The Electronic Intifada Gaza Strip 2 March 2015
The economic siege on Gaza, imposed by Israel and enforced by Egypt for eight years, has affected even the most banal behaviors of the Strip’s 1.8 million residents.
This includes their ability to indulge in their vices, such as smoking.
“Over the past year and a half, prices of cigarettes have tripled, not only doubled,” said Ahmad Abdelhadi, a Palestinian Authority employee.
Abdelhadi has resorted to smoking cigarettes of raw tobacco which he rolls himself. When he has some cash, he splurges on a Greek cigarette called Karelia Royal.
“Though it is not a great cigarette, it is the most available kind of tobacco here and much better than the raw tobacco that I started to roll myself,” Abdelhadi said.
While many nicotine addicts in Gaza have quit the unhealthy habit, or reduced it for economic reasons, many smokers like Abdelhadi have found a way to acquire cigarettes.
This is despite the scarcity after Egypt’s military government destroyed the tunnels to Gaza following the June 2013 coup that overthrew Egypt’s first elected president, Muhammad Morsi.
The Anti-Smoking Association in Gaza says that 22 percent of the population of the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip are smokers, and that in Gaza alone, 25,000 packs of cigarettes are consumed each day.
According to the group, cigarettes manufactured in Israel or in neighboring Arab countries have recently been imported to Gaza via the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing controlled by Israel and are being sold at inflated prices.
Alaa Abu Daqqa, a cigarette vendor from southern Gaza, said that the Royal label is currently sold for 17 to 20 shekels ($4-5 US) when it previously sold for only 5 shekels or just over $1 US.
“Many customers, especially young men, now buy only a few cigarettes a day, rather than a whole pack,” he explained.
The unemployment rate for Gaza’s general population stands at 40 percent. But the rate among youth is an astonishing 70 percent, according to the aid agency OXFAM.
“Smoking is merely an escape from the pressure,” said Naser Salah, another employee with the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority.
Salah, who said he says he smokes one pack per day after cutting back from two or three, says that the siege must be lifted so people can feel some relief from that pressure.
The importation restrictions impact tobacco merchants as well as consumers.
“Since the underground tunnels were shut down, our business has slowed down considerably, with about a 70 percent decrease,” the owner of the al-Sultan tobacco store in the central Gaza Strip said.
Consumers cannot afford the prices driven up by the scarcity caused by the destruction of the tunnels.
Giving only his first name, Hussam, the owner of the store, added, “We now sell one kilogram of waterpipe tobacco for approximately 250 to 300 NIS [$80 US]. Before the shutdown, we used to sell it for only 60 to 70 NIS [$20 US].”
Others, like 79-year-old farmer Abdelraouf Abdelraziq, have responded to the increased demand for local tobacco.
Last year Abdelraziq started planting a local variety of tobacco known as shami, the Arabic term for the region of greater Syria, which includes historic Palestine.
Abdelraziq’s family farmed this type of tobacco in Jaffa, on the coast of present-day Israel, before they were forced off their land during the 1947-48 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
“My son Muhammad, a 35-year-old father of seven, is partnering with his friend to buy raw shami tobacco for almost 60 shekels per kilogram, which they turn into cigarettes,” Abdelraziq explained.
Meanwhile, quiet reigns on Gaza’s border with Egypt, where the underground tunnel trade once thrived.
Abu Muhammad, a 35-year-old smuggler, sat idle with two colleagues outside battered tents which lead into the entrances of their destroyed tunnels. As Hamas military personnel looked on, the masked man said he has lost nearly $500,000 after the crackdown on the tunnels.
“As you see here, we are surrounded by military with the Hamas authority and we can do nothing but stay here if we like and cry over the ruins,” Abu Muhammad said.
“Once, there was a life here, a life that was filled with trucks, people and real business, as if it were a big market,” he added. “Now the silence is overwhelming.”
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.