The heroic work of veterinarian Dr. Amir Khalil of Four Paws to rescue and care for animals in the shattered world of Gaza.
The zoos in Gaza were hardly a paradise before the latest war with Israel in 2014. Today, they’re essentially death camps.
The largest of the six, Al-Bisan, was once part of a park that used to have a thousand visitors a day. The park had been built by the government, Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist group. So, when the latest war erupted, Israel bombed and shelled the whole complex, arguing that Hamas was firing rockets from civilian areas.
Each side has their own version of the story, but zookeeper Emad Jameel Qasim insists that the place had already been deserted, and that when the Israeli soldiers arrived, they shot most of the animals.
“There was not a single person in this zoo,” he told Gulf News. “Just the animals. We all fled before they came. What purpose does it serve to walk around shooting animals and destroying the place?” He pointed to a camel lying dead with a foot-long hole in her side. “This camel was pregnant. Look, look at her face. She was in pain when she died.”
Qasim tried to get the zoo rebuilt and planned to sue Israel for the costs. But nothing came of it. So he contacted the Austrian rescue organization Four Paws, begging for help.
The rescue and relief efforts of Four Paws are led by Dr. Amir Khalil, an Egyptian-born veterinarian who lives in Vienna and has been directing operations from Amman, Jordan. Dr. Khalil brought emergency supplies to the zoo, and then arranged to take three surviving lions back to safety in Jordan.
As he negotiates all the diplomatic and political minefields among the various countries of the Middle East, Dr. Khalil maintains strict neutrality. “Animals are not a part of the conflict,” he says. “The conflict is all about human against human.”
In Jordan, he works closely with Princess Alia, founder of the Princess Alia Foundation, who is working with Four Paws to create a new wildlife sanctuary, Al Ma’wa for Nature and Wildlife. She also supports New Hope, an emergency animal transfer and care center, which is where Dr. Khalil brings new arrivals.
At another zoo in Gaza, Khan Yunis (Southern Jungle), some 200 animals had already starved to death when Dr. Khalil’s team arrived with food, medicines and other supplies. The owner, 24-year-old Mohammed Oweida, and his brothers once employed 30 workers there. Now there are none, and Oweida works at a gravel quarry while his brothers drive a taxi. They tend the animals when they can.
The result was an eerie, uncanny museum of dead, stuffed animals.In a desperate effort to attract visitors, Oweida decided to study taxidermy so he’d still have something for them to see. The result was an eerie, uncanny museum of dead, stuffed animals. And, of course, no visitors. Now Oweida is now trying to sell any of the animals he can, to pay for food for the 40 who remain. For now, those 40 are surviving on supplies brought in by Four Paws.
And then there are the lion cubs from the Rafah Zoo.
Rafah has twice been destroyed in the wars between Israel and the Hamas government. When it was first demolished, in the war of 2004, a report in The Guardian described turtles who’d been crushed under tank treads, a petrified kangaroo who was cowering in a basement corner, and an ostrich who’s been butchered. At first, the Israeli army denied having destroyed the zoo at all, then said that a tank might have accidentally backed into it, and finally argued that while their soldiers had indeed driven through the zoo, it was because the road had been booby-trapped by Palestinians and that the soldiers had at least released the animals from their cages in an effort to prevent them being harmed.
Over the next 10 years, the owner of the zoo, Jihad Jumaa, rebuilt what he could and restocked the zoo with more animals smuggled in from Egypt. But he still couldn’t make it a viable proposition. Then the 2014 war broke out, and when Jumaa and his brother were giving water to the big cats one day, an Israeli rocket hit, killing the tiger, several jaguars, the kangaroo, the raccoon and the baboon, and seriously injuring the two men.
In a final effort to keep something going, Jumaa sold two lion cubs to Saad Jamal, a man living in a small apartment at a refugee camp in Gaza. (Gaza has no animal protection laws, and there are no laws or standards governing zoos.)
“I’ve always loved lions,” Jamal told Al Jazeera as he took home the two cubs, Max and Mona. “I made a room for them with beds and toys and with an opening to the rest of the apartment so they got used to the place. They’d join us when we watched TV and played with my grandchildren. The youngest, who is two, would put her finger in their mouths and they wouldn’t bite.”
As the cubs grew, Jamal finally realized that he was courting disaster. So he returned Max and Mona to the zoo. Shortly after that, Dr. Khalil stepped in and persuaded zoo owner Jumaa to let Four Paws take the cubs to the sanctuary in Jordan.
Driving into Gaza and transporting animals back out is a logistical nightmare. Even though the only way in is from Israel, you need to prove to the Gaza authorities that you’re from Jordan and that you were only passing through Israel. Otherwise, you’re assumed to be the enemy and any rescue effort is over before it’s started.
Nor can you simply load the animals on a truck and drive them back to the rescue center in Jordan. Instead, every time you cross a border, you have to unload the animals, go through inspections and paperwork, cross the border, load the animals onto another truck, and then go through the whole procedure again with the border guards of the country you’re entering.
(On the day the rescue team left Rafah with the two lion cubs and crossed out of Gaza, they found that Israel had suddenly decided to close the border on their side. So they had to turn back and negotiate with Hamas to be able to go back into Gaza and try the whole operation again two days later.)
Most of the animals, especially the big cats, were smuggled into Gaza from Egypt through tunnels, along with weapons and other contraband.
To add to the bureaucratic, logistical nightmare, the animals themselves have no papers. Most of them, especially the big cats, were smuggled into Gaza from Egypt through tunnels, along with weapons and other contraband. (The international trade in exotic animals is one of the most lucrative in the world, along with human and guns.) So they have no medical records and no origin papers, and have mostly had no inoculations or other shots.
The rescue teams have to provide stacks of paperwork, too: written permission from ministries of agriculture and ministries of defense of each of the countries they’re coming from, and, in the case of Four Paws, which is headquartered in Austria, from the Austrian foreign ministry. The veterinarians also have to sign papers acknowledging that they know they’re putting themselves in harm’s way and that they’re not working as representatives of their country but as individuals. And on it goes.
Right now, Four Paws is also getting emergency calls from across the desert in Yemen, where yet another war is bringing death and suffering to animals who know nothing of our human conflicts but are still the ultimate in “collateral damage.”
Through this political and diplomatic minefield, Dr. Khalil patiently negotiates his way to bring the animals, one or two at a time, to safekeeping, while delivering supplies and offering his veterinary skills to the others.
It’s heroic work in a broken world.
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