West Bank zoo imitates painful reality of locals

A zoo in a small Palestinian town is one of the few tourist attractions in the whole of the West Bank, but its location, close to the tense Israeli border, means conflict has never been far from its walls.

As such, it has made the lives of the animals and their keepers almost unbearable. There are bullet holes in the buildings, and not so long ago the zebras were tear-gassed to death. It was the time of the second Intifada – or Palestinian uprising.

One of the monkeys was so scared by gunfire that he lost three of his fingers while trying to escape through the bars of his cage, while the prize male giraffe died out of panic from the noise.

“One night when the Israeli military entered the zoo, there was a loud shot and the male was scared. He was afraid and paced in circles at night, and knocked his head one night on the bar,” zoo veterinarian Dr Sami Khadar said.

If it wasn’t for Dr Sami Khadar it is unlikely most of the animals would have survived. He risked his life each night when, after curfew, he came to the zoo to feed and care for them. He has dedicated his life to improving the zoo.

In the five years since the clashes ended Dr Khadar has been trying to import animals from around the world. He has crocodiles from the Nile River, bears from the mountains of Syria and an ostrich from Israel. Recently, five more animals were brought in from an Israeli zoo. Often this is the only cooperation between Palestinians in Qalqilya and the closest Israeli city just a few kilometers away.

The zoo is an important source of income for the city where one in four people are unemployed, as Palestinians from across the West Bank come to visit.

Around 45,000 people live in Qalqilya, which is less than three kilometers from Israel. In the past, Jews would often come there to shop while Palestinians would cross over into Israel for work. The separation barrier today keeps these two worlds apart.

Deputy Mayor of Qalqilya, Dr Hashem el-Masri says the municipality works hard to keep the zoo going:

“It’s a good resource of income that helps our city. In the last year we made nearly half a million dollars profit from the zoo. We used this money for electricity and to help our population.”

The difficulties the zoo faces are part of a much bigger problem. It is not just the animals who are fenced in. People say they also feel like they’re living in a cage. Qaliqilya is a city of just eight square kilometres, and yet it’s completely surrounded by Israel’s security barrier, which makes entering or leaving almost impossible.