ثمن الحياة الفلسطينية: الصراع من أجل إجلاء العائلات من غزة
Thématique: 

Time, money, and equity — these are three existential issues that Palestinians across the world face as they attempt to bring their families, friends, and loved ones to safety from the genocide Israel has been perpetrating in Gaza.  Zein*—  a Palestinian based in California — tells Palestine Square that the notion of “safety” has lost any meaning. Helping her family evacuate from Gaza means that they may gain shelter from the Israeli regime’s constant slaughter, but not from the difficulties that come with placing monetary value on human life. Once Palestinians exit the Strip, their predicament gains a new form of precarity. Stranded in Egypt with few contacts and resources, Palestinians must continue their struggle for survival. Getting them out in the first place is, unfortunately, far from simple. 

The process of evacuating from Gaza highlights the destruction that the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) have inflicted on Palestinian livelihood. After 222 days of unbearable suffering — during which more than 35,000 Palestinians have been murdered by the Western-backed Israeli regime, and 79,061 injured — Palestinians must confront the price tag placed on their lives. Whether to Egyptian bureaucrats or U.S. officials, the amount one can pay for their survival dictates their ability to leave Gaza from Rafah, where more than one million Palestinians currently shelter. 

The stories in this piece elaborate on the trying history of Israel’s siege on Gaza and the 76-year-long Occupation of Palestine. Though Gaza borders Egypt and sits on the Mediterranean coast with ostensible maritime access, Israel has long enshrined a policy of “containment.” Exiting the enclave has never been easy. Israel — with the help of Washington — destroyed all of Gaza’s airports, restricted access to the sea, and took de facto control of the Egyptian border, long before it intensified its genocide in Gaza. Palestinians from across the world — from the United States to Jordan — are attempting to break their loved ones free from Israel’s siege. 

Palestine Square spoke with Zein,* a young college graduate in Orange County, California. She has been working tirelessly to support her extended family’s evacuation from Gaza via a GoFundMe page. 

“I have uncles, cousins, and aunts there. I’m in contact with my cousins. They’re not doing well,” Zein shares. “They’re relatively safe, Alhamdulillah, but their morale is really low, [and] their conditions are very poor.”

Zein notes that her family has been displaced at least three times during the genocide. “To the best of my knowledge, they [sought] refuge in a [United Nations] schoolyard. There weren’t any rooms, so they slept outside. I think they were there for about a month, and then, they had to leave. Now, they’re somewhere else. And they’re [saying] that the danger is getting closer and closer to them.”

While considering the current horrors of life in Gaza, Zein must also grapple with the expensive cost of bringing her family to safety: “[According to my cousins]…the minimum price to evacuate from Rafah is about $5,000–$5,500 if I’m not mistaken. However, [paying] that [much] means that [the evacuation process] takes about a month, but if you pay $7,000, it’s significantly quicker.” 

According to several sources, the cost for Palestinians to evacuate through Rafah into Egypt is $2,500 for children and $5,000 for adults. However, prices set by agencies facilitating the registration and transportation of Gazans fluctuate between $4,500 and $10,000, with higher amounts allegedly allowing for a more expedited process. This is an enormous increase from prices to cross Rafah before the current genocide, which ranged from $600 to $1,200 per person, advertised by brokers as a quicker and more convenient method of entry into Egypt.

Alluding to cultural norms, Zein mentions how bringing attention to her family’s vulnerability and asking friends and strangers for donations can feel uncomfortable.  

“I don't like it,” she sighs. “I’m sure my family doesn’t like it. Nobody wants to be seen as so helpless and so dependent on others. But, you know, it's the reality.”

Zein also alludes to the process as being rife with systemic corruption. 

“I think the primary concern is the fact that evacuations even cost money in general, let alone so much money. And they take so long. And it’s frankly a form of extortion, because they’re helpless people who’ve lost everything, and now they have to pay upwards of $5,000 [per person] just to save themselves? It's a bizarre situation. I think [there’s] going to need to be some kind of social and political activism or advocacy to condemn this system in which these helpless people have to pay for help.” Zein’s statement constitutes a call to action against the structures that place a monetary value on human life. 

The agony doesn’t end once Zein’s family leaves Gaza in search of safety.

“Once they do evacuate from Rafah [to] Egypt, I'm not aware of any support in place for them. So now, they're going to have to pay for housing, pay for food — pay for life! Which they don’t have the means to do. I don’t know if there are refugee agencies that are supporting… I don’t know what’s going to happen after they cross Egypt. It's going to be a whole other set of problems. But at least they’ll be safe from the bombing and the forced starvation.”

On May 2, the Palestinian ambassador in Cairo told Reuters that 100,000 Palestinians from Gaza had crossed into Egypt, fleeing Israeli attacks.  

Conditions of Palestinian evacuees from Gaza in Egypt have been largely underreported, with few sources outlining their status. These refugees are provided a limited stay and some do not have dual citizenship or pathways to relocate or seek refuge in other countries, according to Refugees International. They all also fall outside of UNRWA’s mandate and the UNHCR can’t register Palestinians as refugees. Thus, they are left in “a legal limbo, devoid of legal refugee status and the accompanying rights and services.

Evacuees are living in “rented or borrowed apartments” and largely depend on crowdfunding or financial support from friends and relatives. 

Refugees Platform in Egypt — a civil society organization — reported that, following the first 100 days of this genocide, 1,210 severely injured Palestinians were evacuated into Egypt. The evacuation process for Palestinians who have been wounded, burned, and mutilated by incessant Israeli bombing has been a coordinated process between Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza. The organization also reported that for injured Palestinians to be transferred to hospitals in Egypt for treatment, hospitals in Gaza must submit a list of names of those injured to be reviewed by Egyptian and Israeli authorities for approval. If approved, hospitals in Gaza are often notified a day before — if not hours before — that a patient and their companion must be at the border with Egypt to travel. 

Mahsa Khanbabai — an immigration lawyer based in Easton, Massachusetts — has taken on several Palestinian American clients, who are attempting to evacuate their family members. Khanbabai spoke about the legal machinations of the evacuation process. Her numerous cases reveal persistent struggles associated with evacuating from Gaza.

“I have a client here, a U.S. citizen who has been living here for many years. She has six siblings in Gaza, and, unfortunately, two of them were killed in the bombings.” Khanbabai tells Palestine Square. “One of her brothers, along with his wife, was killed, leaving their six children as orphans. The orphaned children are now living with one of her surviving sisters. Another sister and her husband — who are both physicians — are also in Gaza, along with their two children, who were studying medicine there. [My client] wants to help her family members and bring them to the U.S.”

Khanbabai notes that her client is facing two major challenges:

“First, how do they get out of Gaza? Second, once they're out, how do they reach the United States?” Khanbabai sighs. “Dealing with the border crossing at Rafah involves coordination with three and perhaps four different entities: the Israeli authorities, the Egyptian authorities, and the Palestinian Authority, and typically the country that they ultimately want to travel to.” 

“I've also been working with people coming out of Gaza through humanitarian medical organizations,” Khanbabi adds.  “These individuals aren’t connected to any U.S. citizens, but are sponsored by organizations for medical treatment in the U.S. However, they face difficulties when trying to include male companions on the departure list…so children, [for example], often have to rely on women caregivers. This is a significant burden to be carried by one person, especially when there has been trauma.”

The gender-based dynamics highlighted by Khanbabai reveal the overwhelming narrative of prioritizing “women and children” when seeking safety: it erases the humanity and sacrifices of Palestinian men in Gaza and breaks families apart at a time when they are most vulnerable. In the case of evacuation, men are often forced to let their children travel alone, while female caregivers tend to be permitted to accompany them.  

“As an example, we see cases where a grandmother — who doesn't speak English— taking care of orphaned grandchildren who have significant medical issues and trauma from losing their parents,” Khanbabai laments. “From an immigration perspective, we need to address how to support these families and deal with situations where the grandfather, for example, isn’t allowed to leave Gaza to support his family in the U.S.”

Khanbabai reaffirms that the struggles associated with evacuation don’t end once Palestinians leave Gaza. “We're dealing with issues involving individuals who have made it to the U.S., but [who still] have family members in danger in Gaza, and U.S. citizens who want to bring their family members to safety. There’s a need for support and solutions to address these challenges."

Khanbabai continues to elaborate on the legal process associated with evacuation, which often goes unreported: “[Palestinians in Gaza] need the necessary permissions to get on the Rafah crossing list. Once they're in Egypt, they need to have a basis to apply for a visa and must have an interview at the U.S. Embassy if they want to come to the U.S… each case is unique and depends on various factors.” 

Khanbabai’s experience conveys the problematic nature of placing individualized value on human life:  “It depends on the individual and the purpose of their visit. Are they coming for medical treatment or to join their family? If it's a spouse or parent of a U.S. citizen, the process tends to be relatively faster, taking months… medical treatment typically takes a few weeks to a few months. However, cases involving siblings of U.S. citizens, for example, are much more challenging.”

The evacuation process, however, isn’t solely facilitated by families, friends, and lawyers based in the United States. Amal** and Iskandar* are two organizers based in Jordan who have been volunteering to help organizers in Cairo. They have been dealing with an arduous fundraising and bureaucratic process. Amal — a student based in Amman — has been collecting funds to evacuate Palestinians trapped in Gaza. For more than two months, she has been traveling between Cairo and Amman to deliver funds and register families.

One travel agency with reportedly close ties to the Egyptian military regime — Hala Consulting and Tourism Services, also known as Ya Hala — is coordinating almost all evacuations and is essentially the only option to evacuate families from Gaza. 

“My friends have been in Cairo for a few weeks now, just going to the [travel] agency whenever they're able to, whenever they have the funds, to register as many people for evacuation as possible…” Amal tells Palestine Square.“So there's no kind of stopping point, [it’s all about raising] as much money as possible… there are so many people who are desperate for help to leave.”

A Middle East Eye report revealed that the agency is making $2 million a day from evacuation fees paid by Palestinians fleeing Gaza. In the past three months alone, the agency is estimated to have netted approximately $118 million from evacuation costs alone. Before Oct. 7, the cost of a  permit to exit Gaza ran between $250 and $600. Now, it’s over $5,000 for an adult and $2,500 for a child under the age of 16. Amal, like Zein, describes this as “pure extortion.”

Once the evacuation fees are paid, there is a variable waiting period, as Palestinians await the announcement of their names on a list released daily via Telegram and Facebook, according to Amal and NPR. Amal emphasizes that there’s an enormous backlog, as many people are attempting to register simultaneously. Finally, when Palestinians pass through the Rafah crossing, Iskandar says they have to pay an additional fee to Egyptian border agents, according to the families he helped evacuate. 

Not only are fees skyrocketing, but they also carry particular conditions that can be difficult to meet. Evacuation costs have to be paid in U.S. dollars directly to the Egyptian agency, and they must be in cash — crisp $100 bills. “Somehow, it’s actually the case that the simplest and quickest way to get U.S. dollars to pay these fees is to have people fly in [with] money,” Amal explains.

Amal and a group of organizers have been arranging trips to Cairo to deliver the fundraised cash. 

“Because of the problems with the Egyptian currency, there are a lot of new restrictions on people's ability to access foreign currency from within Egypt.” She converts the funds to U.S. dollars before she travels, to register people as quickly as possible. 

Amal told Palestine Square that people who are able to donate can do so by sending a Venmo to @swarthmorepsc or by visiting the Instagram page of Students for Justice in Palestine at Swarthmore. 

Amal also shares that the requirements for evacuation aren’t clear and are constantly changing.  “They change the rules, they change the fees, at a moment's notice.” 

As of mid-March, Amal notes that individuals in Cairo can now only register their family members. However, that wasn’t always the case: previously, if one could provide institutional sponsorship, it was possible to register non-relatives in Gaza. “[I think that] because of the impending invasion of Rafah, the Egyptians are anticipating that the border will close,” Amal opines. 

Amal’s prediction came true on May 6. Israel closed the Karem Abu Salem crossing, which was the main entry point for humanitarian aid. Israel also demanded that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians evacuate from East Rafah to the Al-Mawasi area of Khan Younis on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. And, on May 7, Israeli Occupation Forces seized the Rafah border crossing, positioning tanks all around it and effectively ensuring that Palestinians can no longer escape this genocide.

Iskandar* — another Amman-based organizer — has been assisting with evacuation processes via delivering funds to Cairo and offering language interpretation. He tells Palestine Square that the relatives-only registration policy “seemed new, even to the employees [at the agency] at the time.” He also said that “the bills (U.S. dollars) have to be pristine because they're very much sticklers about the kind of bills they accept… they don’t like $100 bills that are 2009 series and prior, and they don't want any stamps. The only stamps they accept are Western Union stamps. Any other kind of marking isn't accepted by them.”

Iskandar says that the process of interpreting from Arabic to/from English for those attempting to register their relatives while he is remote in Amman comes with its own trials and tribulations. He recalls that, during his past phone calls with the agency, it sounded like a “very crowded space,” populated by “very rude, short-tempered, and impatient clerks.” 

Iskandar clarifies that not all evacuation processes that begin achieve their goal. He mentions a family he was helping register whose mother was killed by Israel during the process. In this circumstance, the agency refunds the fees — though it takes its cut, a processing fee — within two weeks. Iskandar attempted to exchange the martyred mother’s registration with another individual to avoid the two-week delay, stating that time is a matter of life and death for Palestinians in Gaza. His attempt was, nonetheless, rejected by the Egyptian employees of the agency.

Iskandar shares that after Palestinian evacuees arrive in Cairo, authorities grant them a 45-day non-resident visa. “I don’t know what happens to them after that.” He adds that some of the money he fundraises covers the costs of living in Cairo, especially since many Palestinians arrive with only what they can carry on their backs after multiple forced displacements.

“Part of what [we’re] using money for is putting these people up in apartments, taking them to hospitals. Some people are just put in hospitals [by the Egyptian government], and they may or may not need medical attention, but it's essentially treated like a slum or [a place to stay] indefinitely, like purgatory.”

Refugees Platform in Egypt reports that Egyptian authorities have imposed various restrictions on movement and communications for injured Palestinians and their companions placed at hospitals in various Egyptian provinces. Some have described such restrictions as “detainment.” The report also states that “the hospitals’ administrations or security officials prohibit [Palestinians] from communicating with the outside world either directly or through phones, with them generally being denied access to the internet and communication services. In cases where visits by relatives are permitted, security personnel are always lingering, not allowing them to talk privately, with visits often being brief.”

Iskandar was able to meet two of the three families he helped evacuate when he traveled to Cairo in early April to deliver cash for evacuation efforts. “These are people who were within the genocide zone for six months,” Iskandar explains. “I’ve never been so affected by something in my life.” 

Iskandar talks about these survivors walking into their new “home.” “They're…so warm. They’re families, you know, and I was like, holding this little boy. And he was terrified of being near anyone new. But I got him to warm up to me a bit… they served us kusa mahshi, stuffed squash. And we ate and sat around, talking. I met two shabaab (young men). They were younger than me, but they were both married and had families. In my eyes, I felt they had more gravitas than their age [would indicate], because of what they've gone through.”

“People must do everything they can to help,” Iskandar emphasizes. He warns about the urgency of the situation and the need for volunteers to help evacuate families from Gaza. 

“If people know Arabic, and they have the ability, they should be doing everything they can. They should be coming to Cairo… you should come even if you don't have the time to take off. This is the kind of energy that it should [take]. This is urgent.”

Likewise, Amal repeatedly emphasizes the need for volunteers to fundraise. 

“I've been able to fundraise a lot more than I thought I would,” Amal says.  “Helping people fundraise to evacuate their families is a simple [task]… if you have the ability to fundraise and get that money to Cairo with people who are doing this work on the ground, [this will] enable them to register as many people as they can.” 

From California to Amman, the evacuation process is riddled with emotional, legal, and bureaucratic trials. Systemic corruption places a price tag on Palestinian lives, and — as Iskandar states — a few days at the border can constitute “a matter of life and death.” 

The suffering that Israel’s genocide has imposed on the people of Gaza knows no borders. Crossing doesn’t immediately guarantee safety, as Palestinians must struggle for survival in a new society with few resources… an experience their ancestors already lived through during the Nakba of 1948. While forced evacuation is, in itself, a grim reality for Palestinians in Gaza, it is one desperate hope to prevail against the genocide and maintain their lineages. 

*Pseudonym. 

**Last name omitted for privacy reasons. 

Palestinian organizers are regularly subjected to state and online surveillance, censorship, doxing, and harassment. Some names are anonymized to protect the privacy and identity of the sources.

Yasser Manna
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