“They hang us upside down on a ramp and hit our feet with a baton …[t]hey electrocute and torture us day and night. We are not fed. They don’t give us food or water. There are many diseases; many of us have already succumbed…They tie us and melt plastic and drip it on our backs…They burn us and electrocute us every single day.”
— Sinai Refugee

Hamas’ Industry of Death and Torture in the Sinai

In a crisis the United Nations has deemed to be “one of the most underreported in the world,” the Sinai Peninsula, in a span of just a few years, has turned into a global hub of torture, human trafficking, and nearly indescribable crimes.

This sparsely populated and traditionally lawless desert region, dividing Asia from Africa, is providing local tribesmen a chance to build a thriving business in illegally trafficking African migrants. While more and more individuals are displaced from their homelands, unscrupulous “entrepreneurs” have taken advantage of this new window of opportunity to profit off the helpless. Commonly, the refugees are kidnapped and then brutally abused until their family members agree to pay a hefty ransom. It is a highly profitable trade with criminal enterprises encompassing a far-stretched network of regional operatives from Sudan to the West Bank, and has so far taken in revenue of an estimated 600 million dollars, earning around 20,000 dollars for each kidnapped refugee.

Most of the Sinai refugees are collateral damage from Africa’s many tribal conflicts, many from Sudan, Eritrea, or Ethiopia. Some, but not all, are brought to Sinai against their will. Some wish to reach Israel. According to a sample of 297 refugees taken by Dr. Mirjam van Reisen of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, 87% of the hostages are Christian by faith. The rest are Muslim and are often given preferential treatment from the abductors in the form of lower ransoms, less severe torture, and small special favors.

Since Israel’s newly built barrier along its border with Sinai, refugees have been deterred from migrating to Israel, thus drying up the traffickers’ supply of migrants to capture. Because these potential migrants now know about the fence and therefore don’t take the trip, traffickers have taken to abducting Africans directly from their home countries and bringing them to Sinai.

Extortion is key to the Sinai-based smuggling industry. The smugglers wish to procure the largest sum possible for each abductee and are willing to go to extreme lengths secure ransoms. In the event a victim’s family doesn’t pay up, the kidnappers are not averse to brutal alternatives, such as harvesting and selling the victim’s organs for a profit.

Furthermore, a number of Israeli court indictments have implicated the Gaza based terror group Hamas in providing middleman and money laundering services to the Bedouin traffickers. According to some estimates, Hamas has profited by up to 64 million dollars by smuggling this ransom cash through its tunnels from the Gaza Strip into Sinai.

First Steps

The trafficking business usually takes place somewhere in Eastern Africa, where the migrants are kidnapped and sold to Bedouin traffickers. Often, the traffickers pose as guides and lure them with promises to take them to Israel or another developed country. Sometimes, these guides or a wayward border official will hand them to the traffickers for a payoff. Once the migrants are in the traffickers’ hands, they are powerless.

Those “picked up” in Africa report being transferred into Sinai by car, under constant guard, and being placed in close quarters in Bedouin abodes near the Israeli border. Some are abducted after reaching Sinai on their own. From this point stems the most harrowing stories of torture, degrading treatment, and abuse.

A Cycle of Death

In December 2011, Sinai-based Bedouin tribesmen kidnapped two female African refugees known as P.H. and K.T. The two, who are from Eritrea, were held in chains for over a month with about 40 other kidnapping victims while being starved and denied basic amenities. During this time the kidnappers beat the victims repeatedly with sticks and electrical prods. After being raped by one of the kidnappers, P.H. found herself threatened with death if she and K.T. did not each independently procure a ransom of $40,000.

As shocking as their stories may be, they are unfortunately not unique. According to one former hostage: “The kidnappers’ objective is to keep us barely alive so we will not try to escape or give them trouble, while at the same time torturing us so we are forced to pay…[t]he kidnappers have this policy of torturing the healthy and taking care of the afflicted, because, from what we understand, they don’t care if we are alive or dead…[t]hey don’t want us dying before they can get the money.”

Psychological manipulation is a premier tactic. In a method designed to terrify families into paying the ransom faster, telephone calls are arranged between captives and their families during loud torture sessions when the extent of their pain is highly audible. One man reports listening over the phone as his sister’s hand was amputated. Family members are given a deadline to procure the funds, which leads to desperate door-to-door vigils and other desperate attempts to scour for funds.

All the while the migrants don’t know if they will be saved or left to die, and in many cases expect never to see freedom. As one refugee recounts to Dr. Van Reisen:   “It is impossible to expect people to pay up for us, even if they are very close relatives. Unless you have left some money with someone and instructed them to pay if something happens, it is hard to ask people for everything they have. I have seen lots of people abuse trust and ask for money from their relatives, saying that they are kidnapped…so it is acceptable that some people might not take this at face value.”

Ultimately, the mortality rate of those trafficked hovers around fifty percent. If the ransom cannot be secured by the deadline, they are killed shortly after.

Across the Border

Even once the full extortion payment has been made to the traffickers’ Israeli associates, the question remains as to how to transfer the funds into Sinai. The Israel-Sinai barrier and Israeli Border Control prevent direct movement out of Israel. Thus, in order to move the cash, the smugglers often cooperate with another regional power – Hamas – the Gazan-based terror group.

Israeli court records describe a complicated network built to smuggle the funds out of Israel and into the hands of the traffickers. Once the family members pay up, the ransom funds move to the hands of Hamas operatives in the West Bank towns of Jenin and Nablus. From there, the funds flow into the Gaza Strip to Abu Jamil, a Hamas operative who pockets a tax and smuggles the funds. Jamil helps move the funds through Hamas’ network of underground tunnels running under the border between Gaza and Sinai, with the tunnels reaching within a few kilometers of the very buildings in which the abductees are held.

Perils of Freedom

If and when a victim is finally released, even ransoms, however hefty, cannot assure safety. Upon their release, these victims all too often die in the desert, or are tragically kidnapped by the next gang. As one refugee who made it to Israel says:   “I did not think I would make it out alive. My captors simply took me to the fenced side of the border and told me to run. You have a fifty-fifty chance of being shot or making it.”

Upon reaching safety, refugees are tasked with coping with the horrifying reality they lived through. Many of the refugees in Israel live without access to social and welfare services in the impoverished neighborhoods of Tel Aviv. As one refugee describes the migrant experience:   “In the Sinai everyone wants to die. We were happy when people died. We were happy for them. Only now, In Israel, have I started mourning and begun to understand death, as only now we can live.”

In March 2014, 24, a Germany-led twenty-four delegation committee of the United Nations submitted a petition to the UN Security Council calling to end abuse and human trafficking in Sinai and for the implementation of mechanisms to help the abused refugees deal with their traumatic experiences and has called for mechanisms to help the abused refugees deal with their experiences. Within Israel alone reside some 5,000- 7,000 Sinai refugees, many of whose lives may be improving slowly. But until something gives in the Sinai, things are still, strictly speaking, business as usual.

Sources: UNODC. Global Report on Trafficking in Persons. Rep. New York: United Nations, 2013. Print.

Estephanos, Meron, and Conny Reijken. Refugees Between Life and Death. Rep. Comp. Miriam Van Reisen. Brussels: n.p., 2012. Print.

State of Israel vs. Yusuf bin Khalid al-Qrinawi, 2012

State of Israel vs. Victor Siboni, 2012

State of Israel vs. Yakov Grad, 2012

With thanks to JIJ Interns Batel Tegegn and Ethan Kempner for their research and editing contributions.