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A man pushes a trolley with luggage as he crosses from Gaza to Egypt, at the Rafah border crossing on Feb. 1, amid the conflict between Israel and Hamas.MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/Reuters

A knot of clients formed outside the Hala Consulting and Tourism office in Nasr City, in the eastern expanses of Cairo, on a hot day in early April. Some of them looked tired and stressed.

One of them was Nafez, 26, who was waiting on the shady side of the Hala building with his wife, Heba, and their two young boys. They were waiting to pay small fortunes for visas in the hopes of getting Heba’s parents out of Rafah, on the Gazan side of the strip’s border with Egypt, where they were living in tents. “We are definitely worried about our relatives in Rafah,” he said. “There is nowhere for them to go if the Israelis bomb the tents.”

The Globe and Mail is not identifying the family by surname because they feared repercussions.

Nafez came ready to pay Hala US$5,000 for each of the visas required to get his in-laws into Egypt. One of Hala’s services is visa “co-ordination” – precise definition unknown – that, in effect, allows Gazans without foreign passports to buy their way out of the largely destroyed territory. The fee will land clients on an evacuees’ registry list, one that is approved by the Egyptian and Israeli security authorities. The process can take several weeks and those waiting to enter Egypt monitor a Facebook site that is updated daily to see if their names appear on the list.

Hala provided this service before the Oct. 7 attacks, but since that date, when Rafah became the only open crossing for Gazans, the price has soared – to the point that it is considered extortionate by some Hala clients and the Egyptians sympathetic to the Palestinians’ plight in Gaza. It is widely reported that Hala has connections to the Egyptian military.

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In a sense, Nafez, who was the owner of a small household-goods shop in northern Gaza, was exceedingly lucky. Shortly before Oct. 7, he was involved in a car accident that badly injured his arm. He opted for treatment in Egypt and travelled south to Rafah, a quick journey of less than 40 kilometres, where they were able to buy exit visas from Hala for about US$350 each, far less for his sons.

They were well out of harm’s way when Hamas and Israel went to war with each other, but their relatives were not. Nafez said his brother was killed in the Israeli attacks on Oct. 8, the day after Hamas militants stormed Israel, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking about 250 hostages. Since then, Israeli ground and air attacks have killed more than 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the Gaza health ministry, which does not distinguish between civilian and Hamas deaths.

Since then, Nafez has borrowed money from family and friends to pay Hala for the exit visas for his in-laws. He assumes the high price will secure their arrival in Egypt, as it has for thousands of other Gazans with sufficient financial resources.

In an interview in March, Nada Thabet Dughmosh, 24, who was an interior-design student at Gaza’s Al-Aqsa University before it was destroyed in the war, told The Globe that she managed to buy exit visas from Hala for her and her injured father, Thabet. The cost, US$5,000 each, was raised by Ms. Dughmosh’s sister in Italy through the GoFundMe crowdfunding platform. She said that, absent the visas, her father’s leg would be “cut” – meaning amputated – since there was no functioning hospital in Gaza City that could perform the surgery required to save her father’s leg. (He is now receiving treatment in a hospital in north Cairo.)

A United Nations employee who works in Rafah distributing food delivered by UN convoys told The Globe that she was aware of payments to Hala as high as US$13,000. Some reports put the price even higher. No one seems to know exactly how or where the fees get distributed.

Hala is controlled by Ibrahim Al-Organi (also spelled Argany), a prominent businessman from the north Sinai who was born in 1974 and is a member of the Tarabin Bedouin tribe. His Organi Group, founded in 2010, controls a diversified range of businesses, including those in construction, real estate, agriculture, transportation and tourism, according to its LinkedIn page. Organi is a sponsor of Cairo’s Al-Ahly, Africa’s most successful soccer team.

Various reports, including those from Times of Israel, Human Rights Watch and Mada Masr, an independent Egyptian news site, say the Organi Group has ties to the Egyptian government of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. In 2022, Human Rights Watch, citing an unnamed source, said that Hala itself “has strong links with Egypt’s security establishment and is staffed largely by former Egyptian military officers.”

Mr. Al-Organi himself has said that the Organi Group includes a joint venture, known as Misr Sinai, with the Egyptian Defence Ministry’s industrial conglomerate, the National Services Projects Organization. In a 2014 interview with Egypt’s Youm7 media outlet, he said, “As you can see, all state entities are in this company. This gives us an advantage.”

The current status of the government links to Organi is not known. The Globe received no response to an interview request with Mr. Al-Organi.

What is known is that Hala has emerged as the dominant agency arranging exit visas from Gaza, so much so that Mr. Al-Organi has been called the “King of the Crossing.” The applications to leave Gaza are thought to be soaring since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he has set a date for the invasion of Rafah, where more than one million Gazans are sheltering.

Palestinians fearing for their lives have little choice but to pay the US$5,000 or more to Hala to escape into Egypt, even if they consider the fee war profiteering. Dealing with other agents can be risky and reports of rip-offs are common. “No one can leave Gaza without paying this amount,” Ms. Dughmosh said. “If you did not have that amount, you were worthless and you would definitely die.”

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Tents housing displaced Palestinians in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt, are seen on March 30.MOHAMMED ABED/Getty Images

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