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Some Gazans are paying tens of thousands of dollars to escape with their families

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

What does it take to escape the war in Gaza? It takes $5,000 per person, to be exact - 2,500 for a child. Hundreds of Palestinians are paying that fee every day for the privilege of exiting through Gaza's only open border crossing. Where does that money go? Well, NPR's Daniel Estrin has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking in non-English language).

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: An NPR producer in Gaza saw a few hundred people crowd the Rafah border crossing as their names were called one by one. Unless you are among the lucky few who have a foreign passport or a foreign country appealing on your behalf or have approved medical treatment in Egypt, the only way out of Gaza is to pay.

MAZEN: My name is Mazen. I am a mechanical engineer.

ESTRIN: He was waiting to cross the border.

MAZEN: After we lost everything in Gaza - all our possessions - we have to collect the amount of money, which is a big sum, just to buy our lives.

ESTRIN: To buy our lives - he paid the astronomical wartime price of $20,000 for his family of four. He had to borrow the money.

MAZEN: It took a long time - not only time, not only money. You pay your money to be insulted.

ESTRIN: The process is complicated. Gazans need a relative in Cairo to apply on their behalf. Hundreds wait outside the company building. Some have paid thousands of dollars just to get in the door. Many Palestinians consider the whole system a bribe.

MOHAMMED: Actually, it's a bribe. But what we can do? This is the only options and solution that we have.

ESTRIN: This man, Mohammed, paid $17,000 and left Gaza with his family a few weeks ago. We're not fully identifying the Palestinians we spoke to. They don't want any trouble with Egypt, where they're seeking refuge. Egypt says all payments for travelers from Gaza are in line with Egyptian laws.

HAISAM HASSANEIN: Gazans paying to exit Gaza is not a new phenomenon.

ESTRIN: Haisam Hassanein is an Egyptian American researcher.

HASSANEIN: They are trying to condition mainstream Palestinians that coming to Egypt wouldn't be an easy option.

ESTRIN: Egypt does not want a permanent mass displacement of Palestinians and doesn't want to take in Islamist militants. But the minority of Gazans who can afford it get out by paying the Egyptian tourism company Hala.

HASSANEIN: But what I could tell you - that there is no way they will be operating such a company in such critical times without the Egyptian security approving or having full knowledge of that.

ESTRIN: The company is owned by Egyptian businessman Ibrahim al-Organi. Hassanein says the businessman has helped Egyptian security build contacts with tribes in the Sinai border region near Gaza, where security forces battled extremists for years. He says the businessman's connections are key to him running this border fee service.

HASSANEIN: Nowadays, it's seen as an opportunity to get more dollars into the Egyptian market.

ESTRIN: Egypt's economy is struggling. Suez Canal revenue is down. Cargo ships are avoiding the area because of Houthi missiles. Egypt is desperate for dollars. Hassanein believes Egyptian security officials take a cut from the wartime prices Gazans are paying to cross the border.

HASSANEIN: Apparently, in the eyes of those business individuals, there is a shortage of the hard currency in the Egyptian market, and surely some cash from rich Gazans could help.

ESTRIN: As the death toll rises and Israel threatens a ground operation in the last sliver of Gaza, where a million Palestinians are sheltering, the demand to leave Gaza is rising. To buy their way out, Palestinians are trying to raise the money through the website GoFundMe.

REEM ZIYAD: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: Reem Ziyad in London tells us she's seeking donations through GoFundMe to get her 25 relatives out of Gaza, including her parents and sisters. Her sister's husband was killed in an Israeli strike.

ZIYAD: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: She says, "it might be seen as a bribe, but it's actually about saving people from death."

So far, she's raised about $1,000 - 1% of what she needs to pay for her family to get out of Gaza.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENDAI SONG, "TIME IN OUR LIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.