Amid Gaza Travel Curbs, A Thriving Visa Trade

Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, it has become increasingly difficult for Palestinians in the strip to get out because of tight restrictions by Israel and even Egypt. That has led to a flourishing trade in visas bought through thousands of dollars in bribes. Most though can't afford the now exorbitant prices and are stuck in what they say is an open-air prison.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going to get a glimpse, now, at one the more isolated spots in the Middle East. Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have trouble traveling beyond the borders of that tiny coastal enclave. Israel has kept tight restrictions on Gaza for years, and has enforced an almost total blockade along the border since the militant group Hamas took full control of the territory in 2007. Egypt has kept control of its border with Gaza as well, with some exceptions.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro recently traveled to Gaza where Palestinians say they feel trapped and frustrated with no end in sight.

(Soundbite of car engine)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the Gaza City bus station, a Hamas policeman calls out the name of those authorized to travel to Rafa, the terminal on the Gaza-Egypt border.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dozens of people crowd around, surrounded by large suitcases, waiting for their turn to get on. This is the first time the border has been opened in a month and a half, and there is a palpable air of desperation. Abu Jamal is one of the lucky ones.

Mr. ABU JAMAL: (Unintelligible). Once you are in Gaza, it's a matter of luck. I have been waiting for the last three months. There are so many people who'd like to be, who want to be free to be able to go where they want to go, just like anybody else.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Leaving Gaza has never been easy. Israel controls its own border with Gaza and the air and sea around the strip. For most of the 1.5 million Palestinians in the territory, the only option has been travel via Egypt. But not anymore. These days, that border is only open sporadically. Anyone who wishes to travel, has to get his or her name placed on lists prepared by the Egyptian authorities or Hamas.

This month, the Rafa crossing was open for four days and only 3,000 people were let through. It's not clear when the border will be open again. Gaza-based analyst, Mohaima Abusayda(ph), says there are very specific criteria for travelers here.

Mr. MOHAIMA ABUSAYDA (Analyst): They allow Gazans to cross from Gaza to Egypt under three conditions: students, Palestinians with outside residency and sick people. Other than that, it's almost impossible for the other average Palestinians to leave Gaza.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Abusayda says the border has become a political tool in the hands of the Egyptian government. Egypt has been trying for months to broker a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and the rival Fattah, which holds sway in the West Bank. So far, Hamas has refused to sign on.

Mr. ABUSAYDA: But by keeping the border crossing closed and they open it from time to time, this is one of the ways how Egypt can employ pressure and leverage on Hamas every time they want to use it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it's ordinary Palestinians who pay the price - literally. A traveler's black market is now flourishing. Saib Abu Rabeer(ph) owns a furniture store. He's been trying to get out with five members of his family for a year now to no avail.

Mr. SAIB ABU RABEER (Furniture Store Owner): (Through translator) About three months ago, someone came up to me and said they could help me get on the list to leave Gaza for a fee of $1,500 a person. I agreed. Nothing happened. Then they came back and said the price was now $2,500 a person.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Abu Rabeer says he and others like him are at the mercy of these touts. They say they know high-ranking Egyptians officials who can get them permission to travel. Some people, he says, have paid tens of thousands of dollars in bribes. Abu Rabeer says he can't afford that, so for now, he's stuck in, what he terms, a prison.

Mr. ABU RABEER: (Through translator) If I ever get out of here and I find a good investment, I will never come back. This place has dragged me to the bottom.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At a caf� in Gaza City, 27-year-old Fadi Baheet(ph) sits despondently. He's the manager of an eight-man hip-hop band.

Mr. FADI BAHEET (Music Manager): We're trapped. We are a hip-hop group called Arasteen(ph). (Unintelligible). We had projects in Denmark and we have still projects in Switzerland and Sweden, but we're trapped. We have missed so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Baheet says because of Hamas restrictions, they rarely get to perform in Gaza itself. He says the band members want to leave so they can tell the world what's happening here.

Mr. BAHEET: They were looking forward to be in this project to represent Gaza, to represent Palestine, and we want this opportunity to present that Gaza's still alive and Gaza's part of Palestine.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So most days they hang out in cafes waiting to see if they can get permission to leave.

Mr. BAHEET: To have your life on hold, it's something I wouldn't wish anyone to feel, you know?

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: Gaza, (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He plays a recording of one of their recent songs about last winter's Gaza war.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says their next song will be about not being able to leave this place.

Mr. BAHEET: It's going to be, like, killing. We're going to get in trouble for it. Many people doesn't know the real deal. They just don't know. To break the siege, it's not to let people in, it's to let people out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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