Cigarette Smuggling in Gaza Turns Aid Trucks into Targets

A new problem is plaguing humanitarian aid convoys attempting to deliver supplies to Gaza’s starving population: attacks by organized mobs looking not for the flour and medicine trucked in, but for the cigarettes smuggled inside the cargo.

In the tightly blockaded Gaza Strip, cigarettes have become increasingly rare, now typically selling for $25-30 each. UN and Israeli officials say coordinated attacks by groups seeking to sell contraband cigarettes for profit are a formidable obstacle to transporting desperately needed aid to the southern Gaza Strip.

Israeli authorities carefully monitor everything entering and leaving Gaza through Israeli-administered checkpoints. But cigarettes have managed to pass for weeks inside aid trucks, mainly through the Kerem Shalom crossing in southern Gaza.

To evade Israeli controls, traffickers, mostly in Egypt, hid them in sacks of flour, diapers and even a watermelon donated by the United Nations, according to aid agencies and an Israeli military official who shared photos with The New York Times.

According to Israeli and United Nations officials, aid trucks leaving the Gaza border crossing were attacked by a mob of Palestinians, some of them armed, searching for cigarettes hidden inside them.

Andrea De Domenico, who heads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem, confirmed that aid officials had “seen UN-branded aid cartons with cigarettes inside.” He said the smuggled cigarettes had created “a new dynamic” of organized attacks on aid convoys.

Israel's near-total control of goods entering Gaza during the war has distorted the enclave's economy. The price of flour has plummeted in some parts of Gaza because Israel, under intense international pressure to alleviate hunger, has allowed aid agencies to pump out large quantities of it. Other goods, which have entered less frequently, remain rarer and more expensive.

Mr. De Domenico showed The Times footage he shot on a recent drive along the road from Kerem Shalom to Gaza, showing sacks of flour strewn along the sides of the road, apparently of little interest to looters.

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

Officials said most of the cigarette-laden trucks appeared to be coming from Egypt, which diverted trucks arriving from Egyptian territory through Kerem Shalom after Israel captured the Rafah border crossing in early May. Mr. Shaibar attributed the smuggling operation to Bedouin families with a footprint in both Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai.

The looting is a product of the anarchy that has gripped much of Gaza as Israel's war against Hamas enters its 10th month. Israeli forces have targeted Hamas's government apparatus and police without installing a new administration in their place, creating widespread lawlessness.

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