GAZA (Reuters) - Marijuana and prescription painkillers are flooding into the Gaza Strip as never before, prompting officials from the ruling Islamist group Hamas to seek tougher punishments for smuggling drugs into the blockaded territory.
The quantity of drugs seized In Gaza in January was as much as for the whole of 2016, officials said. Eight major dealers were arrested in one of the biggest police stings to date.
Palestinian and Egyptian gangs move marijuana and an opioid painkiller called tramadol from Egypt into Gaza, where two million Palestinians live in a territory about 45 km long and up to 12 km wide and where four in 10 young men have no job, pushing some towards drugs.
"They think tramadol will change the reality and will make them feel at peace," said Fadel Abu Heen, a psychiatrist. "They want to lose awareness and any feeling of reality."
In their latest raid, police seized more than 100 kg (220 pounds) of marijuana, worth as much as $5 million on the streets of Gaza, and 250,000 tablets of tramadol, which sells for between 130 and 170 shekels ($35-$45) for 10 pills.
Until 2013, most smuggling was through a network of tunnels Palestinians and Egyptians had built under the border to move everything from food and consumer goods to cars, cattle and rockets.
But Egypt destroyed the tunnels - blowing them up or flooding them - in 2014 and 2015 to crack down on the trade. Since then, smugglers have found new ways of shifting merchandise.
Drugs are moved inside cooking gas canisters or washing machines. Sometimes, small quantities are thrown or catapulted from Egypt into Gaza. There are kilometres of tubes used to move small packages, and in some cases drugs are shipped inside goods imported from Israel.
"It is a problem but not a phenomenon," said Ahmed Al-Qidra, head of Gaza's anti-drug squad. "We suffer from it just as most countries all over the world."
But sentences for drug dealing had become more lenient over the years and may have helped spur a resurgence, he said. The law allows life sentences and even the death penalty for drug smugglers, but many manage to escape long prison terms, he said.
Yehya Al-Farra, an aide to Gaza's attorney-general, said the courts needed to get at least at tough as they were in 2009 when one dealer got 15 years in prison.
"The dealer who sells poison is a killer of the soul, he is the same as the killer who uses a gun or a knife," Farra told Reuters. "Therefore, the law states that a punishment up to the death penalty can be applied."
He and Qidra want more recruits to the anti-drug squad and more medical facilities to treat addicts.
Inside a Gaza prison, convicts urged men to reject drugs. A 26-year-old barber said he started taking half a tramadol a day after a friend offered him some. Soon he was addicted.
"I urge young people ... to give up bad friends, otherwise they will be destroyed like me," he said. "I was a respected man who knew a loser friend and I became a loser myself."
Editing by Robin Pomeroy