Amir Khalil, a veterinarian with the international animal welfare charity Four Paws carries a sedated coyote at a zoo in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, during the evacuation of animals to sanctuaries in Jordan, on April 7, 2019. Photo: Said Khatib / AFP

Lions and wolves will no longer be seen from Yehia Gomaa’s window, which overlooks Rafah Park in the southern tip of the Gaza Strip. And the sound of birds will no longer be heard across the park.

Due to the unfavorable economic and environmental situation in the Gaza Strip, and a dire lack of veterinarians, the Austrian Four Paws animal welfare organization has lobbied to evacuate mammals and birds from non-governmental parks across the territory.

With a solemn expression and a sad voice, the owner of Rafah Park, Yehia Gomaa, tells Asia Times: “The animals and birds were a big part of my family, I spent most of my time with them, but I’m no longer capable of caring for them and I can’t afford their expenses, because of my very dire financial situation.”

Gomaa, who is in his sixties, adds that despite his sadness to part with the animals and birds that he has cared for since 1999, a part of him is happy to see them go to a nature reserve and a better life.

The Vienna-based organization’s seven-member multinational team has been working for days to transport around 40 animals and birds from the only zoo in the city of Rafah. The animals being moved to a nature reserve in Jordan via the Beit Hanoun crossing with Israel include lions, wolves, hyenas, monkeys, foxes, cats and dogs, in addition to birds, including ostriches and swans.

The moving process is not easy; animal coaches and veterinarians are present to make sure that the animals are moved in the cages brought in for them, without hurting themselves.

Gomaa says that he was hoping that the ministries of agriculture and tourism would create a nature reserve in Gaza before the animals either died or were taken away.

The zoo, located in the Brazil neighborhood of Rafah, was razed by the Israeli military in 2004, and partially destroyed during the 2008-2009 Gaza war, and again during the 2012 war.

The successive conflicts have left severe mental scars on the mammals and birds, some of which died, and created an environment unsuitable for living, made worse by the deteriorating economic conditions in Gaza and the dwindling numbers of zoo visitors, according to Gomaa.

There are several small zoos in Gaza, most set up in the last decade, with the animals brought through the tunnels with Egypt, according to zoo officials.

Some zoos have had to close down, due to financial losses or the death of several animals because of the blockade and the Israeli attacks, especially throughout the three wars that have targeted the strip in the last six years.

According to statistics from the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry, the cost of the damage to zoo facilities and assets caused by the Israeli war on Gaza in 2014 was $40 million.

Unsuitable environments

Four Paws projects manager Amir Khalil, 54, who is a veterinarian, says that he has been visiting Gaza repeatedly with his team, saving animals and birds from unsuitable environments and moving them to nature reserves. 

Khalil says that his organization has been interested in the parks in Gaza since 2014 and succeeded, in collaboration with the Agriculture Ministry and local authorities, in evacuating the parks of Khan Younis and Bisan, and taking two cubs from a refugee camp in Rafah.

“Today we are in Rafah Park because of the same conditions that Gaza suffers, in addition to the lack of needed medicines and trained veterinarians, which led to many deaths among the animals in parks, the latest of which has been the death of four cubs months ago from the cold,” Khalil told Asia Times.

As for the animals that remain in Gaza, Khalil says that he and his colleagues proposed creating a nature reserve to accommodate them. He says Gaza deserves to see these animals and their offsprings in a proper environment and not in small cages. In ideal conditions, the reserve could also incorporate a project to educate and train veterinarians how to deal with predatory animals. 

But as it stands, a near-total blockade hampers even the most basic infrastructure repairs, meaning sewage, water and electrical systems range from decrepit to non-functioning. In effect, Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants have been living in a 6 kilometer-wide and 11 km-long prison since the Islamist movement Hamas took control in 2007 after winning legislative elections a year earlier.

People left behind

News of the evacuation of a number of animals and birds from the Gaza Strip has angered residents of the besieged strip who have not had a similar opportunity to travel.

Young Palestinians also dream of traveling outside the besieged area to pursue opportunities and see the world, said Alia Ali, 25. Instead, they are trapped by the near-permanent closures of the crossings, and requirements imposed by the Israeli military.

“Although we feel resentful seeing animals travel when humans cannot, it is better to find these birds and mammals a better place where they can be cared for,” she told Asia Times.

Social media users in Gaza commented on the subject in a cynical, and sometimes bitter way, agreeing that “animals have more rights than people here” and calling for equality in how they are treated.

“I wish I was a monkey so I could travel,” one young man posted to Facebook.

“When animals get to travel and people don’t, you realize that we are the animals and they are the humans,” another said.

The evacuation of the animals came just one week after Gazans marked Palestinian Land Day on March 30 with a “March of Return” to the limits of the occupied territory.

The Israeli army targeted the demonstrators with rubber bullets, and even live bullets, as well as sound bombs and tear gas, killing dozens and wounding thousands, according to statistics of the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

The Israeli army estimated that the number of Palestinian demonstrators on the border numbered 20,000 people.

Land Day is named for the events of March 1976, when Israeli authorities began to confiscate thousands of private and communal Palestinian properties, or dunams, for state use.

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