Home News Gaza cigarette smuggling makes aid trucks a target

Gaza cigarette smuggling makes aid trucks a target

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Humanitarian aid convoys trying to deliver relief to the starving people of Gaza face a new problem: attacks by organized groups who want not the flour and medicine the trucks are carrying but the smuggled cigarettes in their cargo.

Cigarettes are becoming increasingly scarce in blockaded Gaza, where they now typically cost $25 to $30 each. United Nations and Israeli officials say coordinated attacks by groups seeking to sell smuggled cigarettes for profit are posing a huge obstacle to the delivery of much-needed aid to southern Gaza.

Israeli authorities closely scrutinize everything that enters and leaves Gaza through Israeli-run checkpoints, but cigarettes have been sneaking into Gaza for weeks on aid trucks, most of which enter southern Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing.

To evade Israeli inspections, smugglers in Egypt hide the items in bags of flour, diapers and even watermelons donated by the United Nations, according to aid agencies and an Israeli military official who provided photos to The New York Times.

Aid trucks entering Gaza from the Gaza crossing were then attacked by large groups of Palestinians, some armed, searching for cigarettes hidden inside the vehicles, according to UN and Israeli officials.

Andrea De Domenico, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem, confirmed that aid officials had “seen cigarettes inside UN-branded aid boxes.” He said the smuggled cigarettes had sparked a “new dynamic” in organized attacks on aid convoys.

During the war, Israel had almost complete control over goods entering Gaza, which distorted the region’s economy. Under intense international pressure to ease the famine, Israel allowed aid agencies to ship in large quantities of flour, causing the price of flour to plummet in parts of Gaza. Other goods entering Gaza were less numerous and therefore more scarce and expensive.

De Domenico showed The New York Times footage he captured recently while driving from Kerem Shalom to Gaza: Full sacks of flour were scattered along the road, but the looters seemed uninterested in them.

“They come here mainly to search for cigarettes,” said Manhal Shaibar, who runs a Palestinian trucking company in Kerem Shalom that delivers U.N. aid.

Officials said most of the trucks carrying cigarettes appeared to come from Egypt, which has been rerouting trucks from its territory through Kerem Shalom since Israel seized the Rafah border crossing in early May. Mr. Shaybar blamed the smuggling on Bedouin families with a presence in Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

The looting is a product of the lawlessness that has gripped much of Gaza as Israel’s war with Hamas enters its 10th month. The Israeli military has targeted Hamas’ governing bodies and police but has failed to establish any new government, leading to widespread lawlessness.

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