How to enter and exit the Gaza Strip
A practical guide for obtaining access to the Middle East's most isolated city and the most densely populated territory in the world.
The Gaza Strip is not a straightforward place to visit. On the coast of the eastern Mediterranean, it is governed by an internationally proscribed Palestinian terrorist organisation. Access is not possible by water, because entry by sea is blockaded by the Israeli navy. The territory's frontiers are almost entirely bounded with those of Israel, with whom its government has implacably hostile relations. The only other land border is with Egypt, with whom Gaza's government has even worse relations. The Gaza Strip has a depressed economy in consequence of its isolation. A substantial proportion of its residents (possibly more than 50%) live in refugee-like conditions.
Although the main settlement Gaza City is not uniformly post-apocalyptic, and there are some pleasant corners of it, much of the city is semi-destroyed and/or unsanitary. It is however relatively safe once in there from a security perspective. In the event that you need to read this to assist you in entry, it is certain that neither the Egyptians nor the Israelis will want you to go in or out. If having read this you still wish to enter and leave the Gaza Strip, please reassure yourself that your reason to travel to Gaza is a very good one and you really do need to go. Although everything can be done safely, it cannot be done comfortably or without the right paperwork. Gaza is strictly essential travel only.
There are three routes into the Gaza Strip. None of them are ideal. The first is the Erez border with Israel at the north end of the strip. This is a logistically complex entry point; everything will be searched while you spend a lot of time walking along concrete tunnels and being shouted at by Israelis in guard towers, in both directions. The Israelis will seize anything that looks like weaponry or explosives. Their searches are far more thorough on the way out than on the way in. Hamas, the organisation running the Gaza Strip, will search you for alcohol on the way in (confiscated) but will not spend much effort searching you on the way out. This route is fairly safe. You can take a shared taxi from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem to Erez. Then you walk around a lot to be searched and cross the border. Then you take another shared or unshared taxi from Erez to Gaza City. Start early in day; the whole trip is painful. At the time of writing, if you are not Israeli, Palestinian or Egyptian you need permission from the Israeli authorities to visit via this route. Application for permission goes via an Israeli Embassy and in practice requires an Israeli sponsor to vouch for you. Otherwise the delay in processing the permission may be interminable.
The second route, if you are foreigner as defined above, is to enter from the northern Sinai town of Rafah in Egypt. Rafah is a modest settlement straddling the Egypt / Gaza border. The Egyptians have built a wall along the border, and the only entry (overland) route is via a road called the "Philadelphi Route" which is obvious when you arrive in Egyptian Rafah. The border is controlled exclusively by Egyptian officials (with hidden US observation and supervision), although once you join the road to Gaza City after crossing the frontier you will see militias on the roads that are members of Hamas. At the current time, two documents are required to achieve entry using the Philadelphi Route. One is a permission from the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior. You will not get one of these unless you are associated with an organisation with high contacts in the Egyptian government. If you are a wildcard, and you are wondering which of the Egyptian and Israeli authorities are more likely to grant you the permit (i.e. you are wondering which of Erez and Rafah to try), then the answer is the Israelis and you are better placing your bet on Erez.
The second document you need to use this route is an invitation letter from an organisation the Gaza Strip (that organisation will not of course be Hamas, but instead a proxy organisation for Hamas). The organisations who can do this can generally seek the necessary Egyptian government permission for you as well. With these two permissions, the Rafah entrance is far more straightforward in terms of awkward officials barking orders for you to strip search and the like. That sort of thing is much more likely at Erez. With the right paperwork to satisfy the Egyptian authorities (most importantly,. a permission signed by a senior Egyptian government official), you can be through the Rafah border in a matter of minutes. Nevertheless never under-estimate the propensity for random chaos to flay your travel plans in this part of the world.
The third way of entering the Gaza Strip is to use one of the illicit tunnels under the Rafah wall that the Egyptians have sunk several metres beneath the sand. It is not known exactly how many of these tunnels remain, but it is believed that there is more than one. The tunnels are run by Hamas. Use of the tunnels will involve a search by Hamas for alcohol on your person. It is a good idea not to have any on you. Also you will need a persuasive cover story for Hamas officials, as to why you want to enter the Gaza Strip. This cover story will naturally need to be supportive of the cause of Hamas. Otherwise you will have all sorts of problems.
While the entrance / exit points for the tunnels are well-known in Gaza-Rafah, they are state secrets in Egypt-Rafah. The tunnels are some 14km long. To find them and pay the bribes necessary to use them, you will likely need high contacts in Hamas. It is surely better to obtain those before you arrive in Rafah. This is not a route for casual backpackers. Typically, the tolls excised by Hamas are a proportion of an assumed market value of contraband a traveller brings with them; all manner of consumer products enter Gaza this way. Expect to be taxed accordingly. This may not be a cheap route. Seek to agree an entrance (and if possible, even exit) toll before arriving, with your Hamas contact in a third country (not Egypt). Have a trusted Hamas agent travel with you. Ensure they will likewise look after you upon the return journey.
Pre-arrange your accommodation in Gaza. The currency is the Israeli Shekel but US dollars are also taken. Credit cards can be used in better establishments such as upscale hotels. There are cashpoints associated with banks. Hotel reservations can and should be made with the usual international hotel booking websites. Formally alcohol is not permitted but with some persistence it may be obtained illicitly. To live well in the top hotels in Gaza (which for security reasons is probably what you will want) is not particularly cheap. You must be able to trust your Gaza contacts. Do not exclude the risk of politically-motivated kidnapping, although it is rare.
Leaving the Gaza Strip with a foreign passport is much easier than entering it. To be blunt, no matter how irregular your paperwork you will be permitted exit if you hold a western passport. The Israeli and Egyptian immigration authorities on the border with the Gaza Strip are not particularly inclined to ask complex questions. They already know that the reason you have been visiting the Gaza Strip is not one they approve of. By the time you get to the exit border, their goal is more likely to ensure that you depart safely into their territory without incident attributable to them.
The Gaza Strip is an adventure. Although matters were once easier (there was a time at which you could arrive at the Erez border post with little more than a western passport and a smile), you now need some sort of political support to be able to enter. Casual tourism is extremely difficult without a compelling document-based cover story to submit to the Israeli or Egyptian authorities. The good news is that once you are there, Gaza is relatively compact; for the most part traversable on foot; public transport is plentiful; and the Gazans assume that any westerner present there without reams of security attendants is likely well-disposed to them. With a deft cover story, you will probably not come to any harm in Gaza. It feels safe, if dirty and somewhat threatening.
The challenge of travel in the Gaza Strip is to acquire the necessary political backing to enter the territory, rather than one's encounters and journeys in the territory itself. Good luck!