Cigarette Smuggling in Gaza Turns Aid Trucks Into Targets

A new problem is bedeviling humanitarian aid convoys attempting to deliver relief to hungry Gazans: attacks by organized crowds seeking not the flour and medicine that trucks are carrying, but cigarettes smuggled inside the shipments.

In tightly blockaded Gaza, cigarettes have become increasingly scarce, now generally selling for $25 to $30 apiece. U.N. and Israeli officials say the coordinated attacks by groups seeking to sell smuggled cigarettes for profit pose a formidable obstacle to bringing desperately needed aid to southern Gaza.

The Israeli authorities closely scan everything that goes in and out of Gaza through Israeli-administered checkpoints. But the cigarettes have managed to slip through for weeks inside aid trucks, mostly through Kerem Shalom crossing into southern Gaza.

To evade Israeli inspections, smugglers — mostly in Egypt — have been hiding them in sacks of United Nations-donated flour, diapers and even a watermelon, according to aid agencies and an Israeli military official who shared photos with The New York Times.

Aid trucks that set off from the crossing into Gaza were then attacked by crowds of Palestinians, some of them armed, seeking the cigarettes hidden inside, according to U.N. and Israeli officials.

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

Israel’s near-total control of the goods that enter Gaza amid the war has warped the enclave’s economy. The price of flour has plunged in parts of Gaza because Israel, under intense international pressure to ease hunger, has allowed aid agencies to pump in large amounts of it. Other commodities, which have entered less frequently, remain rarer and more expensive.

Mr. De Domenico showed The Times footage he had taken during a recent drive along the road leading into Gaza from Kerem Shalom: Full flour bags can be seen strewed along the side of the road, seemingly of little interest to the looters.

“Their main purpose here was to search for the cigarettes,” said Manhal Shaibar, who runs a Palestinian trucking company at Kerem Shalom that ferries U.N. aid.

Officials said that most of the trucks bearing cigarettes appeared to come from Egypt, which rerouted 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 the Egyptian 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 governing apparatus and police without installing any new administration in their place, creating widespread lawlessness.

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