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Organized looters are attacking aid convoys in search of contraband cigarettes, officials say.

Organized looters are attacking aid convoys in search of contraband cigarettes, officials say.

A new problem is bedeviling humanitarian aid convoys attempting to deliver relief to hungry Gazans: attacks by organized crowds seeking not the flour and medicine that trucks are carrying, but cigarettes smuggled inside the shipments.

In tightly blockaded Gaza, cigarettes have become increasingly scarce, now generally selling for $25 to $30 apiece. U.N. and Israeli officials say the coordinated attacks by groups seeking to sell smuggled cigarettes for profit pose a formidable obstacle to bringing desperately needed aid to southern Gaza.

The Israeli authorities closely scan everything that goes in and out of Gaza through Israeli-administered checkpoints. But the cigarettes have managed to slip through for weeks inside aid trucks, mostly through Kerem Shalom crossing into southern Gaza.

To evade Israeli inspections, smugglers in Egypt have been hiding them in sacks of United Nations-donated flour, diapers and even a watermelon, according to aid agencies and an Israeli military official who shared photos with The New York Times.

Aid trucks that set off from the crossing into Gaza were then attacked by crowds of Palestinians, some of them armed, seeking the cigarettes hidden inside, according to U.N. and Israeli officials.

Andrea De Domenico, who runs the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem, confirmed that aid officials had “seen cartons of U.N.-branded assistance with cigarettes inside.” He said the contraband cigarettes had created “a new dynamic” of organized attacks on aid convoys.

Israel’s near-total control of the goods that enter Gaza amid the war has warped the enclave’s economy. The price of flour has plunged in parts of Gaza because Israel, under intense international pressure to ease hunger, has allowed aid agencies to pump in large amounts of it. Other commodities, which have entered less frequently, remain rarer and more expensive.

Mr. De Domenico showed The Times footage he had taken during a recent drive along the road leading into Gaza from Kerem Shalom: Full flour bags can be seen strewed along the side of the road, seemingly of little interest to the looters.

“Their main purpose here was to search for the cigarettes,” said Manhal Shaibar, who runs a Palestinian trucking company at Kerem Shalom that ferries U.N. aid.

Officials said that most of the trucks bearing cigarettes appeared to come from Egypt, which rerouted trucks arriving from Egyptian territory through Kerem Shalom after Israel captured the Rafah border crossing in early May. Mr. Shaibar attributed the smuggling operation to Bedouin families with a footprint in both Gaza and the Egyptian Sinai.

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

Even as deprivation in southern Gaza has deepened amid a new wave of Israeli military evacuation orders, the contents of over 1,000 aid trucks have been stuck for weeks at the Gazan side of the Kerem Shalom crossing, according to the Israeli authorities. Fearing attack, aid agencies have hesitated to send trucks to collect and distribute the goods.

Israel says it has made efforts to ensure U.N. agencies can collect the goods, including by paving new roads, and points out that private merchants have been able to bear the difficult conditions to pick up their wares. Aid officials say Israel could do much more, including allowing them to expand their use of other roads and crossings.

U.N. and Israeli officials said the smugglers outside Gaza were closely coordinated with organized groups inside the territory that have blocked aid trucks with light arms, clubs and improvised roadblocks. After successfully halting convoys, the looters often appeared to know precisely where to find the cigarettes hidden inside, Mr. De Domenico said.

“These attacks have been very targeted,” he said. “They go exactly into the pallet” where the cigarettes are.

Col. Elad Goren, a senior official in COGAT, the Israeli agency that oversees Palestinian civilian affairs, said the smuggling appeared to originate in Egypt; other people familiar with the trade shared his assessment.

“We are trying through the scanning process to find most of the packages,” Colonel Goren said. “But we believe that things need to be done on the Egyptian side in order to stop the smuggling.”

The Egyptian government’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

One cigarette seller in Gaza City said prices could range up to $40 per cigarette for more sought-after brands. Desperate smokers were willing to pay the high prices, despite being impoverished after several months of war, he said.

The seller, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution, said Hamas forces were still present in the area but not as police to apply the law, just as “mafias.”

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