The young Ayman Adly graduated from the Faculty of Pharmacy in Gaza’s Al Azhar University in 2009. Due to the high level of unemployment resulting from the Israeli-led siege and repeated military offensives launched against the coastal enclave by Israel, he could not find any work.
“I went online and followed dozens of social media accounts and pages specialising in getting job seekers connected with employers abroad,” he told me. “It didn’t take long for me to be shortlisted for an interview. The company asked if I could work in the UAE and I said yes. That’s when the difficulties began.”
His next obstacle was the Rafah Border Crossing, the only outlet to the world for most Palestinians in the Gaza Strip since 2007. To use the crossing, he needed a passport, so he duly completed all of the documentation required and submitted his application. It took two months for the passport to be issued by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
“The passport was issued in 2009 and expired in 2014,” he said. “The second was issued after two weeks in 2015 and expired in 2020.” He applied immediately for a third and got it within a week. Adly has thus had three passports, none of which has been used to travel.
“With my first passport in my hand, I went to the Rafah Crossing, and after spending about 20 hours in a very crowded immigration hall on the Egyptian side, an official called my name, give me back my passport and told me that my name was on the blacklist and I was forbidden from entering Egypt or passing through it.”
In that short sentence, the Egyptian official killed Adly’s hopes of getting to his new job in the UAE. He will keep trying, he told me, but he will need a lot of patience.
According to the Palestinian Interior Ministry in Gaza, there are more than 27,000 people registered as needing to travel through the Rafah Crossing. The Egyptian authorities allow only 350 people to get through the public hall and about 100 through the VIP hall daily when the crossing is open (there are frequent closures). Those needing to travel need months to get through Rafah.
“The number of people who want to travel is rising all the time,” explained Iyad Al-Bozom, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. “We have asked the Egyptians to increase the daily quota of people allowed through.” The request has obviously fallen on deaf ears.
Five years ago, the Egyptian army established Ya Hala Company for Tourism and Travel. It organises VIP travel for Gaza’s Palestinians who can afford to pay. In the beginning, it worked behind the scenes. Following the 2018 Great March of Return protests and the understandings reached between Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian resistance groups in Gaza, the crossing opened regularly and this company started to work openly.
It struck deals with Gaza-based travel companies which started to promote its services. The Egyptian authorities built a special immigration hall for its customers.
Hatem, who refused to give his second name, is an agent for a Gaza-based travel and tourism company. “We register between 100 and 150 VIP passengers a day,” he said. “We carry out security checks on each one for $100. If the person is not blacklisted, they will pay between $400 and $5,000 for passage through the Egyptian side of the crossing and a taxi to Cairo.”
Such VIPs are exempt from further security checks and taxis take them from the crossing directly to Cairo. They do not stop at any of the military checkpoints and their luggage is not inspected. The journey to Cairo takes only six hours; seven or eight at most. “All the money we charge goes to Egyptian companies, most likely run by the army,” Hatem pointed out. “We only get some commission.”
People like Ayman Adly, however, don’t have enough money to pay so much to get through Rafah as a VIP. He and those like him can wait years to travel.
Those who do reach the Egyptian immigration hall can expect lengthy waits; Adly’s 20 hours is not uncommon. Many are interrogated by Egypt’s National Security Services asking about their political affiliations as well as their political and religious activities.
Sameer Abu Jazar has just returned to Gaza from Qatar. He described his journey from Cairo to Gaza as “the road to hell”. All non-VIP travellers have to endure the hot sun for 12 hours at Al-Faradan Checkpoint near the Suez Canal.
“The Egyptian security forces inspect Palestinians’ luggage and confiscate almost all electronic devices, including laptops and mobiles,” explained Abu Jazar. “They only leave one mobile per traveller and sometimes do not leave any laptop. They confiscate perfume and many other things. Sometimes, they confiscate food.”
He waited with hundreds of others from 6am until 10pm out in the open air. There is no shelter and few facilities. “There’s no toilet. If you need one you have to move away, find somewhere a little secluded and do what you have to do there.”
The journey from Cairo to Rafah can take up to three days due to the regular checkpoints and repeated luggage inspections. “The Egyptian officials show no respect, not even for patients or the elderly,” said Abu Jazar.
That’s what awaits the Palestinians who wish to travel from Gaza through the Rafah Border Crossing. It is a painful path, but one they must endure if they hope to get a flight that will take them to their place of study, treatment or new employment.
“If I had any alternative way to return to Gaza,” concluded Abu Jazar, “I would have taken it. Anything has to be better than the hellish way that the Egyptians treat us. Anything.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.