Trade in smuggled cigarettes said to hamper aid deliveries in Gaza

With a single cigarette selling for up to $25, aid trucks reportedly targeted by smugglers seeking to pick up their secreted goods, and by other criminals trying to get to them first

Armed and masked Palestinians seen on trucks loaded with international humanitarian aid entering Gaza via the Israeli Kerem Shalom Crossing, southern Gaza Strip, April 3, 2024. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90
Armed and masked Palestinians seen on trucks loaded with international humanitarian aid entering Gaza via the Israeli Kerem Shalom Crossing, southern Gaza Strip, April 3, 2024. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90

Amid a breakdown of order in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian smugglers have turned their attention to contraband cigarettes due to the sky-high tobacco prices in the enclave, resulting in thousands of aid trucks being unable to deliver essential humanitarian supplies for fear of being attacked, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday.

According to the report, cigarettes are regularly smuggled into war-torn Gaza via humanitarian aid trucks, having been placed there by UN and Israeli accomplices. Once past inspection and inside Gaza, the aid trucks are targeted both by smugglers retrieving their goods and other criminals hoping to get to them first.

Following the outbreak of the war with Hamas’s October 7 attack— when some 3,000 terrorists invaded southern Israel, killing about 1,200 people and taking 251 hostages— Israel limited imports into Gaza to essential goods, a category that does not include cigarettes.

A single cigarette can now sell for as much as $25 in Gaza, the report said, making the smuggling trade hugely profitable. “Cigarettes have become like the new gold in Gaza,” one UN official told the newspaper.

Prior to the start of Israel’s offensive in Rafah in early May, cigarettes were largely smuggled in via the Rafah Crossing on Gaza’s border with Egypt, but after the crossing was closed indefinitely, criminals turned to the Kerem Shalom Crossing, on the border with Israel, the report said.

A Palestinian familiar with the smuggling operations told the Journal that smugglers hide packs of cigarettes in hollowed-out watermelons or bury them inside packages of legitimate goods. “The Israelis conduct thorough checks on a few selected boxes [within each aid shipment] but cannot possibly inspect every single pack, box or carton,” he said.

Illustrative: Palestinians rush trucks as they transport international humanitarian aid from the US-built Trident Pier near Nuseirat in the central Gaza Strip on May 18, 2024. (AFP)

As a result of criminal attacks on aid convoys, more than 1,000 truckloads of aid have reportedly remained stuck on the Gazan side of the crossing, and even the goods that reach their destination risk being looted by criminals attacking warehouses.

“This is threatening to undermine everything we’re trying to do,” a UN official was quoted as saying.

The Israeli military announced Sunday it had begun to implement a daily “tactical pause of military activity” along a key road in southern Gaza to enable the flow of aid. The announcement drew criticism from Prime Minister Netanyahu as well as from far-right members of the government, but it has been implemented each day since.

The daily pause is intended to ease the danger posed to workers by active fighting in the Strip. In April, an IDF strike killed seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen organization in what Israel acknowledged as a “tragic” and “unintentional” incident. The organization withdrew its workers from Gaza for several weeks, but they returned later that month.

A pier built by the US military to facilitate the flow of aid by sea is likely to be dismantled in July, according to a Tuesday report in the New York Times. Usage of the pier, which cost some $200 million to build, has been hampered by rough weather as well as security concerns.

Western governments and international aid organizations have widely assessed that the quantity of aid reaching civilians in Gaza is insufficient, but Israel contends that this is a distribution problem rather than a supply problem, and that the UN and other organizations tasked with delivering the aid have failed to keep up with the supply entering from Israel.

On Tuesday, a senior US State Department official, testifying before a Senate subcommittee, cited the withdrawal of IDF troops from parts of Gaza as a contributing factor, saying, “As the IDF has stepped back, various violent actors have stepped in, to the point where the much-diminished Hamas enforcers cannot get control of independent families and gangs.”

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