Gazans gather in the thousands for an uncertain escape

  • Written by Brandon Drennon
  • BBC News

Image source, Getty Images

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A man rides a horse-drawn cart in Rafah

As deadly Israeli bombardments and severe food shortages continue, and as an Israeli military operation in southern Gaza approaches, more and more Palestinians are looking for a way out – if they can find the money to do so.

This uncertain exit requires people to pay thousands of dollars and deal with scammers and misinformation to get their names on the list of people approved to leave via the Rafah crossing into Egypt.

The crossing is closed to the vast majority of people in light of the Egyptian-Israeli siege imposed on Hamas. Only some foreign passport holders and their families were able to leave, in addition to some seriously injured and sick people and those accompanying them.

However, there is a parallel system where Gazans pay Egyptian intermediaries to obtain a list of people who can leave. Depending on who you talk to, prices range from $6,000 (£4,800) per person to more than $12,000, which is prohibitive for most Gazans.

However, increasing numbers of people are trying to raise money to escape, with the help of friends and family in the US and Europe. Among them is the Hammad family, currently displaced with more than a million others in Rafah, adjacent to the Egyptian border.

Their 15-year-old son, Ibrahim, suffers from Down Syndrome. For him, the Israeli bombing is particularly painful. A video posted by the family shows him shaking in pain after each loud bang from nearby airstrikes. His father, Abdul Qader, says that they had to artificially resuscitate him three times after he stopped breathing due to severe panic attacks.

He says Ibrahim was begging the family to leave, saying: “Please, father, I can’t go on.”

Hammad added: “During the past five months, all you hear are the sounds of bombs and violent shelling.” “You just sit at home and pray you're not next.”

Image source, Abdul Qader/ Facebook

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A photo of Ibrahim Hammad inside the Gaza Strip after October 7

Their online fundraising page, like most, is run outside Gaza, in their case by their other son, Amjad, who lives in Europe. She is one fundraiser among thousands, appealing for donors to help Gazans “survive,” “evacuate” and “escape genocide.”

Some campaigns were successful, raising more than $100,000. However, the BBC spoke to several account holders who, even after meeting their fundraising targets, said their desperate attempts to help loved ones were mired in chaos and confusion.

As one fundraiser, a New Jersey woman who asked to remain anonymous to avoid risking disrupting her cousin's exit, put it: “Every day is a toss-up.”

A complicated way out

The first challenge is determining the cost of leaving. Fundraising account holders who spoke to the BBC said the most common price was $6,000 per person, allowing people to leave within 72 hours. Some people are fundraising toward a goal of $12,000 per person, a price that is said to be out within 24 hours.

Once enough funds are raised, the next challenge is getting tens of thousands of dollars into Gaza. There are only a few news agencies such as Western Union left in the affected area, and the entry line takes long days. Some people have used cryptocurrency exchanges. Others relied on PayPal accounts registered elsewhere, as the company does not provide services to people in Gaza or the occupied West Bank.

However, most people transfer the money to someone outside Gaza – a relative or friend in Europe – who then withdraws the money and travels to Egypt to wait in a separate queue for days at the Cairo offices of Hala Travel, an agency company that facilitates travel between Egypt and Gaza. Footage from outside Hala offices shows crowds gathering in the street.

Hala did not respond to requests for comment from the BBC.

However, the BBC obtained a copy of a receipt from Hala Travel dated February 13 for $6,000. The name of the person on this receipt also appears with four others on a separate ticket indicating that they have been allowed entry into Egypt. Visas and travel to Cairo are included.

The final step is to verify approval online. Places like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Gaza's Facebook account publish daily lists of up to 250 approved names. They all paid thousands to move out, according to the person who provided the receipt, who requested to remain anonymous.

People whose names appear on the official list must leave on the same day. However, due to spotty Wi-Fi and constant power outages, some people miss the checkout window and have to repeat the entire process, including paying again, this person says.

The man who presented the Hala receipt told the BBC that the names of people on the official list for entering Egypt only appear after they are examined by Egyptian intelligence.

He says: “Is this new? No. It's not really new, but the price before the war was $600. Now it's ten times higher.”

“Gaza is not only under bombardment, but people are profiting from their suffering.”

Hamas, the Palestinian group that used to rule Gaza and which launched the attack targeting civilians in southern Israel that sparked the current war, also accused “companies, individuals and influential people” of exploiting Gazans by “making them pay exorbitant sums to coordinate their travel.” “.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told Sky News that his country was investigating the matter.

We will take all measures we need to restrict and eliminate them immediately,” he said, without giving further details.

In January, the head of the Egyptian Information Service, Diaa Rashwan, “categorically denied the allegations related to collecting additional fees from travelers from Gaza, as well as the allegations that an unofficial party collected traffic fees to Egyptian territory.”

He added that Egypt is trying to help the Palestinians in Gaza and does not want to impose additional burdens on them.

Most crowdfunding is led by friends and relatives who live abroad and watch helplessly as Israeli bombing kills entire families and turns neighborhoods into rubble.

“It's heartbreaking to watch,” says Shahad, a Virginia woman who only asked to be identified by her first name.

She helped organize a campaign for her friends and her two brothers, whom she met on TikTok in 2021. She says her relatives in Gaza were killed in October.

Shahad felt compelled to help her friends after witnessing their narrow escape from death – and on one occasion she was hit by flying building blocks during an explosion in a nearby building. Since then, they have been struggling to survive amid the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and say they are overcoming gang rule that has replaced social cohesion.

“There are moments where… [the brothers] Like, “We can't do this anymore.” “It might be better if we were killed,” says Shahad. “They're basically like family to me at this point. If anything happened to them, I would probably lose it.”

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A man in Rafah removes rubble from a building hit by an airstrike

A fundraising page for Shahad's friends and some family members has reached more than $105,000. But sending it to them was difficult. Their fundraising account was frozen for several days in February, preventing her from transferring money. The brothers' PayPal accounts were closed for weeks without explanation.

Many users raising money to help people in Gaza have complained that their accounts have been frozen. “People are literally trying to escape death,” a New Jersey woman told the BBC. “It's amazing that every corner we turn there's a new obstacle.”

After raising $36,000, she says she passed up the opportunity to list her cousin and his family while the company froze her account for several days in early February and requested more information. She said the request, her first in a decade of using the platform, seemed “discriminatory.”

Almost everyone told the BBC they had the same experience with delays, and many said they had to resort to legal threats before getting a response.

GoFundMe, one of the platforms people use to raise money, told the BBC that its priority was to “protect the generosity of donors”.

“GoFundMe has already helped provide tens of millions of dollars to individuals and organizations supporting those in both Israel and Gaza, and we will continue to do so as quickly, safely and securely as possible,” spokesman Galen Drummond said.

“Any suggestion of discrimination is completely baseless, baseless, and inconsistent with the values ​​that guide our program.”

Jordan, from Brooklyn, New York, has met his fundraising goal of $50,000 and plans to send it directly to his friend's bank in Gaza. His friend's family has to leave to get life-saving medications.

More than 1.5 million people live in Rafah, most of whom fled there to escape the fighting, but only a small minority have relationships with people abroad who can help, a reality Jordan described as “really dark.”

“I'm pretty much alive”

Ahmed, who lives in Gaza but has a friend in Canada who collects donations for him, says he had to leave due to chronic knee inflammation, for which medicine is no longer available in Gaza.

“I and anyone in Gaza could die at any moment,” he said from the roof of a building in Rafah as Israeli drones flew in the background.

Earlier that day, on February 12, he sent the BBC a photo of two girls who he said had died overnight in a nearby airstrike. “I'm pretty much alive,” he said in the same WhatsApp message. “So depressed, brother.”

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Ahmed said that two girls were killed in an Israeli airstrike near his home in Rafah

The 24-year-old has been fundraising for weeks, but has yet to find a way out of Gaza.

First, his fundraising account was frozen. As a result, he had to borrow thousands of dollars from his parents – who had resigned themselves to remaining in the war zone – to pay some brokers he trusted to facilitate his inclusion on the exit list.

His plan failed after he gave them $5,000, and he had to shell out another $3,000 to solve the problem. He promised his parents that he would repay them once he arrived in Cairo and would have access to the money raised through crowdfunding.

Ahmed is still waiting. On Thursday, he said via text message that he was in deep pain and feeling extremely anxious.

But he felt hopeful because he was finally about to leave Gaza. He said that would happen “anytime soon.”

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