The costs of cruelty: Egypt profits, Israel colludes, Gazans payNov 3, 2022
To enter the large open prison known as the Gaza Strip, hundreds of Palestinians travel daily from Cairo to Rafah on the Egyptian Gaza border. A car journey of 450 kms through the Sinai desert, in summer temperatures hovering around 40C, takes at best seven hours and must negotiate numerous Egyptian military checkpoints.
To visit their families in Gaza whom they had not seen for many years, Australian/Palestinian parents, Ali and Noura with their two small daughters aged two and four, made that perilous Cairo to Gaza return journey. They are brave enough to tell their story but to guard against recriminations on their Gazan families, the following account uses pseudonyms.
The journey began with the uncertainty of when to go to Gaza, by what route, possibly from Jordan via Israel, though Israeli restrictions on Palestinian travel made that unlikely, or more feasibly, across the Sinai but with Egyptian permission and payments.
Ali and Noura chose the Egyptian route and for months prepared for the flight from Australia to Cairo and for the exorbitant costs once their plane landed.
With two small children and with limited time to spend with their families, they knew of the choices: paying for VIP treatment or spending two to three days crossing the Sinai and in consequence sleeping in the desert with no toilets, no food and no water. They chose to become VIPs. A relative in Gaza paid the agents of an Egyptian travel agency ‘Ya Hala’ based in Gaza but associated with Egyptian intelligence, an up-front fee of $1,640.00 US, assessed at $700.00 each for the adults, $120.00 each for the children. This ‘facilitation/coordination payment’ gave documents recording their names, passport numbers, details of invoices and receipts, each page to be inspected and torn off at checkpoints.
Categorising people stigmatises them on a continuum, from being considered possibly worthy but at considerable financial cost, to being judged of no consequence, a guarantee of humiliation but for no immediate payment.
Permission to make return journeys from Cairo to Gaza has been turned into a money-making machine for the Egyptian government. More than one hundred travellers leave the Gaza Strip each day. Assume the minimum coordination fee is $500 US, the minimum daily income would be $50,000, an estimated income of one million US dollars per month. By issuing invoices and receipts, the practice is normalised as an appropriate business technique, which no-one should question let alone ask for accountability.
For their payment as VIPs, Ali, Noura and their children were collected from a Cairo hotel at 3 am. An Egyptian driver would speak on their behalf. Their details had been communicated to every checkpoint, but on reaching each obstacle they and their luggage were searched and each page of their documents inspected.
Of their abrupt treatment by Egyptian military, Ali explained, ‘We don’t say anything. They regard Gazans as the lowest of the low, but the oppression comes not just from dismissive Egyptians. The layers of oppression include Israel, Egypt, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA).’
Exhausted, Ali Noura and the children arrived at the Rafah crossing into Gaza by 10am, but immediate entry was not possible. In the company of hundreds of other arrivals, they were ushered into a collection hall divided into two sections, a large space with no facilities where people who had not made VIP payments must wait, and a smaller hall equipped with clean toilets, coffee and sufficient seats for travellers. Ali had paid to be assessed in this more privileged section, but ‘privilege’ still meant surrendering passports and waiting silently for seven hours for an Egyptian official to call their names.
Ali explained, ‘You dare not ask, why is this taking so long, otherwise you would be relegated to the end of a queue. One frustrated guy shouted his protest and was punished by being made to wait longer.’ While this was happening, in the larger space, hundreds of poorer Gazans were crammed together, waiting, uncertain, sweltering with no air conditioning, few toilets and no other facilities.
On arrival in Gaza, the young family’s welcome from parents, grandparents and other relatives was tempered by the need to plan their return journey. Ali explained, ‘We spent days dealing with the ambiguities and uncertainties as to when and how to return. I noticed that following sixteen years of siege, regular bombardment and other destruction by Israeli forces, previously resilient people had given up hope. My relatives considered the costs of travel and our humiliation as nothing unusual. They asked, ‘What did you expect? This is normal.’’
Normal deliberations included the choice whether to return via the Eretz crossing into Israel, or risk repeating the Egyptian route across the Sinai. Noura opted for the latter, Ali for the journey via Israel.
Israeli authorities insisted the family could take nothing with them, neither their home and car keys, not even medication for the younger child’s asthma. In the cruelty stakes, Israel and Egypt were equal partners.
Ali agreed with Noura. They should risk leaving Gaza by the Rafah crossing and travel to Cairo via the Sinai, though exiting Gaza is as difficult and as expensive as entering. The deceitfully named facilitation costs began again.
A few minutes bus ride from Gaza to the Egyptian side of the Rafah exit required more visas, costing $35.00 US each. Once entering Egyptian territory, passengers must get off the bus, have their papers inspected and another $150 paid before their names would be called to meet the driver of a car to Cairo. In Ali & Noura’s experience, the return Sinai crossing included a further stay in a Cairo hotel before they could catch their flight to Sydney.
Cruelty by uncertainty, ambiguity, abuse and humiliation compounded by having to pay for such experiences is Egyptian policy. Gazan authority Hamas cooperates, apparently by ensuring a category for their Ministry of Interior officials who can sidestep the usual financial conditions for entry and exit. Fatah is invisible. The Palestinian Authority, addicted to authoritarian controls, cooperates with the Israeli government.
The victims are vulnerable, powerless people, albeit able to negotiate if they pay. Ali realised, ‘Money can open most of the doors.’
This journey is one act in a long running tragedy called ‘Gaza there and back’. Despite Egypt appearing as the major villain, the government of Israel stage manages and produces the cruelty. Without their occupation of Palestinian lands and the siege of Gaza, brutal, costly journeys across the Sinai would be a thing of the past.