GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Luxury cars with Libyan plates are becoming a common sight in the Gaza Strip, a surprising side-effect of the unrest in the north African country.
Most of the cars in Hamas-ruled Gaza — an impoverished territory subject to border restrictions by Israel and Egypt — are old models, battered and much-repaired. The gleaming new arrivals, sold in Egypt by Libyan refugees and then smuggled through underground tunnels into Gaza, are easy to spot.
Sufian Ahmad, a 36-year-old storeowner, said he had decided to buy a new Kia SUV for $50,000.
"I know $50,000 is a lot for a car in Gaza, but this will spare me at least two years of visiting garages and looking for spare parts," he said. "It's a good deal and with the cheap fuel coming from Egypt, I think I can manage."
Like the cars, fuel is also smuggled into Gaza through tunnels under the Egyptian border.
Gaza has had a thriving smuggling business since Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on the territory in 2006, greatly restricting the flow of goods into the area. The blockade, meant to weaken Hamas, was tightened the following year after the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza.
Smugglers initially focused their efforts on bringing weapons and small consumer items into the territory. But the industry quickly developed and expanded, with underground lighting and conveyor belts, to the point where some of the dozens of tunnels can handle larger items like livestock, cars and SUVs.
There were six cars at car dealer Mohammed Amin's showroom, one of Gaza's most popular, this week: one from Israel and five from Libya.
The documents for one SUV at the showroom showed that it had been brought into Egypt by a Libyan man identified as Bilal Abdel Aziz Salman on April 17, a time when Libya descended further into bloodshed between the regime of Moammar Gadhafi and rebel forces.
Showroom owner Amin said he paid taxes on each car to Gaza's Hamas government and the tunnel smugglers, and that there were now "dozens" of vehicles coming in from Libya every week. Customers tended to want 2011 and 2012 Hyundai Sonatas, Kia and Hyundai SUVs, BMWs and 4-wheel-drive Toyotas, he said.
"Now customers are not asking for the cars we import via Israel," he said. "Most of them ask if we have Libyan or Egyptian cars.
Cars start at $24,000, with sedans going for $48,000 and SUVs costing as much as $100,000, he said.
The average monthly income for a Gaza family is just $250, but the area is home to a small class of affluent merchants as well as thousands of employees of international aid agencies who qualify for preferential loans at local banks.
Demand is high: Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians are in need of about 5,000 new cars, said Hassan Okasha, the director-general of Gaza's Transportation Ministry.
Although Israel eased its blockade last year after a much-criticized naval raid on an international flotilla trying to reach Gaza, it still allows in only 40 cars a week, Okasha said. The Palestinians, who call the blockade a "siege," want the closure lifted altogether. Israel fears certain items, such as construction materials, could be used by Hamas to build weapons.
Okasha said the Hamas' government, while aware the Libyan cars are being smuggled in, has tried to ensure that they were not stolen.
"We are not supporting this phenomenon, but the market demands it, and the siege imposed on Gaza forced us in the government to adopt a mechanism in which we are trying as best as we can to make sure that these cars are legal despite entering Gaza illegally," he said.