An injured Palestinian child is transferred by Egyptian paramedics into an ambulance, after being allowed to be evacuated from the Gaza Strip via the Rafah crossing on January 14, 2024. By April, between 80,000 and 100,000 Gazans had crossed the Egyptian border, said Diab Allouh, the Palestinian ambassador in Cairo. Image Credit: AFP file

CAIRO: Every time a plane flies overhead, Mohanad Al Sindawy shudders. It takes him a moment to remember he isn’t in Gaza anymore and that no one is bombing the Egyptian capital.

“But the sound terrifies us every time, even passing cars remind us of missiles,” the 23-year-old Palestinian told AFP in Cairo.

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The war raging since October 7 between Israel and Hamas has sent tens of thousands of Palestinians fleeing Gaza to neighbouring Egypt where they are granted temporary stays.

Although Egypt insists it won’t do Israel’s bidding by allowing permanent refugee camps on its territory, it has allowed in medical evacuees, dual passport holders and others who somehow managed to escape.

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Al Sindawy, who worked in digital marketing back in Gaza, could find work online but said he “can’t concentrate” on anything except “following the news and making sure our families are safe”.

As the bloodiest ever Gaza war grinds on just a five-hour-drive away, he said, “we can’t even think about what comes next for us until there’s a ceasefire”.

Like him, many Gazans are traumatised, disoriented in exile and struggling to find help.

“We lost everything,” said another recent arrival, Raghda Shbeir, 22. “We’ve contacted organisations for help, but nothing has worked. Some never responded, some told us to wait our turn.”

Shbeir’s family is lucky to have relatives in Cairo but faces another huge obstacle, she said - “our legal status in Egypt: our residence permit is only valid for 45 days.”

In the longer term, she said, “staying in Egypt is not an option”.

In need of care

The Gaza war was sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel which resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

The Islamist militants also took 251 hostages, 120 of whom remain in Gaza, including 41 the army says are dead.

Israel’s ensuing bombardment and ground offensive have killed at least 36,586 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the territory’s health ministry.

Amid an Israeli siege of the coastal territory of 2.4 million people, the Rafah border crossing with Egypt was a lifeline until it was shut last month, letting aid trucks in and allowing the lucky few to escape.

By April, between 80,000 and 100,000 Gazans had crossed the Egyptian border, said Diab Allouh, the Palestinian ambassador in Cairo.

The Egyptian health ministry said 44,065 were medical evacuees, taken out between November and February, including 10,730 children.

Many more Gazans in Egypt are “in need of medical care” after surviving displacement in shelters with little food or sanitation, said Nassim Touil, a 26-year-old American coordinating assistance for Gazans in Cairo.

Many can barely afford check-ups and medication, Touil said, despite the health impacts of the months they “lived in tents, surviving on expired canned goods or food teeming with maggots”.

Life savings spent

Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, but the people of the Arab world’s most populous nation generally maintain a strong sense of solidarity with the Palestinians.

Egypt has repeatedly warned Israel it will not tolerate efforts to force a mass exodus of Gazans that could spell the end of the Palestinian cause entirely.

Egypt is also hosting hundreds of thousands of war refugees from Yemen, Syria and Sudan. Cairo calls them “guests” who are technically authorised to work, live and study like Egyptian citizens.

But, unlike them, Palestinians do not fall under the mandate of the UN refugee agency.

Their cases are handled across the region by the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, but that body only has a representative liaison office in Egypt.

As a result, work permits are hard to obtain and, without regular income and with little help from charity groups, thousands of Palestinians are falling through the cracks.

Some Gazans have turned to mutual aid networks, spontaneously set up for those “in need of everything,” said Touil.

“People have lent apartments, raised money, collected medicine and food and clothes,” he told AFP.

The Palestinian embassy also offers some aid but prioritises the most vulnerable. Every day, dozens of Palestinians crowd around the mission, desperate for news on their requests.

For many the need is all the greater after they drained their life savings to escape Gaza, paying thousands of dollars a head to the Egyptian travel agency Hala, the only private company coordinating Gaza evacuations.

“I came out with 13 of my relatives, we had to pay a total of $75,000,” Shbeir said.

By the time many Gazans get to the Rafah border crossing, Touil said, they have nothing but the clothes on their backs and know the remaining money “will run out eventually”.