Cigarette smuggling in Gaza Humanitarian aid convoys intended to deliver supplies to Gaza’s starving population now face a major challenge

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In the heavily blockaded Gaza Strip, cigarettes have become a rare commodity, often selling for $25-30 each. Both UN and Israeli officials have reported that coordinated attacks by groups looking to profit from these contraband cigarettes are severely hindering the transport of essential aid to southern Gaza.

Israeli authorities closely monitor all goods entering and leaving Gaza through the checkpoints under their control. Despite these efforts, cigarettes have managed to slip through for weeks inside aid trucks, primarily via the Kerem Shalom crossing in southern Gaza.

To bypass Israeli controls, traffickers in Egypt hide cigarettes in sacks 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.

According to Israeli and United Nations officials, aid trucks leaving the Gaza border crossing have been attacked by armed Palestinians searching for hidden cigarettes.

Andrea De Domenico, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem, confirmed that aid officials had discovered “UN-branded aid cartons with cigarettes inside.” He noted that the smuggled cigarettes have created a “new dynamic” of organized attacks on aid convoys.

Israel’s strict control over goods entering Gaza during the conflict has significantly distorted the enclave’s economy. While the price of flour has dropped in some areas due to large quantities allowed in under international pressure, other goods remain scarce and expensive.

Mr. De Domenico shared footage with The Times from a recent drive along the road from Kerem Shalom to Gaza, showing flour sacks discarded along the roadside, apparently of little interest to looters.

“Their main goal here was to find cigarettes,” said Manhal Shaibar, who operates a Palestinian trucking company in Kerem Shalom that transports United Nations aid.

Officials indicated that most of the cigarette-laden trucks seemed to be coming from Egypt. These trucks were rerouted through Kerem Shalom after Israel took control of the Rafah border crossing in early May. Mr. Shaibar attributed the smuggling operations to Bedouin families with a presence in both Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai.

The looting is a consequence of the chaos that has engulfed much of Gaza as Israel’s war against Hamas enters its tenth month. Israeli forces have dismantled Hamas’s government and police structures without establishing a new administration, resulting in widespread lawlessness.

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