Egypt Prepares For Gazan Influx – OpEd


On March 1 Sky News published the results of an in-depth investigation it had undertaken.  It asserted, quoting chapter and verse and with many supporting pictures, that an Egyptian company is charging Gazans $5,000 per person to escape to Egypt, and that it has no shortage of customers.

This method of fleeing from Gaza through a specialist company is known as “coordination”.  It is a long established system by which Palestinians can pay for permission to leave the Gaza Strip and undertake the journey.  Before the war, a number of companies were charging just a few hundred dollars for the service – pay the fee, and a few days later your journey across the border into Egypt is laid on.

Since the start of the war all official cross-border travel, with just a handful of carefully vetted exceptions such as foreign nationals and people with severe injuries, has ceased, but “coordination” is still being operated by just one company – the Egyptian firm Hala.  Sky News asserts that currently the majority of those receiving permission to leave Gaza do so through Hala.  Before the war Hala charged $350 per adult for their service.  The company is currently charging $5,000 per adult.  Sky News states it has verified this price by corroborating accounts from dozens of sources, including a Hala employee, as well as price lists posted online.

As an example, it took February 27.  On that day 246 Palestinians were registered to travel with Hala. That means the company could have made $1,083,900 in just one day. Sky News says that the volume of daily passengers has been consistent for weeks.

A Hala employee told Sky News that the best way to register and pay for travel with the company was to send a relative to their head office in Cairo.  It is situated at the headquarters of its parent company, the Organi Group, in Cairo’s Nasr City district.

“The whole building is guarded with massive security,” said one source who had visited the office. Multiple sources affirmed that there were often hundreds or even thousands of people queuing outside. Videos showing the queues have been verified by Sky News.

“People are quite desperate,” one source said.  “They are fundraising, they’re asking for money from their family members, doing whatever they can to raise very high sums of money in order to pay for their own freedom.”

If indeed hundreds of Palestinians are making the crossing into Egypt every day, as the Sky News report maintains, where on earth are they to be accommodated?

The answer may lie in a report that appeared in the world’s media back in February, and has since dropped out of public view.  On February 16 many global news sites reported that Egypt was constructing a walled camp in the Sinai Peninsula to receive displaced Palestinian civilians from the Gaza Strip.  The story was carried in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and supported by the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, an Egyptian NGO, which released a report detailing and illustrating construction of the compound which it said was to receive Palestinian refugees “in the case of a mass exodus.”

The WSJ said an eight square mile (21 square kilometer) “walled enclosure” that could accommodate more than 100,000 people was under construction on the Egyptian side of the border, part of “contingency plans” if ceasefire talks failed. 

The Sinai Foundation said that two contractors had told it that construction firms had been tasked with building the gated area, “surrounded by seven-meter high walls”. And indeed the international news agency AFP reviewed satellite pictures taken on February 15 of the area in northern Sinai, showing machinery building a wall along the Egypt-Gaza border.

One source is reported as saying: “The area will be readied with tents,” while humanitarian assistance would be delivered inside.

The story, replete though it was with testimony and satellite videos, was flatly denied by North Sinai governor Mohamed Shousha.  The construction work, he asserted, was to assess the value of houses destroyed during the running battles of recent years between Egyptian forces and Muslim Brotherhood insurgents operating against the regime in the region.  The aim, he said, was to determine appropriate compensation for the owners.

In the early days of the war Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi warned Israel against any “forced displacement” of Palestinians from Gaza into the Sinai desert. If that happened, he said, it could jeopardize the peace treaty Egypt signed with Israel in 1979.  He told a press conference back in October that Palestinians fleeing from Gaza could be moved to Israel’s Negev desert “till the militants are dealt with.” 

In response Israel’s Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, has said that Israel had “no intention of evacuating Palestinian civilians to Egypt…We respect and value our peace agreement with Egypt, which is a cornerstone of stability in the region.”

Sky News asked Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry whether the government condoned Hala charging $5,000 per adult for Palestinians to leave the Gaza Strip.

“Absolutely not,” said Shoukry. “We will take whatever measures we need to restrict it and eliminate it totally. There should be no advantage taken out of this situation for monetary gain.”

But Amr Magdi, an Egypt expert at Human Rights Watch, reportedly described Shoukry’s response as ringing hollow.  “It doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “No one can pass through the border without the knowledge of the Egyptian authorities.”  In other words Hala, with its headquarters in Cairo, may be operating in Gaza with explicit or implicit official approval.

Egypt has categorically rejected any suggestion that Palestinians should be allowed to flee en masse into Sinai.  But the problem Egypt may face, and is reportedly preparing for, is not any forced evacuation of Gazans by Israel, but the voluntary flight of desperate people able to find, beg, borrow or steal, the exorbitant charges imposed by Hala to organize a “coordination” evacuation.. At the current rate of exodus, Egypt’s 100,000 capacity refugee facility would be filled in about 18 months.

On the other hand should there be, for whatever reason, a more general breakout of Palestinian refugees from Gaza, Egypt is making sure that it is prepared.

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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