Tareq S. Hajjaj
Mondoweiss / November 23, 2022
Palestinians travelling out of Gaza are routinely subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment by Egyptian officials as they are escorted to Cairo International Airport and placed under guard until they board their planes.
It’s the first time I set foot in a country that isn’t under siege or military occupation. When I step outside, I feel free. But every step makes me recall Gaza’s blockade.
Every time I see beauty, I recall the destruction caused by Israel’s wars. Every time I move, I recall the fear Palestinians feel in Gaza as they move around. I remember how the siege eats away at our lives, preventing us from even the smallest things.
These are the feelings that overwhelmed me as I arrived in Turkey in late October — my first time ever traveling outside of Gaza.
But this story is not about Turkey. The destination of my journey could have been anywhere — that is, anywhere that allows Palestinians to get tourist visas to enjoy a few weeks exploring the other side of the world. Only 44 countries welcome Palestinians as visitors, Turkey being one of them. It has become a common travel destination for Palestinians.
But travel for Palestinians in Gaza is a particularly long and tortuous process.
It demands substantial sums of money, and takes up what feels like an endless waiting period for your turn to go through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt — Gaza’s only door to the outside world.
The journey begins
Once you have taken the decision to travel outside of Gaza, circumstances permitting, you must go to the interior ministry to add your name to a list of hundreds, maybe thousands, of people waiting to leave. You must state your name and the purpose of your travel, and then you must wait.
Typically you need more than a month to get approved before you can travel. Sometimes it takes longer. Sometimes you get a rejection if you don’t have a “convincing” reason to travel, such as being a student or holding a foreign residency. If you do not want to wait all this time, you can pay what is called an “Egyptian coordination” fee. It is a bribe.
The payment ranges between $300 – $1,000, depending on the time of year and the demand for travel. After handing over the money, you get to travel after two days.
Money will only get you so far, however, and it certainly does not ensure you any special treatment when traveling. All it does is get your name on the list. That’s when the journey starts.
Starting from the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing, travelers wait for hours inside a huge hall. The Palestinian security officials call on travelers according to different categories — foreign passports, foreign residency, students, and then “Egyptian coordination”.
No category exists for people who just want to travel. There has to be a reason for the trip. Simply wanting to get out of Gaza for tourism isn’t an option.
After your category is called on, you are moved from the large waiting hall to another, smaller one. This is where you are called, name by name, to get your passports checked, before getting moved to the actual border crossing.
Now in a third hall, the Hamas security officers begin taking travelers, one by one, into interrogation rooms, where they are kept for at least an hour. Where do you want to go? Why are you travelling? With whom are you travelling? How long will you stay?
The stream of questions and the waiting is just the beginning, however. Nothing compares to the humiliation you receive once you cross into Egypt.
The Egyptian side
After finishing all the procedures on the Palestinian side, we start a new stage with the Egyptians. The experience is humiliating.
Hundreds of Palestinians spend long hours waiting inside a huge hall packed with people. Everyone waits for the Egyptian officers to call their names, at which point they will undergo another security check, before being put on buses to head to the Cairo International Airport.
In the Egyptian hall of the Rafah crossing, you instantly feel that you are not being respected as a human, never mind being treated with basic decency. Palestinians from Gaza are treated with utter contempt, and are ordered around by Egyptian officials who want to let us know that he is in control.
The officers who check our passports bark out orders. “Sit there,” one says, after checking my passport. I try to ask about the next step, but he and the officer next to him simply mock me and order me to sit down.
I realized then that speaking to anyone, for any purpose, will only come back to me in the form of humiliation.
After three hours in the Egyptian hall, we moved on to pay the entrance fees to Egypt, and then on the road to Cairo Airport.
Anticipating leaving for the airport, everyone in the hall is already exhausted after hours of waiting and standing. By that point, many are ready to pay additional bribes to make it to the flight they’ve already paid for.
A group of over 70 people lines up, mostly men, some of whom are accompanied by their wives, sisters, or elderly mothers. We wait for our names to be called, at which point we are checked again, before boarding the buses.
After the last security check, we are divided into mini buses, where we prepare for a 450 km journey through Egypt to Cairo Airport. We spend 14 hours in a small, cramped mini bus as we pass through the Sinai Desert overnight.
When we arrive at the airport in Cairo at 3 a.m., we are forced into another line and made to stand again despite the hundreds of empty chairs surrounding us.
We are not allowed to sit, a rule made specially for Gaza residents. We’re then sent to another waiting hall — again, made specially for Gazans — where our passports are taken from us as we wait for our flights.
We spend the night in the “expatriation room,” as I call it. We wait until the morning to get our passports back. Many of us must wait in this room for hours, since no one dares book their flight on the same day as leaving Rafah.
During this time, we are not allowed to leave the room or enjoy the airport’s facilities and amenities like the other travelers.
When the morning comes, the Egyptian officials start to line us up again, calling out the names of people whose flights are within two hours. When your name is called, you are given your ticket, and released to the free world.
I left my home in Gaza City on Monday at 6:00 a.m. By the time I arrived in Istanbul airport, it was 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday.
We once had an International Airport in Gaza, but like everything else, it was destroyed by Israel in 2001, after running for only two years.
When I arrived in Turkey, walking through the streets and using all the different types of transportation — cars, trains, buses, even boats — I felt like I finally had some freedom, and realized what a privilege it was to have something as simple as transportation and infrastructure.
I felt pathetic. I was in my 30s, and I was only now experiencing things like flying or riding the train for the first time. Even watching airplanes fly in and out of Istanbul was wondrous to behold.
In Gaza, I only watch warplanes fly over my home.
Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent