Middle East Crisis: Cigarette Smuggling in Gaza and Its Impact on Aid Convoys

Middle East Crisis: Cigarette Smuggling in Gaza and Its Impact on Aid Convoys
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A significant problem is now affecting humanitarian aid convoys trying to deliver essential goods to the starving population of Gaza: attacks by organized groups looking not for flour or medicine, but for cigarettes hidden in the cargo.

In the tightly controlled Gaza Strip, where Israel meticulously inspects every incoming truck, cigarettes have become extremely rare, often selling for $25 to $30 apiece. Smugglers in Egypt have hidden them in sacks of flour, diapers and even watermelons donated by the United Nations, according to aid agencies and Israeli officials who shared information with The New York Times.

Aid trucks headed to Gaza have been attacked by groups of Palestinians, some armed, searching for hidden cigarettes, UN and Israeli officials said. Despite Israeli authorities’ tight surveillance of goods entering and leaving Gaza through Israeli-administered checkpoints, cigarettes have been smuggled, mainly through the Kerem Shalom crossing in southern Gaza.

Andrea De Domenico, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem, confirmed that aid officials had discovered “UN-branded aid packages with cigarettes inside.” He described a “new dynamic” of organized attacks on aid convoys by Gazans looking for contraband cigarettes.

Israel’s near-total control over goods entering Gaza during the conflict has distorted the enclave’s economy. For example, the price of flour has fallen in some parts of Gaza because Israel, under significant international pressure to alleviate hunger, has allowed aid agencies to distribute large quantities of it.

Mr. De Domenico showed The Times footage of a recent drive from Kerem Shalom to Gaza, in which sacks of flour were found abandoned along the road, apparently of little interest to looters.

“Their main goal was to find cigarettes,” said Manhal Shaibar, who runs a Palestinian trucking company in Kerem Shalom that transports United Nations aid.

Officials said most of the cigarette trucks appeared to be coming from Egypt, which has diverted aid trucks through Kerem Shalom since Israel seized the Rafah border crossing in early May. Mr. Shaibar attributed the smuggling operations to Bedouin families with ties to both Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai.

The looting comes amid the chaos gripping much of Gaza as Israel’s war against Hamas stretches into its 10th month. Israeli forces have targeted Hamas government and police facilities without establishing a new administration, leading to widespread lawlessness.

As deprivation in southern Gaza worsens amid new Israeli military evacuation orders, the contents of more than 1,000 aid trucks have been stuck on the Gaza side of the Kerem Shalom crossing for weeks. Aid agencies, fearing attacks, have been hesitant to send trucks to collect and distribute the goods.

Israel says it has made efforts to ensure that U.N. agencies can retrieve the goods, including paving new roads, and points out that private traders have managed to endure harsh conditions to collect their goods. Aid officials say Israel could do more, such as allowing wider use of other roads and crossings.

U.N. and Israeli officials said smugglers outside Gaza were in close coordination with organized groups inside the territory, who block aid trucks with small arms, batons and makeshift checkpoints. After successfully stopping convoys, looters often seemed to know exactly where to find the stashed cigarettes, Mr. De Domenico noted.

“These attacks have been very targeted,” he said. “They go straight to the pallet where the cigarettes are.”

Colonel Elad Goren, a senior official at COGAT, the Israeli agency that oversees Palestinian civil affairs, said the contraband likely came from Egypt. Mr. De Domenico and other trade experts shared that view.

“We are trying to identify most of the packages by scanning them,” Colonel Goren said. “But we believe that something must be done by the Egyptian side to stop the smuggling.”

The Egyptian government press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A cigarette seller in Gaza City said prices could reach up to $40 a cigarette for the most sought-after brands. Despite months of war leaving them impoverished, desperate smokers were willing to pay high prices, he said.

The seller, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, noted that Hamas forces are still present in the area, but are behaving more like “mafias” than law enforcement.

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