Saady Lozon used to employ hundreds of Gazans, provide IT services to customers around the world — including in Israel — and travel internationally to promote Palestinians’ tech skills.

After Israel began a U.S.-backed offensive in Gaza on Oct. 7, Lozon, his wife and their 4-year-old son moved from shelter to shelter seeking safety from bombardment and reliable access to food and water. Lozon’s offices were destroyed, he lost contact with most of his employees and his clients went incommunicado, leaving him with $789,000 worth of unpaid invoices, he recently told HuffPost.

“This is not a fair life… the real victims are the civilians in the Gaza Strip,” said Lozon, who this week ran out of medication he needs as a kidney transplant patient. On Thursday, he and his family joined the small number of civilians who have been able to flee the region for safety in Egypt — after he paid tens of thousands of dollars for each of them for “coordination” to exit through the Rafah Crossing, currently the only exit point from Gaza.

More than 80% of Gaza’s population has fled their homes since Israel launched its campaign following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and other Gaza-based militants. There’s growing urgency among people in the region to escape into Egypt because of the Israeli offensive now advancing toward the south, where most displaced people first moved on Israel’s orders. It’s a chilling prospect for Palestinians who bitterly recall their families’ forced exodus from the areas that became Israel in 1948, yet it seems like one of the few realistic alternatives to dying during the siege on Gaza.

But the process of getting through the Rafah Crossing is confusing, dehumanizing and often dangerous, observers tell HuffPost. The Biden administration, which treated the opening of Rafah as a major victory and describes its work on the crossing as a top focus, has yet to demonstrate it’s trying to improve the procedure.

“If people want it to be easy, it’s very easy,” said Sammy Nabulsi, a Boston-based attorney who is working with Americans stuck in Gaza or who have family members there, referencing the ongoing flow of aid workers and other personnel through Rafah.

Yet civilians desperate to leave the region have to jump through many hoops, Nabulsi said, and still may end up having to spend huge amounts amid the devastation of their local economy.

“It’s crazy for people who are in these dire circumstances, who just want to be reunited with family — the lengths they have to go to… working with lawyers abroad, getting connected to members of Congress to make personal appeals, then somehow coming up with $7,000 to $9,000 a pop.”

The State Department declined to provide details on the U.S. view of Gazans being asked for bribes to use the crossing and, in some cases, allegedly being scammed. One spokesperson told HuffPost the department does not have an updated estimate of how many American citizens and others eligible for U.S. evacuation assistance — green card holders and close relatives of U.S. citizens — are stuck in Gaza; they pointed to Jan. 4 remarks from State Department spokesperson Matt Miller, who referenced “several hundred.”

Sameer Lozon at the American International School in Gaza before the onset of the Israel-Hamas war. The 4-year-old and his parents left Gaza for Egypt on Thursday after his father paid tens of thousands of dollars to secure their exit.
Sameer Lozon at the American International School in Gaza before the onset of the Israel-Hamas war. The 4-year-old and his parents left Gaza for Egypt on Thursday after his father paid tens of thousands of dollars to secure their exit.

And meanwhile, the largest aid organization that supports Gaza and Palestinians has lost funding from several of its top donor countries.

On Friday, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency said that it had fired nine employees and that the U.N.’s chief watchdog had launched an investigation after Israel accused 12 UNRWA staff members of being involved in the Oct. 7 attack that killed 1,200 Israelis. (One of the 12 is dead, and the identities of two are being confirmed, according to the U.N.)

The Biden administration suspended U.S. support for UNRWA that day, prompting other major donor states, like Germany, Canada, Britain, Japan, Australia and France, to do so as well.

“It is the most irresponsible, most dangerous decision I can even imagine in this context,” said Heather McPherson, a Canadian parliamentarian. She said Ottawa “is completely following the U.S. administration with no critical analysis, no interest in adhering to international law, no interest in holding the [Israeli] government to any sort of accountability.”

Humanitarian experts say the spiraling international debate over UNRWA ignores its irreplaceable ability to help Gaza survive and move forward, and to support Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Even governments that have halted funding say the allegations should not hurt UNRWA for good. White House spokesperson John Kirby said the claims “shouldn’t impugn the entire agency… They’ve helped save literally thousands of lives in Gaza and do important work.” Some big-donor governments, notably Norway, have firmly declined to join the trend of halting payments to the agency.

For now, though, the agency has warned that it will cease operations this month unless funding resumes.

The contrast between the deepening misery on the ground and the decisions by some of the world’s richest countries underscores a harsh reality: One week after the so-called World Court, the U.N.’s International Court of Justice, ruled that there is a plausible risk of genocide in Gaza and ordered an immediate increase in humanitarian support, Palestinian survival remains far from the world’s priority.

‘Magical Thinking’

A broad range of aid experts say it’s crucial to investigate the allegations against UNRWA but it’s unacceptable to hurt the agency while some of its primary beneficiaries are experiencing their worst suffering in decades.

“We’re getting questions from donors saying, ‘Can other international NGOs backfill?’ We’ve been saying that is really another level of magical thinking,” said Janti Soeripto, the president and CEO of Save the Children U.S.

“You’re asking the humanitarian system to replace an agency that has been there for many decades, that has 13,000 staff,” Soeripto added. “To replace that overnight is ludicrous, and it’s a really dangerous assumption that can just happen, because UNRWA is not just any other agency.”

The U.S., Israel and other governments see a need for an “off-ramp” that involves accountability but doesn’t hurt UNRWA in the long run, said Jeremy Konyndyk, the president of Refugees International and a former senior U.S. aid official.

A German official told HuffPost they “expect the [U.N.] to quickly present the results of its investigation and draw the necessary conclusions. UNRWA must make it clear that extremism, hatred and violence will not be tolerated under any circumstances.”

“It is good that [UNRWA] Secretary General [Philippe] Lazzarini has announced an additional independent review,” the official said. “The [European Union] Commission is also planning an additional review by independent experts. In light of the results of these investigations and the consequences drawn from them by the U.N., we will coordinate with the other donor countries.”

Yet the agency has long had critics who argue it needs wholesale reform or even to be eliminated, and the allegations from Israel have given these skeptics an opening. This week, Republican lawmakers held a Capitol Hill hearing where they aired a host of outlandish claims about UNRWA being a terrorist front. And some more hawkish supporters of Israel have for years argued the agency’s work should be performed by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, an argument widely seen as trying to de-emphasize Palestinian rights and claims to Gaza and the West Bank.

Demonstrators stage a protest during a hearing Tuesday before the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on oversight and accountability on the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Demonstrators stage a protest during a hearing Tuesday before the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on oversight and accountability on the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

“People argue for this … because they think that UNHCR does not recognize refugee descendants and thus the Palestine refugee issue would become extinct. This is not true,” Elizabeth Campbell, a former UNRWA official, told reporter Samer Badawi in 2018. “The second reason that people argue for this solution is that they believe that UNHCR can resettle Palestine refugees into third countries.”

Campbell now works in the Biden administration. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Humanitarian officials now caught up in UNRWA-related arguments are simultaneously trying to oversee shipments of supplies to Gaza’s most desperate people.

A top concern is funneling medical materials, food and other necessities to northern Gaza, where up to 300,000 people remain and which is extremely challenging to access.

Aid must first enter through Rafah or another access point for goods in the south, the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing, which Soeripto said is not yet functioning at full capacity. Soeripto said her group has tried to send trucks full of already-cleared aid from southern Gaza to the north but has on multiple occasions had them sent back by Israeli officials who control the area.

‘Pressure Cooker’

For desperate, besieged Gazans, any chance of safety seems worth trying.

Talk of purchasing a corrupt exit, including by getting on the daily list of people approved by Israel, Egypt and other governments to travel to Egypt via the Rafah Crossing, is now commonplace and in some instances seems justified. A person involved in helping Americans evacuate told HuffPost they were aware of a case in which a family who paid a bribe appeared on the exit list a day or two later. The State Department declined to comment on that example.

The person also mentioned a family who paid $600 to a broker claiming to help people leave and has seen no results one month later — the kind of story that has contributed to the widespread belief among people in Gaza that some of the purported options for leaving aren’t real.

A U.S.-based Palestinian recently told The Guardian he paid $9,000 to get his wife and children on the Rafah list only to be told the day they were supposed to leave Gaza that he owed $3,000 more for his kids.

“We are aware of these reports [of bribery] and working to gather more information,” a State Department spokesperson told HuffPost, without providing information on U.S. efforts to stop the corruption.

Families attempting to use the officially mandated channels for securing an exit on the basis of their foreign nationalities or ties to foreign countries describe that process as opaque. And figures involved in those efforts told HuffPost they see a worrying trend: men being excluded from the exit lists.

“Young men are disproportionately not being allowed to exit,” said McPherson, who is working on cases of Canadians stuck in Gaza.

Nabulsi, the U.S. attorney, said he is helping two families who have submitted the names of both a mother and a father who need help leaving Gaza; in both cases, only the mother has appeared on the exit list so far. No men appeared on the U.S. government’s exit lists for Wednesday and Thursday, Nabulsi told HuffPost.

Men may be excluded because Israel, which plays a role in approving the lists, is treating them as security risks, the person involved in evacuations said. State Department spokespeople did not answer HuffPost’s question about the alleged pattern of excluding men from exit lists. “We believe that the vast majority of U.S. citizens who are seeking our assistance have reached out to us. So far, we have assisted over 1,600 U.S. citizens, [green card holders] and family members to depart Gaza through the Rafah crossing into Egypt,” a spokesperson said.

“We expect these numbers will continue to grow as long as the crossing remains open,” they continued — a tacit admission of the Biden administration’s reluctance to pressure Israel and Egypt, both American allies, to ensure that is the case.

The longer people stay in Gaza, the more risk they face.

“A friend described to me a WhatsApp group for Palestinian American citizens and nationals trapped in Gaza, and their families here in the U.S.,” Qutaiba Idlbi, an analyst at the Atlantic Council think tank, wrote Thursday on X (formerly Twitter). “A couple permits are issued periodically, but very often when it’s too late. Many have already been killed with their whole family.”

Gazans who are stuck in makeshift accommodations in Rafah, close to the crossing, describe a suffocating experience as they’re crammed into a town now hosting hundreds of thousands of displaced people.

“If you walk in Rafah’s streets, you feel like it’s a pressure cooker: Everything is overcrowded, the city capacities… do not meet the needs of the people,” Ghada Alhaddad of the charity Oxfam reported earlier this month.

Still, the community has yet to succumb to chaos, aid experts note.

Soeripto recalled speaking to a colleague who recently spent a day in Rafah and described orderly food distribution and displaced people helping each other. Some Gazans who left for Egypt with their children for safety and have skills they can deploy to serve others, like doctors and teachers, are trying to go back into the region as soon as they can, she said.

“There is such an unbelievable humanity you see,” Soeripto said. “We need to make sure there’s enough political will to support that humanity.”


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