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Gaza cigarette smuggling makes aid trucks a target

A new problem is plaguing humanitarian aid convoys trying to deliver aid to the hungry people of Gaza: attacks by organized mobs aimed not at the flour and medicine the trucks are carrying, but at the contraband cigarettes hidden inside the shipments.

Cigarettes are increasingly scarce in blockaded Gaza, now selling for $25 to $30 a stick. United Nations and Israeli officials say coordinated attacks by groups seeking to sell contraband cigarettes for profit are creating huge obstacles to delivering badly needed aid to southern Gaza.

Israeli authorities strictly control everything that enters and leaves Gaza through Israeli-run checkpoints. But cigarettes have been able to slip through for weeks inside aid trucks, mainly through the Kerem Shalom border crossing into southern Gaza.

To evade Israeli inspections, smugglers in Egypt hid them in bags 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.

Aid trucks leaving the Gaza border crossing were later attacked by Palestinian mobs, some armed, searching for cigarettes hidden inside, according to UN and Israeli officials.

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

Israel’s control of nearly all goods entering Gaza during the war has distorted the enclave’s economy. Flour prices have plummeted in some parts of Gaza as Israel, under intense international pressure to alleviate poverty, has allowed aid agencies to pump in large quantities of flour. Other, less accessible items remain scarce and more expensive.

Mr De Domenico showed The Times footage he shot on a recent trip along the road leading into Gaza from Kerem Shalom: Full sacks of flour could be seen scattered along the roadside, seemingly unconcerned by looters.

“Their main purpose here is to look for cigarettes,” said Manhal Shaibar, who runs a Palestinian transport company in Kerem Shalom that transports UN aid.

Officials said most of the trucks carrying cigarettes appeared to be coming from Egypt, which had diverted trucks from Egyptian territory through Kerem Shalom after Israel captured the Rafah border crossing in early May. Mr. Shaibar attributed the smuggling to Bedouin families with footprints in both Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai.

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


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