Anger over razing of Gaza zoo
BY JAMES RUPERT
May 23, 2004
RAFAH, Gaza Strip - During the past five years, Mohammed Ahmed Juma and his brother, Fathi, slowly built their privately owned zoo into one of this city's best-loved community institutions. Last week, it took less than 30 hours for Israeli army bulldozers to destroy it.
As part of the Israeli military's offensive against Rafah, the bulldozers, backed by tanks, crunched through the zoo's concrete-block wall Wednesday night, residents said. Overnight and through much of Thursday, two bulldozers systematically plowed through the zoo's two acres of animal pens, bird cages, fish ponds and gardens, killing and maiming swans, pheasants, raccoons, turkeys, sheep, gazelles, tortoises, an ostrich and the zoo's three-legged fox, Juma said Friday.
Like much of the other destruction in the 6-day-old Israeli offensive in Rafah, the demolition of the zoo seemed a psychological attack on Rafah's population rather than a military strike against the Palestinian guerrillas who maintain a strong presence in the city. Even people whose homes or shops were destroyed by the bulldozers had anger and anguish to spare on behalf of the zoo. The Israeli troops "are attacking innocent animals and our innocent children!" shouted a middle-aged man in an angry knot of residents on Nile Street on Friday.
The zoo "was our dream and our life," said Mohammed Juma, 40, as he gave reporters a tour of the ruins. His family made money from dealing in exotic pets, but also built their business as a rare attraction for families, where a one-shekel (25-cent) ticket bought an afternoon's entertainment for a child.
"We built gardens and a cafeteria and a playground to make it a place for children," Juma said. It was the only zoo in the Gaza Strip, a crowded territory of 1.2 million people. And in Rafah, a chaotic jungle of concrete houses crowding narrow streets, the zoo was a rare bit of open, green space. Residents here cannot reach the Mediterranean beaches three miles to the northwest because Israeli settlements occupy that area.
So the Juma brothers' zoo "was almost the only place where we could take our children to breathe," said Rafah's mayor, Saeed Fathi Zarb.
All that began to end late Wednesday. First, a bulldozer backed by a tank broke through the outer wall of the zoo and drove in, turning circles to illuminate the surroundings with its powerful headlights, Juma said. It left and came back with a second bulldozer. About a dozen soldiers got out of the bulldozers' enclosed, armored cabs, and the accompanying tank, he said, and broke open three birdcages.
"They reached in and took the birds on their hands," Juma said. The birds were tame and let the soldiers carry them back to their vehicles, he said. "They stole between 40 and 45 birds" worth approximately ,000 each, he said.
An Israeli military spokesman, Capt. Jacob Dallal, denied that any birds had been stolen. He also said "the zoo was not fully demolished" - an assertion impossible to reconcile with the wasteland of brown dirt and twisted wreckage to be seen here in the past two days.
Dallal said Israeli forces had been forced to react to "an explosive device" found on a road outside the zoo. His account did not make clear why such an incident might have necessitated the destruction of the zoo.
At one end of the zoo, the bulldozers pushed a tangle of wrecked cages, fences, pipes and trees into what had been the zoo's fish pond. Yesterday, the stench from decaying animal corpses in that pile had grown heavy. Dr. Ali Shaker, one of only five veterinarians in Rafah, had shown up to treat a gazelle with a broken leg.
"We lost some more animals overnight," said Fathi Juma, the zoo's co-owner. "My brother Mohammed is out in the city trying to find some food for the animals, because our supplies were destroyed, and we are afraid that a lot of the animals who survived will starve now," he said.
On Friday, Mohammed Juma searched for words. The Israeli attackers "have destroyed my dreams," he said. "Some people accuse them of behaving like animals, but I cannot say this. Animals are beautiful and would never do anything like what has been done here."