RAFAH, PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES (AFP) – Gaza resident Mustafa al-Sawaf posted a scathing criticism online of the “path of humiliation” Palestinians endure when leaving the crowded enclave for Egypt, and of the companies that profit from it.
Within an hour, his phone rang.
“Someone from Hamas called and told me to erase everything,” Mr Sawaf said, referring to the Islamist group that runs the Israeli-blockaded coastal strip.
The caller said the border business was “a very sensitive subject for the Egyptians, and that my article was going to harm Palestinians”, said Mr Sawaf, a political analyst.
He quickly took down the social media post, but it had already earned dozens of supportive comments, reflecting widespread frustration about Gaza’s main lifeline to the outside world.
The 380-kilometre road trip to Cairo passes though the sweltering deserts of the Sinai peninsula, where the Egyptian army fights the Islamic State group and operates checkpoints and night-time curfews. It also crosses the Suez Canal.
The common complaint in Gaza is that the journey, often made on stuffy buses, is made deliberately more arduous and uncertain so that travel operators can profit by offering hassle-free “VIP services” to those who can afford them.
“It’s a disaster for the Palestinians,” said one industry source, speaking on condition of anonymity, who estimated the business is worth up to US$175,000 (S$238,240) per day.
“On the Egyptian side, they are applying more and more pressure to make the return to Gaza difficult, trying to push people to pay for the VIP service the next time.”
Gaza, an impoverished territory of some two million people, where Hamas fought its most recent war with Israel in May, is a difficult place to enter or leave.
Israel, which used to occupy Gaza, has maintained a strict land and sea blockade on the enclave since Hamas took it over in 2007.
The Jewish state argues this is necessary to protect itself from a group labelled a terrorist organisation by much of the West.
The Yasser Arafat International Airport was bombed by Israel at the start of the second Palestinian intifada, the uprising of 2000 to 2005, and goats now graze on its defunct runway.
Israel also does not permit passenger ferries to dock at Gaza’s Mediterranean ports.
This leaves only two ways out of the territory: tightly-controlled land crossings through Israel and Egypt.
The Erez crossing to Israel is restricted to Palestinians with permits to work or trade inside Israel, some serious medical cases, and some people with onward transit permits to Jordan.
That means that for most of Gaza’s people, the Rafah crossing to Egypt offers the best route out.
But it is notorious for being, all too often, a costly and bureaucratic nightmare.
Palestinians are forced to register their names on a waiting list weeks before they plan to travel, and still transit is not guaranteed.
To be assured of travel, Palestinians have in recent years resorted to paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars to private companies and middlemen offering the “VIP” services.
This has bred frustration towards Egyptians perceived to be profiting from the trade.
There was a brief period in the Hamas era when transit through Rafah was easier.
In 2013, when Egypt was ruled by late president Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member less hostile to Hamas, a record half a million Palestinians crossed through Rafah.
But numbers fell dramatically after Morsi’s ouster in July of that year.
Under current President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Egypt periodically opens and closes Rafah, a tactic allowing it to exercise leverage over Hamas.
380 KM IN FOUR DAYS
Several Gazans who recently made the trip through Rafah spoke with AFP, on condition they not be named for fear of being blacklisted by Egypt for future travel.
A man who asked to be called Ahmed said his return from Cairo earlier this year, a road trip that should take about five hours, stretched over four days.
First, he hired a private taxi that left Cairo at 4am on a Wednesday with an agreement to drive him to Rafah for US$130.
The journey was halted at the entrance to the Suez canal zone, where the vehicle crossing was closed and packed with taxis.
He left his cab, shared the cost of another with five other passengers and slept in the car.
At the checkpoint, he said, “the Egyptians opened all my bags. They confiscated my cologne, my cigarettes, opened my Facebook and WhatsApp profiles and looked at my photos”.
After three security checks, he was travelling smoothly through the Sinai until he reached another checkpoint 50 kilometres from Rafah late on Thursday afternoon, where the Egyptians announced the road’s closure.
He said he rented a “totally filthy” room in the nearby town of al-Arish and stayed for two days until the road reopened.
Ahmed and his companions rushed to Rafah, but missed that day’s hour-long window to cross.
Devastated, he slept on the street and crossed the next day.
‘I WAS SCARED’
For countless Palestinians, the Rafah-Cairo round trip is complicated by security conditions in the Sinai, an area where ISIS terrorists have clashed with Egyptian forces.
Fatima, also not her real name, said she broke out in a cold sweat while sleeping at a checkpoint last year while travelling with a group of women from Cairo to Gaza.
“I stretched out on a cardboard box and I made a blanket out of my abaya” robe, she told AFP.
“I was scared, we were in the desert, there was no water, no toilet. We could hear shelling in the distance. One of the women with us kept screaming: ‘I’m going to die, I’m going to die.'”
The next night at the Baluza checkpoint about 200 kilometres from Rafah, she slept on a bus, then under a bus in al-Arish the next night.
She said it was hot, and children also trying to sleep under the vehicle cried through the night.
When she had to relieve herself, she asked other women to stand around for privacy.
‘KILLING ME INSIDE’
Ahmed said the compounding hardships of travel were devastating and humiliating for Palestinians.
“It’s killing me inside,” he said. “The people of Gaza are treated really badly. It is as if we are all terrorists, Hamas members, but Hamas is not Gaza.”
His frustration mounted when, after finally returning to Gaza, he met others who had made the same journey in just a day.
The difference, said Ahmed, was that they paid the VIP fees.
“In the end, counting the taxis, the rotten hotel, I almost paid the same amount and it took me almost five days,” he lamented, accusing Egyptian security officials of creating conditions aimed at forcing Palestinians to resort to VIP service.
Gaza-based companies charge US$1,000 to expedite the journey to Cairo, including registration, private taxis and other documentation.
The return costs US$600, making the entire trip more expensive than most Gazans can afford.
Multiple sources in the border industry and officials confirmed that these Gaza-based companies coordinate with an Egyptian company named Abnaa Sinai.
Abnaa Sinai declined to comment.
A woman who asked to be identified as Hiba said that when she decided to visit Gaza earlier this year to see family after several years abroad, she was chilled by her experience at Egyptian checkpoints.
The guards “look at us with eyes that say ‘I hate you’,” Hiba told AFP, explaining that she has since decided to pay the VIP fees to make the process faster.
Palestinian officials have in recent months urged Egypt to make transit easier, including Gaza Chamber of Commerce president Walid Al-Hosari.
Mr Hosari told AFP that Egypt has said it will increase the number of travellers allowed to pass through a new tunnel under the Suez Canal, making the journey easier.
Palestinian economist Omar Shaban, an expert on Gaza-Egypt trade, said forcing Gazans to pay huge sums for transit is a poor strategy for Egypt if it hopes to keep participating in the reconstruction of war-battered Gaza.
The border business is a “big money-maker”, Mr Shaban said, but stressed that Egypt cannot seek to be a player in the reconstruction effort while obstructing Palestinian travel, stressing that their policies need to be “harmonised”.
A senior Hamas official, who requested anonymity given the “very sensitive” nature of the subject, said that on the issue of making travel easier, the Egyptians “promise and promise, but you never know if it will materialise”.