Israel’s assault on Gaza in May wrought a heavy human toll.
But, in this crowded and impoverished strip of coastline, animals also suffered as the bombs rained down.
Their fate is usually – and perhaps understandably, given the human misery – overlooked. But to farmers and their livestock, breeders and their horses and owners and their pets, the suffering is every bit as real.
On 11 May, on the first full day after the assault on Gaza started, Israel closed the Kerem Shalom crossing, a military checkpoint that is the only entry-exit point to Gaza of goods, materials and produce.
This meant, among other things, that no animal fodder entered the area for the duration of the attack.
The consequence for Gaza’s livestock was as predictable as it was devastating. Not only were bombs dropping and farmers unable to reach their land, there was little food for animals to eat.
One million chickens, 4,000 beehives, more than 700 sheep and nearly 150 cows died as a result, according to the ministry of agriculture, which calculated the total cost to the agriculture sector of Israel’s May aggression at more than $200 million.
As for humans, war is intensely stressful for animals, noted Hassan Azzam, head of veterinary services at the ministry of agriculture. Livestock and domestic animals would have sought safe shelter where none was available, lost appetite and were likely to urinate more often as bombs rained down and the normal routines were disrupted.
The intense booms of missile fire can induce premature labor or the opposite, delayed births.
And as a result of the lack of fodder, Azzam told The Electronic Intifada, those farmers who could, were forced to change the food they gave their livestock, resulting in some cases in further health problems.
Compounding the problem, there is little capacity to look after animal health. The ministry has just 13 veterinarians on the books, according to Azzam. It should have 90 for all of Gaza.
There are just five governmental veterinary clinics and 35 to 40 private ones, he noted.
The sole animal shelter in Gaza, meanwhile, which, at the time of writing, was home to 180 dogs and 60 cats, incurred damage during the Israeli assault. As a result, five dogs, one horse and one donkey were killed, while 10 dogs were injured, according to Saeed al-Err, director of the Sulala Animal Rescue center.
One dog needed a leg amputated while other animals were affected in different ways.
“There were tens of dogs that were undergoing treatment before the war,” al-Err told The Electronic Intifada. “Their treatment had to be stopped, which worsened their condition.”
He said 40 dogs went missing from the shelter when the doors were damaged due to nearby bombardments.
Scabies is another problem. Stress can lower immunity in dogs, just like in humans, making them more susceptible to the parasite causing the skin disease. And the dogs in the shelter somehow came into contact with another dog carrying the parasite.
“Tens of dogs have scabies,” al-Err said, whose rescue center survives on donations. “Since the war, the dogs have become very nervous and scared of any noise.”
Here, as in all areas of life in Gaza, Israel’s blockade has a devastating effect. There are no specialized materials to treat fractures, not enough anesthetics or wheelchairs for paralyzed animals, according to al-Err, while fractures are treated with gypsum normally used for people.
Death of a princess
During Israel’s attack, Moath Abu Rokba, one of Gaza’s private veterinarians, was only able to provide emergency treatment.
“I used to open my clinic only two hours and just for urgent cases during the war,” the vet told The Electronic Intifada.
But even then, there was often little he could do.
“Unfortunately, there is little medical equipment for animals in Gaza. In case of a fracture in the pelvis or spine, we often leave the animal to live with the injury because there is no possibility of treating it,” Abu Rokba added.
On 15 May, the fifth full day of the Israeli attack on Gaza, Omar Shahin, 39, received a call and was told his three horses had been wounded in their stable in northern Gaza due to a bombardment.
He scrambled to his car.
“I found them wounded and covered in blood. Two of the injuries were very serious,” Omar, who owns a small car shop, told The Electronic Intifada.
He took them to a vet immediately, he said, but then had to work out how to tell his three sons, each of whom was responsible for a horse.
“The horses are everything to us,” Omar said. “Every morning we will come to the stables to check if they need food or anything else.”
In 2019, Omar managed to import a horse from the UK. The horse had first entered Israel. Omar used a Palestinian friend there as contact and a livestock importer in Gaza to bring the horse to the coastal territory.
It was a significant cost at $17,000. But it soon delivered another young horse.
“I did not believe my eyes when I saw the filly. It was the only one of its kind in all Gaza,” Omar said. “So, I decided to call the filly Amira and give it to my 7-year-old son, Rami.”
He wanted Amira (princess in Arabic) to be a racing horse – horse racing has a long and proud history in Gaza – so he had been taking special care of it for two years.
“A normal horse in Gaza costs his owner around $150 every month. Amira used to cost me between $300 to $500 because she needed special feed. I used to provide her with honey, nuts, garlic and thyme as well as vitamins and hormones in addition to normal fodder,” Omar said.
He started training Amira as a racehorse two weeks before the Israeli attack on 10 May.
“On the fifth day of the war, the occupation forces told the neighbors of the stable to evacuate because they wanted to bomb a house [in the area],” Omar said. With too far to travel to get there in time, there was little he could do.
Amira was seriously injured after sustaining shrapnel to her skull.
“There are no special x-ray machines for horses in Gaza,” he said. “The vet performed two operations and gave her a lot of medication.”
It was not enough.
On Tuesday, 23 May, at 5:30 in the morning, Omar’s wife, Sabrin, gave birth to a girl. Just an hour later, Amira died.
“I am really at a loss for words to describe that day,” he said.
The parents decided to name their daughter Qadar (‘destiny’ in Arabic), but the family still mourns Amira, especially Rami.
“Rami has been waking up crying almost daily since Amira’s death. He used to buy her fruits every day out of his pocket money.”
Daisy the survivor
Programmer Khalil Saleem’s cat, Daisy, was supposed to give birth on the fourth day of Israel’s attack. But the stress brought on by the sounds of the bombardments meant birth was delayed 40 hours.
“I contacted a veterinarian in the Jabaliya camp where I live and he told me that he had evacuated his home two days earlier,” Khalil told The Electronic Intifada.
The vet instead connected Khalil with another in the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood of Gaza City.
But that was nearly five kilometers away from Khalil’s home, and he hesitated, afraid of the bombs.
“I started asking myself: Is it worth sacrificing my soul to save a cat? I am a father of five: Who will take care of them If I get bombed?” Khalil said.
In the end, however, he decided to go.
“As Palestinians,” he said, “we have to look after every soul, whether they are in trees or animals. We have to set ourselves apart from the barbaric Israeli occupation that does not distinguish between people or stones.”
Normally ubiquitous, it took Khalil 10 minutes to find a taxi. The streets were largely deserted as people sheltered at home. The bombing at one point came very close.
“I was terrified,” Khalil recalled. “I was reciting the Quran all along.”
When they finally made it to the vet, Khalil was told that Daisy’s condition was very serious. He left his cat there and braved the same horror to get home.
He survived. So did Daisy. But not her kittens. All had died in the womb.
After two days, Khalil brought Daisy home.
“Once my children saw her, they started hugging and kissing her. It was an indescribable moment.”
Daisy has managed to tear off her bandage and rip open her stitches twice. Khalil went to a tailor to have a special vest made for her, but the wound has still not healed completely.
Ahmed Al-Sammak is a journalist based in Gaza.