Analysis

Gazans' Only Way Out Is Through Egypt – if They Can Afford It

A two-track system offers wealthier Gazans to pay for expedited exit permits to Egypt through middlemen while all the others are left waiting

A Palestinian woman carries her child as she waits for a travel permit to leave Gaza through Rafah border crossing with Egypt, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip February 4, 2019.
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

The honor accorded to Youssef al-Najjar, in whose memory the departure hall at Gaza’s Khan Yunis border processing station is named, has become a symbol of the web of corruption and suffering that is inflicting harm upon thousands of Palestinians seeking to leave Gaza for Egypt. Two categories of people congregate at the site on a daily basis in their hundreds and sometimes even thousand to receive the coveted permit from the Egyptian authorities and from the Hamas Interior Ministry. 

Some wait weeks and even months until their name appears on the list of permit recipients. But others, who are able to raise the required funds, may get theirs in a few days or even the day after they apply. Applicants have told the media that expedited processing of a permit request can require a payment of from $500 to $3,000 or even more. About 20 percent of the money goes into the pockets of various middlemen, while the rest goes to Egyptian officers in charge of the border crossing.

Palestinians gather at a makeshift bus station in a basketball court, as they await to get permits to cross into Egypt through the Rafah crossing, in Khan Younis, Southern Gaza strip, 18 November 2017
Wissam Nassar / dpa Picture-Alli

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The system works along two separate tracks. Through the official route, people apply to the Hamas Interior Ministry and pay a fee that varies from time to time. The request then goes to the Egyptian intelligence services in Cairo, where it is considered and returned to the Interior Ministry in Gaza

The other track finds applicants going to the office of one of the middlemen, who transfers it to the intelligence officer or other senior officer at the Rafah crossing on the Gaza-Egypt border. In exchange for an amount agreed upon up front, the application is approved in short order. 

Because there is a daily quota on the number of Gazans entering Egypt, many applicants discover that their names have been deleted or moved down the list to make room for people who have forked over payment to a middleman. There isn’t even an effort made at this point to hide the two-track system, which provides a good living for middlemen on both sides of the border. 

Allah will settle accounts with you

One Facebook posting this month promised an entry permit within 48 hours for the payment of $950. “Let us arrange your next trip,” read the post, which is adorned with pictures of the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Big Ben, the Colosseum and the Pyramids. “No charge for children,” it adds.

Palestinians wait to get permits to take a bus to travel through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, in Khan Younis, Southern Gaza strip, 18 November 2017.
Wissam Nassar / dpa Picture-Alli

Comments in response to the post have countered that exit permits can be had from other sources for $500 or even as little as $100. One woman wrote to admonish the office of the middleman for charging such sums when unemployment in Gaza, which is under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade, is rife. “Allah will settle accounts with you,” she warns. 

The payoffs for expedited issuing of permits existed in the past, as well, when the Rafah crossing was only open on an irregular basis for short periods of time. People paid much higher fees back then on the Egyptian side and to Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007. Since Egypt began opening the crossing on a regular basis a year ago, more people have been able to leave Gaza and competition among the middlemen has sent prices plummeting, but they are still high relative to what most Gazans earn.

According to Hamas sources who spoke to the Raseef 22 website, Hamas is trying to put a stop to the phenomenon and has even demanded that the intermediaries work through official travel agencies that can be monitored and must comply with the law. But the prospect that the practice will end appears small. 

“You set out in the morning for the Youssef al-Najjar hall after receiving a permit from the Hamas Interior Ministry, but you can’t be sure you’ll get into Egypt. The heavy, slow bureaucracy means that only 400 people a day can leave, but the main fear is that someone has already taken your place on the list because he paid and you didn’t,” Azat Ramlawi told the Gaza Alan (Gaza Now) website.

The head of Black September

Mohammed Youssef al-Najjar, the head of the Black September terrorist group and a deputy to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, was killed, along with his wife, in an Israeli raid on Beirut in 1973. The raid was commanded by Muki Betzer and by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother Yoni and has become part of the Palestinian ethos. 

Najjar’s son, who was 11 years old at the time, managed to escape and years later emigrated to the United States, where his own son, Ammar Campa-Najjar, was born. The grandson eventually turned to politics and ran for Congress as a Democrat from California last year. He lost to a right-wing Republican candidate, Duncan Hunter, even though Hunter has been under investigation on allegations that he embezzled campaign funds. Campa-Najjar hasn’t been deterred and announced that he will run again in 2020. 

As in the previous campaign, this time around, Campa-Najjar is expected to have to deal with the legacy of his grandfather, which has earned the California Democrat the label of scion of a terrorist family. It can also be expected that some Jewish groups will come out in opposition this “Muslim” candidate in his bid for public office, as they did in 2018. (He is the son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother and identifies himself as a Christian).

The fact that Campa-Najjar has declared his support for peace between Jews and Muslims and between Israel and the Palestinians will apparently not help him. He will carry the Mark of Cain of his grandfather, and not only in California. The name Youssef al-Najjar is also commemorated in Gaza at the Khan Yunis passenger hall and not for the better.