Israeli Zoo in Gaza Poised to Evacuate Animals
NEVE DEKALIM A zoo in a Jewish settlement in Gaza has answered the call to evacuate ahead of Israel's planned pullout from the occupied territory.
Holding a newborn tortoise, Israeli zookeeper Eli Moses said the animal had an advantage over the 9,000 or so settlers who will be removed next month from homes on Gaza Strip land that Palestinians seek for a state.
"He is lucky -- he has a home on his back wherever he goes. What happens to us is not known," he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of the 120 in the northern West Bank, in a bid to "disengage" from conflict with the Palestinians, is due to begin in mid-August.
Hundreds of snakes, birds and other animals from the 10-acre Katifari zoo in Gush Katif, Gaza's largest settlement bloc, will join the evacuation.
"I am not ready for the animals to suffer, said Moses, 35. "The decision has been taken by the management to find homes for them ahead of the expulsion. At least they will get better treatment than us."
WITHIN BARBED WIRE
Army listening posts and barbed wire are visible from the zoo's encampment, which is close to the Palestinian refugee camp of Khan Younis.
Militants often fire slews of rockets and mortar bombs at Israeli homes and army posts, from where troops have regularly launched raids deep into Khan Younis.
"During a really fierce mortar and rocket barrage about four years ago, most of the babies born to the animals died," Moses said. "After this, the animals got used to it. I hope they can readjust again."
A zoo on the other side of the front line suffered a tougher fate last year. Most of the animals escaped from the Palestinian Rafah zoo when it was devastated in an Israeli army raid.
Moses said the animals in Neve Dekalim provided comfort for settler children wary of their fate after the pullout.
"It is a really difficult time and it is nice to visit the animals. I still think the disengagement won't happen," said visitor Shir Lev, 11, from the nearby settlement of Gadid.
A spokesman for the Disengagement Authority, a government committee overseeing the pullout, said the process of organising the evacuation of the animals had begun.
"The animals are to be sent to a zoo and other animal centres (inside Israel)," the spokesman said.
Moses said he plans to keep a close eye on the animals in their new home.
"What else can the authorities do to me after trying to kick me from my home? It is more important that the animals are housed," he said. "I will visit them wherever they are. They are my family."