The company making millions from Gaza misery

todayMarch 1, 2024 4

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The company making millions from Gaza misery

For weeks, Amani* and her five children have been living in a tent in Rafah, the increasingly crowded city on Gaza’s southern border.

“There is constant bombing and terror. My children are very afraid,” she says.

“We are dying slowly and nobody cares, nobody feels for us. Our kids have no life. It’s not clean, there’s no food. Everything is difficult.”

Across the border, in Egypt, her husband Mahmoud* has been desperately trying to arrange for them to be allowed out of Gaza through the Rafah crossing.

He has not seen his wife or children for five months. Their youngest is just three years old.

“I wish I could leave and take my children to their father,” says Amani. “He is trying to make coordination for us to get to him, but it is expensive.”

Amani and her five children have been living in a tent in Rafah for weeks.

Amani and her five children have been living in a tent in Rafah for weeks

By “coordination”, Amani is referring to a system by which Palestinians can pay for permission to leave the Gaza Strip.

Before the war, Palestinians faced waiting weeks or months to be allowed into Egypt. By paying a few hundred dollars to one of several companies, however, they could guarantee their travel in a matter of days.

Normal cross-border travel has been suspended since the start of the war. Coordination is now the only way for Palestinians without dual nationality to leave Gaza, barring medical evacuation.

And while there used to be several companies offering coordination, now there is only one – the Egyptian firm Hala.

Before the war, it was possible to travel with Hala for $350 (£277) – as seen in the advertisement below, by a Gaza-based travel agent offering Hala services.

Social media post by Mushtaha, a Gaza-based travel agent, offering travel with Hala for $350

Social media post by Mushtaha, a Gaza-based travel agent, offering travel with Hala for $350

Since the war began, however, Hala has increased its prices to $5,000 (£3,960) per adult – a 14-fold increase.

Sky News has verified this price by corroborating accounts from dozens of sources, including a Hala employee, as well as price lists posted online.

Price list

A price list posted to a social media page dedicated to updates on Hala’s services on 27 January

Amani and her husband owned a profitable business in Gaza City before the war. Now it is nothing but rubble.

“They asked for $5,000 for an adult and $2,500 for a kid. How can we provide it?” says Amani.

One former coordination agent tells Sky News that he quit the industry because of Hala’s price rises. “I refuse to partake in the crime of these prices and the extortion,” he says.

Hala could be making $1m per day

Officially, Egypt is only allowing the exit of foreign nationals and injured evacuees. In recent weeks, however, the majority of those receiving permission to leave Gaza did so through Hala (56%).

On 27 February, for instance, 246 people were registered to travel with Hala, compared to 40 medical evacuees and 123 foreign nationals.

Hala’s travel list for that day, shown below, included 48 children and 198 adults, six of whom were Egyptian citizens. Based on our knowledge of Hala’s fares, that means the company could have made $1,083,900 (£858,286) in just one day.

Pages from a Hala travel list, shared on social media

Hala travel list for 27 February, 2024

We don’t know exactly how much the company has made on other days – this is the only time their travel list has included passengers’ nationalities, and Egyptians pay a much lower fare. But the volume of passengers has been consistent for weeks.

How Hala operates

Sky News has spoken to more than 70 Palestinians to understand how Hala is able to operate, and how its prices are affecting Palestinians at a time when so many are desperate to escape for fear of an Israeli invasion of Rafah.

Our sources include 30 people who have travelled with Hala since the war began, or who have personally arranged travel for someone.

Hala leaves little in the way of a paper trail. The company is not registered on the website of the Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism, as Egyptian companies involved in cross-border travel are required to do. Its sole internet presence is two Facebook pages and a Google form.

All of our interviewees said that payment had to be made in cash, and none were provided with a receipt.

They received only a ticket with their name on, but no information about the sum paid.

And although price lists are easily found on social media, none are provided officially by Hala.

“They wouldn’t post prices officially – they don’t want the heat,” says one man who organised travel for his family. “People just inquire at the office and spread the word.”

Word spreads via social media, on Facebook pages and Telegram channels with tens or hundreds of thousands of followers.

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.

The employee said people could also pay via mobile cash transfer, though this was not corroborated by any of our sources.

A social media exchange between Sky News and a Hala employee

A social media exchange between Sky News and a Hala employee

Hala’s main office is 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. “It’s very fancy.”

Multiple sources said that there were often hundreds or thousands of people queuing outside. Two told Sky News that they were forced to pay a non-refundable $1,000 deposit simply to get into the building.

Videos verified by Sky News show the queues on 20 February.

Sky News was able to geolocate the videos to a street outside the Organi Group’s headquarters in Nasr City, confirming their location.

Satellite image of Hala's office at Organi Group headquarters in Nasr City, Cairo, Egypt (September 2023). SOURCE: Google

Satellite image of Hala’s office at Organi Group headquarters in Nasr City, Cairo, Egypt (September 2023). SOURCE: Google

Once the money has been handed over, passengers wait to hear if they have been accepted for travel.

“Our understanding is that Egypt and Israel are very closely coordinated on who can exit through the crossing,” says Tania Hary, executive director of Israeli human rights organisation Gisha.

“So, it would surprise me if Hala’s lists were shielded from Israeli scrutiny.”

The Egyptian and Israeli authorities did not respond when asked whether they were involved in running security checks on Hala travellers.

Once their names have been approved, customers are issued a travel ticket and wait until their names appear on a travel list.

A Hala travel ticket shared with Sky News by a Hala employee

A Hala travel ticket shared with Sky News by a Hala employee

“People are quite desperate,” said Hary.

“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.”

“Completely out of our league”

On the windswept coast of North Wales, the war in Gaza feels like a world away. But the skyrocketing cost of escaping the conflict is being felt here, too.

Hend and Ahmed moved from Gaza City to Bangor shortly before the war began on 7 October, 2023.

Hend and Ahmed moved from Gaza City to Bangor shortly before the war began on 7 October last year

“We were really shocked with the prices,” says Palestinian mother-of-two Hend when we meet at her home in Bangor. “They are completely out of our league.”

Hend and her husband Ahmed are trying to raise £48,163 through crowdfunding to pay for nine members of Ahmed’s family, including his parents, to travel with Hala.

Hend and Ahmed are trying to raise £48,163 to get Ahmed's family out of Gaza

Hend and Ahmed are trying to raise £48,163 to get Ahmed’s family out of Gaza

The couple moved from Gaza to Wales shortly before the war, so that Ahmed could take up a job as a doctor in the NHS. His parents stayed behind.

Their three-year-old son Qussai has been asking when he can speak to his grandparents again.

Hend’s and Ahmed’s parents have not had the chance to meet their five-month-old granddaughter Farida, who was born after the couple relocated.

Five-month old Farida has not had a chance to meet her grandparents.

Five-month-old Farida has not had a chance to meet her grandparents

During a video call with his grandparents early in the war, Hend says, Qussai heard the sound of bombing in the background and asked what it was.

“The first thing on my mind, I said it was a volcano,” Hend says.

“And now whenever he hears a loud voice or slamming or anything, he says it’s a volcano.

“I wonder, if any mother was in my place what would she feel? Because sometimes I find I cannot process what I feel and what I’m living.”

Hala’s current prices would be unaffordable for most Gaza residents in normal times. But salaries have gone unpaid for months, many have lost their homes, and inflation is rampant.

“Previously, if we gave someone $100 it could support them for a week or two,” says Ahmed. “It would merely cover one day now.”

“We are still far from our goal,” Hend says. “What we have collected until now is not enough to get one person out.”

Hundreds of Palestinians like Hend and Ahmed are trying to raise funds through platforms such as GoFundMe and JustGiving.

“For those people in Gaza who are deprived of everything, [Hala] is kind of a life jacket in the sea,” said a researcher from Sinai, familiar with the Egypt-Gaza border.

Sky News analysed a sample of 140 GoFundMe pages to see what kind of money Palestinians were trying to raise.

The average fundraiser was seeking enough for a typical household, which our research suggests includes a couple, their parents and four children. Yet most had not even raised enough for one adult traveller.

It can be difficult to leave without coordination

Aside from coordination, there are only two other ways to leave Gaza. Those with foreign nationality can leave through their embassies, and those with major injuries can apply for a medical evacuation.

Even for the severely wounded, getting a place on the injured list is no easy task.

Between 10 and 29 February, an average of just 44 people were included on this list each day, compared to an average of 234 who coordinated with Hala.

It took Hend four months to secure the evacuation of her father Adnan, despite him suffering a fractured femur and complications from a liver transplant.

Foreign nationals have also faced difficulties leaving via official routes. Sky News spoke to three foreign nationals (Greek, Dutch and Canadian) who were unable to leave without paying. One is currently trying to arrange travel with Hala.

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

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

Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry speaking to Sky News presenter Yalda Hakim on 18 February, 2024

Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry speaking to Sky News presenter Yalda Hakim on 18 February

Asked whether the government will look into these allegations, Shoukry said: “It is already looking into it and will take action vis-a-vis anyone who has been implicated in such activities.”

Amr Magdi, an Egypt expert at Human Rights Watch, tells Sky News that Shoukry’s response “rings hollow”.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Magdi says. “There can’t be such economic activity, especially when it is a monopoly, without a green light from the military and without actual connections to the military.”

“It’s mainly the military and the military intelligence who control the border,” he says. “No one can pass through the border without the knowledge of the Egyptian authorities.”

Hala’s parent company, the Organi Group, is a high-profile company in Egypt. In January 2023, it became an official sponsor of Al Ahly, the most successful football team in Africa.

Al Ahly player Hussein El Shahat wearing a shirt bearing the logo of Organi Group, the owner of Hala. SOURCE: @AlAhlyEnglish

Al Ahly player Hussein El Shahat wearing a shirt bearing the logo of Organi Group, the owner of Hala. SOURCE: @AlAhlyEnglish

Almost all of those who spoke to us did so on the condition of anonymity, for fear of retaliation from the Egyptian authorities.

“They will arrest me and my family if they know I talked with you,” said one man, who had recently arranged his father’s exit. “I am afraid of them – you don’t know how brutal they are.”

Sky News presented its findings to Hala, the Organi Group and governments of Israel and Egypt. None of them responded.

“This isn’t life”

After five months of war, health authorities in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip say that more than 30,000 have been killed.

Half the population is now crammed into Rafah, transforming much of the city into a refugee camp.

Satellite image of Rafah with tents highlighted, 21 February 2024. SOURCE: Planet Labs PBC

Satellite image of Rafah with tents highlighted, 21 February 2024. SOURCE: Planet Labs PBC

Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered his military to prepare for a “powerful” ground invasion of the city but has not set out any plan for the evacuation of Rafah’s 1.5 million residents.

Egypt has categorically rejected any suggestion that Palestinians should be allowed to flee en masse into Sinai.

However, footage shared by the Egypt-based group Sinai for Human Rights and verified by Sky News shows a large land-clearing operation is under way on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border, as well as the construction of a wall.

Sky has not been able to independently verify the purpose of the construction works, but Sinai for Human Rights says that it is intended to house an influx of Palestinian refugees.

Shoukry told Sky News that the activity was part of the “ordinary maintenance” of the border. “It is in no way related to providing any camps or shelter on our side of the border,” he said.

As of 26 February, satellite imagery shows, an area of roughly 15 square kilometres has been cleared.

High-resolution imagery from the same date shows scores of trucks and construction vehicles in the area.

For parents like Amani, the mother-of-five in Rafah, it is difficult to see what kind of future their children can expect.

“This isn’t life, living on the streets with no food or water,” she says. “We are living in fear.”

Amani’s children have not seen their father Mahmoud in five months. It would cost the couple $17,500 to reunite their family.

“I want them to see their father but it’s too expensive,” Amani says.

“God willing, the price will fall.”

Additional reporting by Sam Doak and Mary Poynter.

*Amani’s and Mahmoud’s names have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

The Data and Forensics team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News. We gather, analyse and visualise data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite images, social media and other open-source information. Through multimedia storytelling, we aim to better explain the world while also showing how our journalism is done.

Written by: Newsroom

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