Tobacco prices up as smuggling tunnels are almost out
Rafah - Abu Mansour spent the night of June 15th hauling shipments of smuggled cigarettes and other tobacco from a furtive tunnel in the Gaza Strip.
The skinny, short man appeared unfazed when gunshots and blasts echoed from across the border.
The Egyptian Army has mounted an extensive campaign to destroy tunnels that act as lifelines for all kinds of goods to the Gaza Strip on the eastern Mediterranean. Private homes and installations built in a 1-kilometre area on the Egyptian side of the border have been razed over the past two years to hamper smuggling, which Egypt and Israel say bolsters the rule of the militant Hamas in the coastal enclave.
Trade through the tunnels began months after Israel imposed a blockade following Hamas’ violent 2007 takeover of the Gaza Strip. That caused severe shortages of supplies, such as medicine, food and fuel used to generate electricity.
Business through the tunnels flourished after Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011 but declined after his successor, Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Morsi, was removed.
Huge tunnels were once dug to allow the passage of a variety of goods, including food, fuel, refrigerators, television sets and even bigger items such as tractors.
Militants also used the same underground passages to bootleg caches of weapons and ammunition. The tunnels being used now are small, and the products are packed into plastic tubes that run from Egyptian territory to Gaza.
At least 10% of the existing “secret” tunnels are operational, while the remaining 90% of the tunnels have been destroyed, according to sources in the business who insisted on anonymity.
Since cigarettes are heavily taxed in Gaza, they have become popular items to be smuggled into the enclave, where jobless youngsters sell them on the street.
“Once upon a time, Rafah was a hub for smuggling from Egypt to Gaza,” sighed Abu Mansour, 40. He used a pseudonym fearing retribution from Israel, which maintains a tight grip on Gaza and its Hamas rulers, who advocate Israel’s annihilation. “But after the Egyptian security campaign mounted, the city of Sheikh Zowayed in the Sinai peninsula, 6 kilometres east of the border, has become the capital of smuggling to Gaza,” noted the native of Rafah.
In the wake of the crackdown, smugglers mapped out new routes and techniques to keep their businesses alive, he said. “We adapt to all conditions by creating new tactics and tricks, either by digging new tunnels or inventing new smuggling methods,” said Abu Mansour, whose sole career has been smuggling cigarettes and other kinds of tobacco.
Abu Mansour’s technique to cope with the new realities is simple: “We place a plastic tube in the tunnel with a narrow diameter, barely enough to fit a pack of cigarettes, so with its length, the tube can take dozens of cigarette packs. Then, I pull the tube out and collect the incoming shipment.”
On this night a friend of Abu Mansour’s suddenly climbed out of the tunnel, saying he had spent 12 hours inside awaiting a shipment. The man, who declined to be identified, said he did not fear being in a pit and that all he cared for was the financial gain.
“The profit we make inspires us to continue smuggling,” he said. “I know it’s a risky business, but we make good dough.”
But across Gaza, some merchants complain that the destroyed tunnels, tightened Egyptian security measures and the smaller underground passages from Egypt have brought their businesses to a virtual standstill.
Ahmed el-Hamms, a 40-year-old tobacco street vendor for more than seven years, said he was barely making ends meet these days.
“Cigarette prices doubled, compared with three years ago,” he said. “When the tunnel business started, we made a good profit, but after the Egyptian security campaign, it all dried up.”
Unemployment hit a record 43% under the tight Israeli blockade after Hamas’ takeover of the enclave from the moderate Palestine National Authority. Hundreds of Gaza residents, who became jobless after the Israeli siege that banned its inhabitants from working in the Jewish state, turned to street vending, mainly selling cigarettes.
“Selling cigarettes is no longer a good business because prices are expensive for both the vendors and consumers,” said Hamms, as he lifted a box filled with smuggled packs of cigarettes.
“I hope I can have a decent job other than selling smuggled cigarettes.”
Local tobacco merchants said one pack of smuggled cigarettes costs them about $2.50 and it is sold at triple that amount. Before the Israeli siege, a pack of imported cigarettes sold at 33 cents.
Kamal Salem, a Gaza City tobacco store owner, said “cigarette smuggling has never really stopped completely. It only goes through phases, or difficult times, when Egyptian authorities confiscate cigarette shipments.”
A senior Finance Ministry official in Gaza said another hurdle in that business was the hefty taxes collected by the Hamas government “to ease its cash crunch”.
Economic expert Moeen Rajab said merchants were also to blame, adding, “They buy huge quantities of cigarettes and other tobacco products at low prices and store them until prices jump to maximise their profit.”