as Egypt’s Mada Masr, have uncovered the roots of their success: Sinai tribal clans with political ties to the Egyptian intelligence and regime.

Before the war began, they relied on Palestinian companies inside the Gaza Strip. Now, the path looks different: those who want to escape the war must contact Hala at their Cairo office or access Telegram groups which leave no paper trail. Prices have skyrocketed: “Under 16, you pay $2,500; over 16, you pay $5,000,” Nahed tells us, reciting the numbers that Gazans have learned by heart at this point.

We find him standing next to the men from Hala. He is a Gazan and his whole family is inside, displaced from the north to Deir al Balah. He tried to get them out; he couldn’t, so he decided to go in. He lives in the UAE and builds prefabricated houses. “Those who have a Palestinian ID card can enter Gaza paying only the taxes at the border. To get out, you have to pay Hala. They also paid them before, but ten times less.” He points to a large pile of suitcases: “These aren’t mine. The Hala people bring them in. They also trade the goods they manage to get inside. They make a lot of money on people’s suffering.”

According to Sky News, over two weeks in February, Hala handled the exit of more than 4,600 people. Their estimated takings were $1 million a day. The fees have skyrocketed: before October 7, people paid a maximum of $350 per person to get through Rafah in a reasonable time. Today, for those without dual nationality and not entitled to access the exit procedures for health reasons, their only hope to get out is through Hala: normal transit has been suspended for five months.

Nahed is about to go in. “I’m not afraid, walla. Anyone who has family in there would want to go. My son Abdallah is 7 years old. He told me he doesn’t want food, he doesn’t want toys, he just wants his father there with him. He told me that the other children have their daddy there with them.”

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