Gaza Strip – Egyptian officers are asking for bribes of up to $10,000 from Palestinians in Gaza desperate to leave the besieged coastal enclave, according to Gaza brokers who coordinate the bribe payments, former Palestinian border officials and travellers.
Typically, an adult in Gaza must pay a bribe of $3,000 to get permission from Egypt to cross the border, two Palestinian brokers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera. The brokers said that they took a 20 percent cut of the bribe, sending 80 percent to the Egyptian soldier or officer who coordinated it.
Sometimes, Egyptian officers put the names of Palestinians on a blacklist, declaring them to be a “security threat”, both brokers said. The list forbids entrance to Egypt for those whose names are on it, but a $10,000 payment can have it removed.
Occasionally, the Egyptians want bribes paid in goods, not cash, the brokers said.
“Sometimes, they want iPhones or even gold,” said one of the brokers, known in Gaza as the “King of the Border” for his ability to get almost anyone across.
During a two-hour interview at his Gaza City office, this broker received six phone calls from people asking him for help getting into Egypt.
“My phone never rests,” he said.
The willingness to pay such high fees to leave Gaza may reflect residents’ desperation to escape the coastal enclave, which has endured three major Israeli military operations since 2008, leaving the most densely populated place on earth in ruins.
Gaza’s infrastructure is so damaged that a United Nations report last year predicted that, if current trends persist, the enclave would become “uninhabitable” by 2020.
The Egyptian government of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has imposed extreme restrictions on Gaza’s Rafah border crossing since the military coup in 2013.
Sisi considers Hamas, the governing body in Gaza, to be an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – declared a terrorist organisation in 2013 – and has accused Hamas of carrying out attacks on Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula. Hamas has repeatedly denied any role in those attacks.
In the first half of 2013, when former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was in office, an average of 40,816 people crossed between Gaza and Egypt each month. Since Sisi took power, Egyptian officials have rarely opened the border, allowing it to operate for a few days every month or two. This year, the average number of people who cross the border each month is 1,896, according to the Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, an Israel-based non-profit organisation.
There are about 30,000 cases of people in Gaza needing to urgently travel abroad for humanitarian reasons, many in order to obtain medical care, Gisha spokesperson Shai Grunberg told Al Jazeera.
Mohamed Abu Abdelqader, a cancer patient in southern Gaza, told Al Jazeera that he would soon die if he were unable to go to a hospital in Egypt to receive proper treatment for his condition. But he says he is unable to, as he cannot afford the $2,000-$3,000 bribe to a broker to arrange his travel.
“I don’t have the money,” the 55-year-old flower farmer said, appearing on the verge of tears.
is basically Gaza’s channel to the rest of the world.”]
Palestinians’ only other option for leaving the Gaza Strip, which has been under a joint Israeli and Egyptian-imposed air, land and sea blockade since 2007, is via the Erez crossing to Israel and then over the Allenby Bridge to Jordan. Both Israel and Jordan impose severe restrictions, however, on who is permitted to use the Erez and Allenby crossings.
Al Jazeera made repeated requests to the Egyptian government for comment, both by telephone and email, but did not receive a response.
But allegations of corruption at the Egyptian border crossing are nothing new.
A former high-ranking Hamas official who worked for the Hamas Crossings Authority, which oversees the Rafah terminal, confirmed to Al Jazeera that such bribe-taking occurs frequently, and that the business has become “a real moneymaker”.
Over the course of only two days last year, when he was working at the Rafah border, the official said that nearly half a million dollars in bribes were paid by 150 Palestinians in exchange for permission to travel to Egypt.
The Arabic-language news website PLS48 also recently cited Hamas officials as saying that Egyptian officers working at the Rafah crossing during a two-day opening in May had insisted that Palestinians who had paid hefty bribes be allowed to cross the border before those who had not. The Egyptians went so far as to shut down the passenger terminal for seven hours until their demands were met, Hamas officials said.
In addition, in 2009, the Associated Press reported that Gaza residents were paying Palestinian middlemen to facilitate their entrance to both Israel and to Egypt, often by obtaining fake documents saying they had life-threatening diseases.
The Rafah crossing has become a lifeline for Gaza, Grunberg said: “It’s basically Gaza’s channel to the rest of the world.”
Amal Mustafa, 40, said she came to Gaza from Kuwait in 2012 to take care of her dying father. She stayed by his side during the military coup in Egypt and the closing of the border crossing in 2013.
Her father died shortly after, but Mustafa found herself unable to return to her family in Kuwait. In early July, Mustafa paid a $3,000 bribe to a Palestinian “coordinator” to arrange her travel to Egypt. But when she got to the border, she was told that her name was on Egypt’s blacklist, marking her as a security threat.
“I’m just a housewife. I’ve never been involved in politics,” she said. “I have no idea why they listed my name.”
Mustafa said the “King of the Border” told her that if she paid him $10,000, he could coordinate her entrance to Egypt – an amount she says she is willing to pay whenever the crossing opens again.
To her, returning to her husband and family after years away is worth the cost.