Smokers in Gaza have another reason for concern. The price of cigarettes has soared in the last few months. Why? Because Hamas decided that cigarette taxes would be an excellent source of income for Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's government.
With cigarettes out of their price range, many smokers are turning to the old standby: Tobacco and rolling papers.
Abu Sayid, a long-time smoker and resident of the Gaza Strip, is one of the people suffering from the price hike. In Israel he worked at a garment factory and was in the clothing business, but now is unemployed.
"We would bring jeans to Israel that we made here in Gaza. They cost NIS 10 or NIS 20, and in Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan they would go for NIS 200," he says, recalling his more lucrative days.
Now Abu Sayid does odd construction jobs, but those jobs too are rare in the Strip owing to soaring cement prices. Abu Sayid used to smoke Lucky Strikes at NIS 10 per pack. But since Hamas came to power, the price has leapt to NIS 16 or NIS 17, and he can no longer afford them.
"There are fewer cigarettes in Gaza now, and dodgy merchants have taken over and put stands at every corner where they sell cigarettes at insane prices. Hamas taxed the cigarettes that people who had been stuck in Egypt brought over. People thought they'd made a good deal to earn a few lira, then found themselves paying a steep price for the cigarettes they brought into the Strip after Hamas started charging 50-70 percent tax on the second pack," Abu Sayid said.
The price of American cigarettes has soared too. Packs that used to cost NIS 12 now cost NIS 20. "They are more expensive than in Israel. Palestinian and Egyptian cigarettes are crappy cigarettes, that people would only buy because they cost NIS 6.5, now cost NIS 13. How can they exploit smokers like this and take advantage of their situation?"
Stop smoking? Huh?And what about quitting smoking? "Yes, sure. Everyone knows from the first cigarette they smoke that its better for their wallet and their lungs not to smoke, but if we could quit we wouldn't be complaining about the price of cigarettes," Abu Sayid retorts. That's why he found an alternate solution: He smokes less and finds alternatives. "After all, there are kids at home that need to eat," he says.
In fact, Abu Sayid and his colleagues have returned to their roots. "There is Palestinian or Egyptian tobacco, I don't know where it comes from, but it is sold with rolling papers. A box with 20 papers costs NIS 4, the cheapest on the market today. For lazy people who don’t want to roll, you can find places that sell pre-rolled cigarettes for NIS 6. That's cheaper than all other packs. I roll my cigarettes, and seal them with my mouth, and before I close my lips I spit on Hamas and Fatah that are squabbling between them for their own interests."
Abu Sayid has a different theory about the restlessness on the Gaza street. "The people on the street are going mad. Anyone you talk to curses the situation, not because the political process is stuck, not even because of the livelihoods that have been damaged, and not because of the internal fighting – they curse it because of the price of cigarettes.
"Listen, a heavy smoker will continue smoking. I know people like me that smoke less, but very few have stopped. But if all the smokers vote in the elections, Hamas is going to bite it. Actually first there even have to be elections, because Hamas objects to them. Until then, we'll keep rolling," says Abu Sayid, sealing his words with a strong expletive.