In lawless Gaza, cigarette smuggling fuels attacks on aid trucks


JERUSALEM — A black market for cigarettes is booming in the besieged Gaza Strip, a window into the lawlessness and desperation in the enclave nine months into Israel’s war against Hamas.

The illicit cigarettes, one of Gaza’s last forms of currency, are hidden inside hollowed-out watermelons and boxes of diapers, smuggled on trucks through Israeli-controlled crossings and sold for as much as $30 apiece.

Gangs lie in wait along the anarchic road in southern Gaza that runs through military zones, ransacking trucks in search of cigarettes, humanitarian officials say. Once cigarettes reach the open market, Hamas authorities try to take a cut of the sales through fines and extortion, according to traders and civilians. The black market is fueling attacks on humanitarian trucks, hampering desperately needed aid deliveries as relief officials warn of famine.

Hamas regulated and at times banned tobacco during its 17 years in power but also profited by heavily taxing the product. Before the war, cigarettes were widely available in Gaza, a small comfort for people living under Israeli siege and Hamas rule.

The political and security void in Gaza left by the war has allowed the underground trade to thrive, according to interviews with a dozen people involved or affected by cigarette smuggling in the territory. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to lay out a postwar plan has prolonged the chaos, frustrating his generals.

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The United Nations has said it may need to cease aid operations in starvation-gripped Gaza if it cannot protect its workers, among other factors.

Georgios Petropoulos, head of the U.N. humanitarian coordination office in Gaza, said criminal gangs have developed a “cartellike operation.” Fueled by the demand for cigarettes, he said, any truck can be a target.

In response, some private sector traders have hired armed guards to protect their convoys. Trucks carrying U.N. aid are a “softer target,” Petropoulos said, because as a policy they do not hire private guards.

Israeli authorities say the looting is not a major hindrance to moving U.N. aid.

“There is looting in a specific area, but it’s not something that is new to us,” Elad Goren, head of the civil department for COGAT, the Israeli agency that oversees the Palestinian territories, said in a press briefing on Tuesday. “The looting is happening by criminal families.”

Who profits from the illicit trade in cigarettes and other goods is often murky. But it comes at the expense of ordinary Gazans struggling to survive.

“There is security chaos,” said Yazan Ahmed, 34, who worked as a restaurant manager in Gaza City. Displaced in central Gaza, he now depends entirely on humanitarian food aid and can no longer afford cigarettes. “The strong are eating the weak.”

Cigarette smuggling has long been a profitable business in Gaza, where a network of tunnels under the border with Egypt were used to circumvent the economic blockade.

For much of the war, cigarettes were smuggled in through trucks at the Rafah crossing and sold at an inflated price, according to an Egyptian truck driver who moved aid along the border.

Like others in this story, he spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the illicit trade.

When Israel captured and closed the Rafah crossing on May 7 — part of an offensive aimed at ousting Hamas’s remaining battalions — Gaza’s fragile aid delivery system collapsed. As a limited number of goods started to trickle back in, through Egypt and a new West Bank route, cigarette prices spiked.

In Deir al-Balah, in central Gaza, a 26-year-old unemployed restaurant waiter watched his profits rise, along with the risks. He joined the trade early in the war to feed his pregnant wife, he said.

His current route begins in West Bank fruit and vegetable markets, where people working with him pay a driver to conceal cigarettes in commercial items destined for Gaza.

“We arrange the cigarette packs at the bottom of the boxes that are supposed to hold the vegetables,” he said in a phone interview. “Every time we invent a specific method.”

One technique, he said, involves creating a small opening in watermelons and emptying out the pulp to make room for the packs.

“Every pack of [twenty] cigarettes costs us three shekels [$0.80] from the West Bank, and we sell them here for 2,000 shekels [$530]” — about $27 dollars apiece, he said.

The cigarettes are then loaded onto a prearranged truck and driven out of the occupied West Bank through the Israeli-controlled Tarqumiya checkpoint and dropped off at Kerem Shalom, the last remaining crossing into southern Gaza.

At Kerem Shalom, Israel says all goods are inspected to prevent Hamas from smuggling in weapons. Goren said COGAT finds and confiscates “90 to 95 percent” of hidden cigarettes, but did not respond to further questions.

Adel Amr, head of the Ramallah-based Palestinian transport syndicate, said that “90 percent” of trucks coming from the West Bank are not involved in smuggling efforts. Goren said cigarettes have also been found in aid coming from Egypt.

As recently as Wednesday, an Israeli-owned truck was found with 220 packages, typically each with 10 packs of cigarettes, at Kerem Shalom, according to a charge sheet Amr provided to The Washington Post.

COGAT has worked to cultivate business ties with traders and companies unaffiliated with Hamas. In doing so, Amr said, it has allowed a small group of merchants, some with cigarette smuggling ties, to monopolize much of the trade with Gaza.

Goren rejected the claim. He said COGAT excludes business executives it knows “have some connections with Hamas.”

After passing inspection at Kerem Shalom, traders pay an Israeli-authorized Palestinian transport company to move goods to the Gazan side.

From there, drivers hired by humanitarian groups or private traders pick up the cargo — if the road is clear of fighting and Israeli operations — and move the goods to drop-off spots and aid warehouses, if they can arrive without being pillaged first.

Looters are often waiting for trucks along a corridor of the Salah al-Din highway, where movement must be coordinated with Israeli authorities.

Wassim Aqel, 38, said his family’s transport company works with private-sector traders. The company pays thousands of shekels to local Palestinians to guard trucks driving along the highway.

“We communicate with the Israeli side to coordinate the crews that we work with, who are monitored by the Israeli side via reconnaissance planes,” Aqel said. His security is unarmed, he said, to avoid confrontation with Israeli forces. Yet his trucks have not been spared the chaos.

Earlier in the war, members of the Hamas-run government’s civil police force guarded aid trucks, but they retreated after several targeted Israeli attacks this spring — fueling waves of deadly looting in Rafah and northern Gaza. Israel says it considers civil police legitimate Hamas targets.

There is no “authority in Gaza with which to engage to suddenly set up something new,” Petropoulos of OCHA said.

“We are confronted nowadays with a near total breakdown of law and order, with truck drivers being regularly threatened or assaulted and less and less willing to move assistance,” Philippe Lazzarini, head of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, said last week.

Adham Shuheiber, the director of the Shuheiber Transport Company, which works with aid organizations, said many of his trucks are out of commission after repeated attacks. “Israel sometimes closes its eyes to the introduction of cigarettes … and at other times is stricter on this issue to create discord among the people and to prove to Hamas that Israel is in control of the Gaza Strip.”

When trucks make it to their destination, the smuggler in Deir al-Balah described separating the packs from the produce they were hidden in and selling them to another merchant.

The cigarettes are then hawked in the open, in makeshift tent camps and bombed-out cities, at astronomical rates.

With the lucrative black market largely out of Hamas’s control, officials try to co-opt the trade by targeting merchants and their connections, the smuggler said.

“If the merchants refuse to report us,” some plainclothes Hamas agents levy “huge fines,” he said, or “threaten them with death.” Others, he said, simply ask for a cut.

As profiteers fight over the spoils, ordinary Gazans sink further into despair. Price gouging has similarly inflated the cost of food and other commercial goods brought into Gaza.

“There’s a lot of people here who are making a lot of money off the most acutely illegal conflict I’ve ever seen in my life,” Petropoulos said. “It’s depressing as hell.”

About 500,000 Palestinians are on the brink of starvation, according to a recent report by U.N. agencies and aid groups. In the absence of cash, more than half of families surveyed said they had exchanged clothing for food.

Friends, desperate for a moment’s relief, sometimes pool money to share a single cigarette.

“I stopped smoking and I became stressed, tense and very quick to anger all the time,” said Ahmed, the former restaurant manager, who shares a tent with his wife, two children and eight other relatives. They have been displaced seven times since October.

“We are deprived of everything,” he said.

Harb reported from London. Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo contributed to this report.



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