The New York Times 2024-07-10 00:10:42

Middle East Crisis: Cigarette Smuggling in Gaza Turns Aid Trucks Into Targets

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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.”


The C.I.A. director meets with Egypt’s president about the cease-fire talks, and other news.

  • William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, met with Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, on Tuesday to discuss the negotiations for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, Mr. el-Sisi’s office said. Mediators have been scrambling to keep the talks alive as hopes for a cease-fire have diminished, with Israel and Hamas both indicating that they are still far apart. A White House spokesman, John F. Kirby, said on Monday: “We’re trying to close those gaps as best we can.” He played down Israel’s and Hamas’s public comments, saying they “aren’t necessarily reflective of the conversations we’re having privately with them or their interlocutors.”

  • Two people were killed in an apparent Israeli drone strike on a car in Syria on Tuesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring organization based in Britain. The car, which reportedly belonged to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, was struck close to the Lebanese border, near a checkpoint between the two countries, the monitor said. There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military. Attacks by Israel inside Syria have increased since the start of the war in Gaza.

  • Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, approved a plan on Tuesday to start drafting ultra-Orthodox Jewish men into the military over the next month after a Supreme Court ruling on June 25 found that there was no legal basis to give them an exemption. The Defense Ministry said that Mr. Gallant had approved orders for the screening and evaluation of ultra-Orthodox conscripts. The Supreme Court decision pit secular Israelis against the ultra-Orthodox, who say their religious study is as essential and protective as military service, and exposed cracks in the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which relies on two ultra-Orthodox parties.

  • The Israeli military said that its troops were fighting Hamas militants in Shajaiye, a neighborhood in Gaza City that it has returned to repeatedly during the war. In a statement on Monday, the military said soldiers had raided and destroyed a Hamas “command and control center” in Shajaiye inside converted schools and a clinic, and said that it found weapons and Hamas intelligence documents alongside equipment and UNRWA school uniforms. UNRWA is the main U.N. aid agency helping Palestinians. More than half of UNRWA’s facilities in Gaza have been hit by Israeli forces during the war, Philippe Lazzarini, the UNRWA head, said in a post on social media on Sunday, calling for independent investigations into claims that the facilities were being used by militant groups.

A departing Israeli military leader denounces Jewish settler violence in the West Bank.

Amid rising tensions between Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and new moves by the Israeli government to expand its hold on the territory, an Israeli general on Monday issued a harsh rebuke of the government’s policies there and condemned rising “nationalist crime” by Jewish settlers.

Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuks, the outgoing chief of Israel’s Central Command, which is responsible for the country’s military forces in the West Bank, said at a departure ceremony that a “strong and functioning” Palestinian Authority was in Israel’s security interest.

The general’s statement appeared to be a swipe at Israel’s far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, who is himself a settler and who has been crippling the authority by withholding tax funds that Israel collects on its behalf in the roughly 40 percent of the West Bank that the authority administers.

General Fuks also expressed dismay over an increase in settler violence in the West Bank, which is home to about 2.7 million Palestinians and a Jewish settler population that has grown to well over 500,000. An extremist minority of violent settlers, he said, had been undermining Israel’s reputation internationally and sowing fear among Palestinians. “That, to me, is not Judaism,” he said. “At least not what I was raised on in my father’s and mother’s home. That is not the way of the Torah.”

Israel seized control of the West Bank from Jordan in 1967 during a war with three Arab states, and Israeli civilians have since settled there with both the tacit and explicit approval of the government, living under Israeli civil law while their Palestinian neighbors are subject to Israeli military law.

The international community largely views Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal, and many of them are illegal under Israeli law but are tolerated by the government. Many outposts that began as illegal under Israeli law have subsequently been legitimized by the government, and Palestinians have long argued that they are a creeping annexation that turns land needed for any independent Palestinian state into an unmanageable patchwork.

Last year, the United Nations reported that attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank had surged in the weeks following the Oct. 7 attacks that set off the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, with at least 115 killed, more than 2,000 injured and nearly 1,000 others forcibly displaced from their homes, citing violence and intimidation by Israeli forces and settlers.

General Fuks argued that terrifying the Palestinians living alongside Jews was “a dangerous mistake” and that the actions of violent Jewish settlers threatened Israel’s security.

But Mr. Smotrich has been vocal about wanting Israel to claim all of the West Bank. Last month, he struck a deal with ministers to release some money withheld from the Palestinian Authority in exchange for the legalization of five more Jewish outposts, and last week, the finance ministry released about $136 million.

Mr. Smotrich said in a post on social media that day that he was working with planning authorities on approving more than 5,000 additional housing units in the West Bank. “We’re building the good country and thwarting the creation of a Palestinian state,” he said.

Last month an Israeli ministry approved the largest seizure of West Bank land since the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, claiming about five square miles in the Jordan Valley, according to Peace Now, an Israeli group that monitors settler activity. Israel has seized roughly nine square miles of the territory this year, making 2024 by far the peak year for appropriations, Peace Now said.

While settlers and ministers are defiant, their activities are a source of tension for Israel with other nations, including its ally the United States, at a time when it is increasingly isolated in the world over its conduct of the war in Gaza.

“Settlements continue to be counterproductive to a two-state solution,” John Kirby, the national security spokesman for the White House, said in a briefing with reporters on Monday. “We don’t support that.”

Johnatan Reiss contributed reporting.

How Swizz Beatz Climbed to the Top of Saudi Arabia’s Camel Racing Scene

As the Arabian Peninsula’s fastest camels galloped around a track in the Saudi desert, Kasseem Dean, a Grammy Award-winning hip-hop producer from the Bronx, watched nervously from an air-conditioned V.I.P. viewing hall.

Waiters in black vests plied the crowd with lemonade and red velvet cupcakes. Women in sundresses milled around off-white sofas, sipping fizzy mocktails.

Though the camels sprinting past were the main event, Mr. Dean, better known as Swizz Beatz, felt as if all eyes in the room were on him — one of the newest competitors in Saudi Arabia’s deep-pocketed camel racing scene. Four years since he entered and won his first race, he has spent millions of dollars to buy 48 racing camels, ascending into the most elite circles of the sport.

“When you discover it, you enter into a whole other world,” said Mr. Dean, 45, whose team of camels, “Saudi Bronx,” has won trophies across the region and deepened his attachment to the kingdom, which he first visited in 2006.

He now travels to Saudi Arabia so often that he considers it a second home. He is a co-founder of a roller-skating rink in the desert retreat of AlUla, where the camel race was held, and keeps an apartment in the capital, Riyadh; a few years ago, he was granted Saudi citizenship.

All of this would have been highly improbable not long ago. But the absurd has become ordinary in the new Saudi Arabia, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unleashes seismic social changes while deepening political repression, reshaping the conservative Islamic country in the process.

Ten years ago, music and gender mixing were effectively banned in public. Today, young Saudis dance at raves in abandoned hospitals, and women — who until 2018 had been barred from driving — are increasingly living on their own, buying apartments and driving themselves to work.

The 38-year-old crown prince is an avowed authoritarian, and he has coupled the social opening with a crackdown on dissent, detaining hundreds of critical Saudis across the political spectrum. In January, Manahel al-Otaibi — a fitness instructor who had campaigned on social media against Saudi Arabia’s system of male guardianship over women, which Prince Mohammed has largely dismantled — was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

A map of Saudi arabia highlighting AlUla. Mecca and Riyadh are also shown.

But the prince has a keen interest in using the kingdom’s oil wealth to build soft power, crafting a more welcoming image by promoting Saudi culture, art and cuisine, and winning over politicians and tourists alike.

Camel racing, a sport beloved by Bedouins across the Arabian Peninsula, is a small part of that push. The kingdom’s goal is for it to become “an internationally recognized sport,” Mahmoud al-Balawi, head of the Saudi Camel Racing Federation, said in an interview.

Basma Khalifa, a 42-year-old woman from AlUla who was attending the camel race, said, “It’s really nice for the foreigners to come,” adding, “Just like we know their culture, they get to know our culture.”

While Mr. Dean was once an outlier, American celebrities appear in Saudi Arabia regularly now, often drawn by lucrative deals, and no longer deterred by the frequent criticism of the kingdom by human rights groups. Many of them end up in AlUla, an area filled with twisted rock formations and ancient ruins that is the centerpiece of Prince Mohammed’s drive to turn the kingdom into a global tourism destination.

Will Smith visited last year, attending a camel race with Mr. Dean. Johnny Depp posed for a selfie in AlUla with Saudi Arabia’s culture minister. Even the elusive hip-hop star Lauryn Hill performed in AlUla recently.

“It’s funny to see,” Mr. Dean said. “Especially going back to the people that were criticizing me and telling me not to go, and now they’re asking me what’s the best place to stay.”

At the tournament in AlUla, held this spring, camels foamed at the mouth from exertion as they ran around the windswept track, knees wobbling. Instead of jockeys, robots sat on their backs — a change made years ago after the practice of using child jockeys was found to be riddled with human rights abuses. A herd of SUVs followed closely, filled with trainers commanding the robots by remote control.

Behind the velvet ropes of the V.I.P. section, Mr. Dean was seated near the head of the racing federation and surrounded by Saudi princes. They cheered him on for a victory and reassured him when one of his camels, Enzo, came in fourth place instead — helping Mr. Dean win around $200,000 from the total prize pot of more than $20 million.

Mr. Dean’s Saudi citizenship is a sign that powerful Saudis consider his relationship with the kingdom valuable; citizenship is a rare privilege, bestowed by royal edict and unobtainable even for most second- or third-generation foreign residents. Many celebrities and social media influencers who have come to Saudi Arabia in recent years are attracted by sponsorships or deals, but Mr. Dean said that was not what drew him there.

“You could easily come to Saudi and be transactional — there’s endless opportunities,” he said. “But I just wanted to have the freedom to just have fun.”

Born in the Bronx and married to the singer Alicia Keys, Mr. Dean has worked with Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Kanye West, among other artists. He once rapped that he was “hood rich.” These days, he is just regular rich — very rich, actually, replete with corporate deals, board memberships, and investments in real estate and contemporary art.

He is Muslim, and his grandfather performed pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. So when Mr. Dean first visited the kingdom in 2006, traveling there did not seem like such a strange idea.

He returned often and found himself fascinated by camel racing. Several years ago, he decided to explore it for himself. He called Saudi friends to help him search for the best camel trainers and started assembling his team.

As a rookie to the sport, Mr. Dean made mistakes, selling some of his fastest camels when competitors offered him enormous sums.

Now he understands how seriously people take the sport, and that some of the Emirati and Qatari sheikhs he competes against can spend millions of dollars on a single camel. He leaves the decisions about which camels to buy, and how to race them, to his Saudi trainers.

“I’m just bringing the cool factor to it,” Mr. Dean said.

After the races in AlUla finished, Ms. Keys, his wife, called him, and he flipped his phone camera around to show her a sandstorm brewing outside.

On his way out, he strolled through the venue with a glass of pomegranate juice, stopping for photos with curious onlookers. Few people in the camel racing world know him for his music, and he loves that.

“It’s like I’m a whole new person,” he said.

As darkness fell, he visited a pop-up shop near the racetrack where his Saudi Bronx-branded merchandise was for sale. Among the offerings: an $80 T-shirt that depicted the hip-hop star Tupac Shakur in a Saudi headdress.

Falih al-Buluwi, a prominent camel trainer who has worked with Mr. Dean, entered the shop with an entourage of half a dozen men. They posed for photographs with him and danced to Saudi music together, clapping and swaying.

Mr. Dean once lost friends and business over his association with Saudi Arabia, he said. But he ignores the criticism of that, arguing that “no place is perfect.”

“Hate across the world would be less if people traveled more and spent time with different cultures,” he said.

That evening, he stepped into the D.J. booth of the roller skating rink he had helped found in AlUla.

Disco balls sent lights dancing across the floor as he played classics by Saudi singers, intermingling them with retro hip-hop hits.

Scores of people watched from the sidelines as skaters circled the open-sky rink, some skilled and others uncertain, tumbling to the ground. A man wearing a traditional white robe hiked it up around his knees and ventured out shakily, grasping a friend’s hand for balance.

“Saudi Arabiaaaa!” Mr. Dean shouted, as the beat dropped on a Snoop Dogg song.

With Keir Starmer, Britain and the U.S. Are Back in Sync, but for How Long?

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It was a carefully staged display of big-power theatrics — or more precisely, of middle-power-meets-big-power theatrics.

“You are now connected to Air Force One,” said a White House operator, as Prime Minister Keir Starmer of Britain hunched over a speakerphone, in a short video released on Saturday by 10 Downing Street.

“Mr. Prime Minister, congratulations,” said President Biden, who was flying to Wisconsin for a campaign rally. “What a hell of a victory!”

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France’s Far-Left Firebrand: Ready to Govern?

Emphatic, pugnacious and demanding: The style met the moment in the far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s speech to a fired-up crowd of thousands celebrating victory in Sunday’s French legislative elections.

Standing before supporters in the working-class 20th arrondissement of Paris, Mr. Mélenchon addressed himself to President Emmanuel Macron, and not politely. “The president should either resign or name one of us prime minister,” he declared.

Other leftist leaders have said that there should be “discussions” about the future of the country. Not this one. The crowd on Sunday roared.

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Modi’s Moscow Visit Showcases a Less Isolated Putin, Angering Ukraine

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India strolled alongside President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia under the trees at the Russian leader’s suburban residence as the sun set. He rode a golf cart along the paths, sipped tea during an hourslong chat and petted a horse on a visit to Mr. Putin’s stables, breathing in the calm of an estate that once belonged to the Romanov dynasty.

The scene, on Monday evening, opened the Indian leader’s two-day trip to Russia and illustrated a sobering reality: Despite the West’s intended isolation of Russia over its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, other nations have pursued their own interests with regard to Moscow, helping Mr. Putin shore up Russia’s economy and wage its war.

While Mr. Modi was hugging the Russian leader, rescue workers in Kyiv were searching for survivors under the rubble of Ukraine’s largest pediatric hospital in the wake of a Russian missile attack. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine called Mr. Modi’s embrace a “huge disappointment” and a “devastating blow to peace efforts.”

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