Are Lod and Ramla the Drug Capitals of Israel and Palestine?

Ras al-Naqura border post between Palestine and Lebanon. (Photo Credit: anonymous, ca. 1940)

“Lod is the city most associated with drugs, and Ramla as well.” So claimed Yuval Pinter, research engineer at Yahoo labs, voicing a belief widely held among Israelis and Palestinians today. But is there any truth to the stereotype?

Although Ramla and Lod did play an important role in the local and regional drug trade from the 1920s-50s, the evidence suggests that today they are no longer the drug capitals they once were.

Since the 1920s, Palestine played a key role in the drug smuggling theater of the Arab East. Once hashish was criminalized in Greece in the 1920s, growers and smugglers found a likely home in Syria and Lebanon to supply the region’s largest hashish consumer market, Egypt. That turned Palestine into a critical link in the supply chain.

“Two Victims of Drugs,” al-Dunya al-Musawwara (Cairo, 31 July 1929), front cover.
“Two Victims of Drugs,” al-Dunya al-Musawwara (Cairo, 31 July 1929), front cover.

During the British Mandate period (1920-1948), smugglers often employed Palestinians and Lebanese who lived in border areas to move goods across this international frontier, such as in Rmeiche, Ain Ebel, Marjaayoun, Hurfesh and Metullah.

Another popular smuggling route was at the Ras al-Nakura Palestine-Lebanon border crossing, where British customs officials frequently found prohibited substances like hashish and opium hidden in trucks, automobiles and donkeys.

Once the contraband made its way across the border, it was often brought to Acre and loaded on the Palestine railroad, one of the easiest and cheapest if not always safest land routes to the Egyptian border.

In many dozens of cases throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, British police found hashish hidden away on the Palestine railway’s cabin car lighting fixtures, kitchens and operating rooms.

From Acre, the rail continued south to Haifa, and then it forked. One track continued along the coast, the other jetted eastward to Afula, Jenin and Nablus. But both made their way back to Tulkaram, and eventually, to Ramla and Lod (see map 1).

Map 1: “Palestine’s Railways in 1923,” cited in Ibrahim Al-Sayyid 'Isa Misri, Majma' al-Athar al-'Arabiyya (n.p.- Matba'a Ibn Zaydun, 1936), p.150.
Map 1: “Palestine’s Railways in 1923,” cited in Ibrahim Al-Sayyid ‘Isa Misri, Majma’ al-Athar al-‘Arabiyya (n.p.- Matba’a Ibn Zaydun, 1936), p.150.

But this is only half the story. Ramla and Lod were critical drug hubs not only between Syria and Egypt – but also within Palestine itself. As demand for hashish rose considerably during the Mandate period, so too did the Lod-Ramla nexus rise in importance as the hashish capital of the country.

We find reports in the local Arabic and Hebrew press of thousands of hashish smokers in Jaffa and hundreds more in Jerusalem, making Ramla and Lod the perfect regional drug hubs. From Ramla and Lod, the contraband could be brought east or west to the two largest domestic markets in Jaffa-Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – or it could continue along south to Egypt.

These factors may well explain why, in 1946, the British made more than twice as many drug-related arrests in Lod than any other place in Palestine, according to a Palestine Police report. Lod also happened to be close to the international airport, where there was a large British police presence.

By the 1950s, Ramla seems to have emerged as Israel’s center of hashish cultivation. In August 1954, twelve recent Jewish immigrants to Israel were discovered to be operating a hashish ring in the city.

A few months later, in November, local police found some 120 “shaykhs” in Ramla and Beersheba cultivating the plant. “In most places, growers [in Ramla and Beersheba] cultivate the plants in their gardens next to their houses, without even trying to conceal it,” reported the Israeli newspaper, ha-Tzofeh.

But the distribution centers were beginning to shift. By the 1970s and ‘80s, we find thousands of reports in the local press of smugglers arrested across the country, in Beersheba, Jerusalem, Gaza, Haifa and elsewhere. As far as I can tell, researchers have not even begun to mine this publicly available and keyword searchable data to understand the drug smuggling networks in Israel and Palestine over the past six decades.

A cursory look at this data, though, reveals that many smugglers were caught trying to export their goods outside the country, headed not only to Egypt but also to Europe and North America.

Today, it seems that Ramla and Lod are no longer the drug capitals they once were. In 2013, the Israeli police published a detailed report about crime and punishment that included the most in-depth publicly available statistics on drug-related arrests in the country.

In Israel’s Central District – which includes the sub-districts of Petah Tikva, Ramla, Sharon, and Rehovot – the police indicted some 588 people in drug smuggling charges out of a total population of some 1,649,800 people, or roughly .035641 percent of the population. Interestingly, the same figure is 1.69 times higher in the Tel Aviv District, 1.47 times higher in the Southern District, 1.19 times higher in the Haifa/Coastal District, and roughly equivalent among Israeli settlers living in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The rate of drug-related indictments in the Central District (which includes Ramla and Lod) is only higher than the Jerusalem District and the Northern District. (Note that the report did not provide any data on specific cities, only districts).

There is perhaps nothing unusual, though, about stereotypes based on anecdote and legend rather than evidence.

This article is by Zachary Foster, Ph.D. student at the Department of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University.

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