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Exit fee: Hamas officials may have escaped from Gaza to Egypt for $7,000

Officially, only foreigners granted evacuation permits by the Israeli government can exit the blockaded Gaza Strip. However, there are also unofficial channels, allowing anyone with several thousand dollars to depart for neighboring Egypt. Key players in this arrangement include people close to the Egyptian president. It is possible that Hamas officials have exploited this corrupt workaround.

Content
  • Evacuation through intermediaries

  • Bedouin, militant, businessman

  • A corridor for Hamas

Evacuation through intermediaries

In the early 2000s, Ahmed (not his real name) pursued higher education in Eastern Europe before returning home to Gaza with his foreign wife. Unable to put his technical skills to work, Ahmed opened up a shop near the center of Gaza City. By the time Hamas seized power there in 2007, Ahmed had two preschool-aged children and a small business that sustained his family.

The majority of goods for his shop came from Israel. Despite the blockade that has been in effect since 2007, Israeli authorities still allowed local businesses to survive by supplying products to Gaza, and Ahmed was one of the entrepreneurs whose operation depended on the arrangement. Occasionally, logistical issues were resolved with the help of a mediator — a resourceful distant relative of Ahmed's — who, for a fee, settled disputes with Hamas officials overseeing cross-border trade.

In autumn 2023, amidst the rapidly escalating conflict between Hamas and Israel, Ahmed was forced to abandon his business and flee his home, which was dangerously close to the conflict zone. With his wife and children, he sought refuge in the southern part of Gaza. Thanks to their mother's European heritage, the grown-up kids carried the passports of an Eastern European country, in addition to their Palestinian identity documents. When Israel permitted foreigners to leave Gaza via Egypt, Ahmed's family evacuated to Europe. Ahmed, with only Palestinian citizenship, remained in Gaza alone.

The children attempted to rescue their father with the assistance of diplomats, who occasionally succeeded in getting Palestinians without foreign citizenship across the border. However, for reasons unknown, Ahmed could not be evacuated. Shortly before the New Year, the same relative-mediator contacted Ahmed with an offer: to cross the Egyptian border without foreign citizenship and without being included on the lists coordinated with Israel would cost $7,000. The funds could be transferred to an account linked to the mobile phone numbers of an intermediary, deposited into PayPal or a cryptocurrency wallet, or else just handed over personally to an agent working with the hawala system (an unofficial payment network built on trust and operating wherever Muslims reside).

Crossing the Egyptian border without foreign citizenship and without being included in the lists coordinated with Israel costs $7,000

Seven thousand dollars is an astronomical sum for most residents of Gaza, where around half of the population does not even have steady employment. Ahmed, considered relatively successful as an entrepreneur by local standards, earned only a few hundred dollars a month, and nearly all of his property — mainly shop inventory and an old van — had been destroyed during the shelling (not that there would have been much of a market for them in Gaza under the circumstances anyway).

Relief came from the relatives of Ahmed's wife, who transferred the necessary amount to the cryptocurrency wallet provided by the intermediary. A couple of days later, the intermediary got in touch and instructed Ahmed to arrive at the Egyptian border at a precisely specified time and await further instructions.

“I arrived at the checkpoint, and there were thousands of people — women, children, elderly — waiting for a chance to get to Egypt. Mobile communication was almost non-existent. Children and women were crying. I was sure that nothing would work out, that I wouldn't be able to get through this crowd, that those who promised to help wouldn't find me. But then my relative appeared, the one who had been helping to solve problems, and somehow managed to get me through all these people and pushed me towards the Egyptian border guards,” Ahmed told The Insider.

According to Ahmed, the Egyptians behaved in a very unfriendly manner — insulting him, making him wait for a long time at the passport control post, taking his documents somewhere, searching him several times, and threatening him with imprisonment and deportation back to Gaza if he tried to stay in Egypt. Eventually though, they let him through. Ahmed traveled by bus to Cairo, and from there flew to his family in Europe.

This story is not unique. It's likely that thousands of people who were able to come up with the necessary sum have taken advantage of the corruption at the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. According to unconfirmed sources, the cost of such evacuation in October-November, when the Israeli operation in Gaza was just beginning, was around $2,500. But by December, when it became clear that the fighting would not end anytime soon and that residential buildings and infrastructure in the region would be almost completely destroyed, prices skyrocketed.

On websites aimed at aiding those in distress, dozens of ads are now posted about raising money to rescue people from Gaza. The authors indicate that it takes between $7-8 thousand to transport one person across the border. Of course, the announcements do not mention that this money goes towards the payment of bribes handed over to representatives of the Egyptian authorities.

It is notable that intermediaries offering their services to rescue people from Gaza are not only working with Gaza Strip residents, but also with their relatives living abroad. Ahmed, who managed to leave Gaza, said that agents advertising their smuggling services are highly active within the Palestinian diasporas. They are easily accessible and really do assist those seeking to leave the Strip, provided they can afford it. Typically, half of the sum is paid upfront, with the remaining half transferred after the customer has arrived on the other side of the border.

Furthermore, representatives of travel agencies continue to operate in Gaza as if nothing had changed, facilitating the travel of wealthy locals to Cairo International Airport without any visible hassle. Many of these agents, along with the majority of intermediaries servicing less affluent clients, are affiliated with the travel agency Hala. This agency is officially registered in Egypt and has a branch in Gaza. The agency's advertisements, which appeared in 2019 but have since been removed from the firm’s social media accounts, offered a comfortable journey by bus from Gaza to the airport in Cairo in six to seven hours at a cost of $1200.

Bedouin, militant, businessman

The travel agency Hala was established by the Egyptian businessman Ibrahim al-Orjani (sometimes spelled al-Arjani). He comes from a Bedouin background, originating from the Tarabani tribe, which is known for its control over illicit businesses in the Sinai Peninsula, including smuggling routes to the Gaza Strip.

However, Hala is just one of many ventures owned by al-Orjani. He has full or partial control of around a dozen companies, along with the National Project Organization, a government entity operating under the auspices of the Egyptian Ministry of Defense. The military's involvement in Egyptian business is extensive, and companies effectively controlled by its officers dominate such sectors as banking, insurance, and construction.

For many entrepreneurs, partnering with military-affiliated businesses is a coveted opportunity. Military entities receive priority in government contracts, favorable loan terms, and a host of informal benefits. However, earning the trust and partnership of military officers is no easy feat; it requires years of dedication and effort, and Al-Orjani has spent considerable time navigating this path to success.

The Egyptian opposition journalist Osama Gavish penned a concise yet gripping biography of Al-Orjani, who according to the text once operated as a smuggler and militant. The book contains an episode in which a Sinai-based smuggling group led by the young al-Orjani clashed with the Egyptian army and security forces attempting to disrupt the illicit operation. In 2008, the daring Bedouin even took several officers hostage to compel the government of then-President Hosni Mubarak into negotiations. However, this gambit ended in failure: authorities arrested al-Orjani and incarcerated him. He regained his freedom in 2011 following the overthrow of Mubarak amid the wave of revolutions that swept across the Middle East and North Africa, famously known as the “Arab Spring.”

In 2008, al-Orjani took several officers hostage to compel the government into negotiations

The former prisoner returned to his native Sinai and began assembling disparate Bedouin groups under his command. During this period, an uprising of local tribes and inter-tribal bands erupted on the peninsula. They sought to exploit the revolutionary turmoil to assert their criminal business interests by pushing the Egyptian police and security forces from the northern Sinai, where smuggling tunnels and routes to the Gaza Strip and Israel originated. However, al-Orjani chose not to align with his former comrades. Instead, he opposed them and allied himself with the new government. From among his followers, he formed mobile groups of fighters known as the “Sons of Sinai.”

From Cairo, the actions of the Bedouins were overseen by the commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. It was during this time that the warm relationship between the former militant and the top military leader began to take shape.

In 2013, al-Sisi orchestrated a military coup and seized power in Egypt. This marked the beginning of Ibrahim al-Orjani's ascent in the business world. In exchange for his assistance in combating insurgents, al-Sisi entrusted al-Orjani with the management of all logistics at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. While his travel agency, Hala, lacks a Tourism Ministry license, it possesses a much more valuable informal credential: the patronage of the General Intelligence Service, the main intelligence agency in Egypt.

Although the travel agency Hala lacks a Tourism Ministry license, it enjoys the patronage of the General Intelligence Service

The position of deputy head of the Intelligence Service is held by Mahmoud al-Sisi, the son of the president and an acquaintance of al-Orjani. Al-Sisi Jr., a former smuggler turned high-ranking intelligence officer, first met al-Orjani during one of his visits to the Sinai Peninsula, where he would oversee military operations. Following Mahmoud's return to Cairo, the integration of al-Orjani's business structures into the army's business conglomerates commenced.

Meanwhile, al-Orjani continues to oversee operations at the Rafah border crossing. He is likely the main beneficiary of the ongoing corruption scheme there — one that demands a fee not only from desperate Palestinians attempting to flee their homes, but also from anyone still seeking to enter Gaza. According to Middle East Eye, al-Orjani's associates received payments from every truck carrying humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. A representative of a charitable foundation, speaking on the condition of anonymity, revealed that obtaining permission from Israel to import humanitarian aid after the start of the renewed conflict in Gaza was not sufficient, as the foundation had to pay the Egyptian side $5,000 for every truck transporting goods and medications into the Gaza Strip from Sinai. Without the bribe, which was labeled as a fee to the “manager of the cargo escort company,” the trucks with aid were simply denied passage through the border. While the foundation representative did not reveal the name of the company charging the “fee,” it was believed to be part of the al-Orjani empire. More than likely, the company in question is Hala itself.

Without the bribe, labeled as a fee to the “manager of the cargo escort company,” the trucks with aid were simply denied entry through the border

A corridor for Hamas

It's possible that al-Orjani and his influential allies are not only involved in corruption and the blatant exploitation of human suffering. They might also have ties to terrorist activities. Despite months of military operations in Gaza, Israel has neither killed nor arrested any significant Hamas leaders. While there has been speculation among Israelis that top-ranking members of the terrorist organization may have escaped to Egypt through underground tunnels, it remains possible that they simply exited through the official checkpoint, leveraging their corrupt connections with al-Orjani.

Hamas leaders could have simply exited through the official checkpoint, leveraging corrupt connections with al-Orjani

Recently, Syrian Kurdish representatives claimed that Turkey had relocated 35 families of Hamas members to a special Palestinian settlement near the city of Afrin in the Turkish-occupied part of Syria. However, this claim has not been confirmed by any other sources. What's known is that Palestinian refugee settlements exist in this area, andthat local Kurds view their presence as Ankara's attempt to change the ethnic composition of the region by increasing the number of Arabs loyal to Turkish authorities. Still, the specifics as to who exactly is being resettled in Afrin from Palestine and how the resettlement works remain unknown.

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