Cigarette smuggling in Gaza targets aid trucks

Humanitarian convoys trying to deliver aid to starving Gazans are facing a new problem: organized mob attacks, not seeking the flour or medicine the trucks are carrying, but cigarettes smuggled inside the cargo.

Cigarettes have become increasingly scarce in tightly blockaded Gaza, now selling for $25 to $30 a pack, and UN and Israeli officials say coordinated attacks by groups seeking to profit from selling smuggled cigarettes are a major obstacle to getting badly needed aid to southern Gaza.

Israeli authorities heavily screen everything entering or leaving Gaza through Israeli-controlled checkpoints, but the cigarettes have been slipping into aid trucks for weeks, mostly at the Kerem Shalom crossing into southern Gaza.

To avoid Israeli checks, Egyptian smugglers are hiding children in bags of flour, diapers and even watermelon donated by the United Nations, according to aid groups and an Israeli military official who provided photos to The New York Times.

According to UN and Israeli officials, aid trucks leaving a checkpoint towards the Gaza Strip were attacked by a crowd of Palestinians, some of whom were armed, who wanted cigarettes hidden inside the vehicles.

Andrea De Domenico, who runs the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem, confirmed that aid workers “have seen cigarettes in U.N.-branded aid boxes.” He said the smuggled cigarettes had created a “new dynamic” of coordinated attacks on aid convoys.

During the war, Israel’s near-total control of goods entering the Gaza Strip has distorted the Strip’s economy. Under intense international pressure to alleviate hunger, Israel has allowed aid agencies to import large quantities of flour, causing the price of flour to plummet in parts of the Strip. Other goods, which are imported less frequently, remain scarce and expensive.

De Domenico showed The Times footage he took during a recent drive along the road from Kerem Shalom to Gaza, showing sacks of flour strewn along the roadside, but which appear to show little interest to looters.

“Their main purpose in coming here was to look for cigarettes,” said Manhal Shaiber, who runs a Palestinian trucking company that transports U.N. aid in Kerem Shalom.

Officials said most of the cigarette trucks appeared to be coming from Egypt. After Israel took control of the Rafah border crossing in early May, Egypt diverted trucks arriving from Egyptian territory through Kerem Shalom. Scheiber blamed the smuggling operation on Bedouin tribes who have a presence in both Gaza and Egyptian Sinai.

The looting is the result of anarchy gripping much of Gaza as Israel’s war against Hamas enters its 10th month. Israeli forces have targeted Hamas’ ruling apparatus and police without installing a new government, creating widespread lawlessness.

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