Artificial Zebras

It is no simple matter to transform a run-of-the-mill donkey into a zebra. It takes two days, and a lot of sticky tape and hair dye. Of the 400 animals at Gaza’s “Happy Land” zoo, only 10 survived Israel’s assault last year. Some were killed when Israel bombed the zoo, others were shot by soldiers amusing themselves. The rest died of starvation or dehydration when an Israeli tank was posted at the entrance for three weeks to prevent zookeepers from tending to the animals. Among the few survivors are a lion and two ostriches, smuggled from Egypt through tunnels when they were babies, like trees grown inside a bottle. And of course, one can always make more zebras. The animals are on near starvation diets, and are often sick, with no medicine available. “If there was an animal protection group here, they would have us all arrested for mistreating the animals,” says the zookeeper. “I tell myself that it’s a sin not to take care of them properly, but I try to do my best.” The zoo was extremely popular before the offensive, with hundreds of children visiting every week. There is simply very little in Gaza in the way of leisure. The other main diversion, Gaza’s beach on the Mediterranean, is barely tolerable now. Since Israel destroyed the sewage treatment facilities, Gazans have no choice but to pump millions of liters per day of untreated sewage directly into the sea. I learned the story of the “zebras” from some filmmakers I recently met who were hoping to get into Gaza to make a documentary about the zoo.

Here’s one article about the Gaza Zoo:

And some nice pictures of the ersatz zebras:

The lives of the animals in the Gaza Zoo are not so different from the lives of most of the humans in Gaza. It’s simply a matter of the size of the cage. Also, unlike other animals, humans are either gifted or cursed with a sense of justice, and know when they are being treated unjustly.

This Thursday, the 31st, tens of thousands of Palestinians will march in Gaza to call on demented Israeli zookeepers to stop starving, freezing, and killing them. The international delegation, 1,360 people who traveled from 43 different countries, will not be there. You have to hand it to the Egyptian authorities, they are extremely competent when it comes to being a pain in the hair-dye-striped ass. We are prohibited from traveling outside of Cairo. The buses we chartered were canceled, and no bus company will risk the consequences of dealing with us. The several dozen activists who managed to make it to el-Arish, which is the Egyptian city closest to the Rafah border crossing, were placed under house arrest in their hotel. 8 others were detained at the el-Arish bus station and are still being held. When activists have attempted to leave el-Arish by taxi, the police have stopped them and unloaded their luggage. In spite of this, many of the people to whom I have spoken are still determined to get into Gaza, although the organizers of the March have finally conceded that it is impossible. So overwhelming is the police presence here, it seems that every activist has their own, personal, heavily armed cop. Every gathering we attempt, no matter how small, is immediately encircled by dozens of them, many with machine guns. Yesterday, to mark the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Israeli assault, a small contingent tried to tie little pieces of paper with names of the victims to the railing of one of the bridges on the Nile, but was broken up by police. Then, at sundown, we were prevented from chartering boats in order to float hundreds of candles in little paper cups down the river, and I missed what would have been a gorgeous photo-op. Maybe they were worried the river would catch fire. Instead, there was a sort of candlelight vigil/protest on the side-walk next to the bank where we tried to rent the boats. The police have an odd tactic, which I have experience several times already, of completely encircling the demonstrators by holding hands, and not allowing anyone to leave for half an hour or more. I’m not sure what the purpose of this maneuver is, since I should think they would want us to disperse, but I suppose it’s a kind of quarantine. Apart from a woman who said she was punched in the face by one of the cops today, I’ve not seen or heard of any violence. 

In spite of all this, there have been many smaller actions and demonstrations throughout Cairo. Many people have been going to their respective embassies and requesting their governments to ask Egypt to let us through the border. I spent a while outside of the US embassy this morning with a group of Americans, as they would only let two of us inside. There was a relatively large demonstration in front of the United Nations building today. Netanyahu is coming to Cairo tomorrow to discuss the “peace-process”, and one can’t help but wonder if Egypt’s stance originates in part from a desire to not embarrass the leader of this region’s superpower by letting us into Gaza. There will be a demonstration tomorrow centered around Netanyahu’s visit, though the location of his meeting is, of course, a secret.

I can’t help succumbing to a creeping sense of futility. It’s important to not let Egypt become the focus of our efforts, as I’m sure Israel would prefer. They are collaborators, but they are minor criminals in this scandal, a seal trained to do unpleasant tricks, compared to the US and Israel. The main difference, apart from the vastly different levels of military power, is that most Egyptians, probably even the police, hate Israel and sympathize with the Palestinians. Egypt just happens to have a corrupt, unrepresentative government. The same cannot be said for the US and Israel. We actually are responsible for the crimes of our governments, and we look the other way at our peril.

Thank you for reading.

David Symons


4 Responses to “Artificial Zebras”

  1. michael Says:

    Wow David,

    Thank you for writing and informing us. I know I shouldn’t be surprised by any of this, but I really am.

    The hand-holding sounds sweet. The sweetest quarantine ever. Except the hugantine perhaps.

    It’s also remarkable to me that this cannot be quickly resolved by a magical “NPR Correspondent to Mass Public to Obama” memo service. I guess I hoped one had been established for such purposes. I guess I was wrong. Will try a google search…

    Be safe and continue to be brave. Thanks for sharing and for trying.

  2. Cliff Bennett Says:

    Hello David,

    Several of us are taking the time to meet this afternoon with Senator Leahy, VT/D at his office at 1pm EST. We hope to convey the concerns you are expressing. Since Sen. Leahey is on the Senate Judicial Committee, we hope some rapport may be gained.

    I just watched this morning the “Salaam, Shalom” broadcast. Nice interview! I’m glad you are prepared to share some music. You are being remembered and thought of. None of what you are doing is in vain. Please keep your eyes and ears open for examples of how the US, Egypt and Israel are working together to keep this Occupation of Gaza going. You will probably discover some financial kickbacks and/or “benefits’ involved among the US, Egypt and Israel.

    Personally, I plan to continue working on the Gaza Phosphorous Burn Project here in Vermont. Some people from Gaza after Operation Cast Lead were able to go to Egypt for treatment. Any word on those persons being burned by the white phosphorous bombs and their recovery experiences is greatly appreciated. Also any pirctures of Gazans (identity protected) who need reconstruction surgery are greatly appreciated. Palestine Children’s Relief Fund has already brought a 3 yr old girl burned by the phosphorous bombs to San Diego for medical treatment. Her Granmother accompanied her as her Mom was killed in the bobming. I am focusing also on bringing adults to the US for reconstruction surgery. First hand accounts are always appreciated.


    Cliff Bennett

  3. Cliff Bennett Says:


    Just back from meeting with Chuck Ross in Senator Leahy’s Office. Not much happening in Leahy’s Office in Washington DC as people seem to be vacationing after the Health Care Bill sessions. Do you know of other Vermonters with Free Gaza March? Fortunately Leahy’s Office is aware of your particpation with Free Gaza March. They would be keen to know if there are other Vermonters so Leahy’s Office might follow you.

    Burlington Vermont Folks are with you! We would like to continue to advocate for you aqnd other Vermonters at the Burlington Free Press and 7 Days to tell your story. I have contacted them. Burlington Free Press has not done anything so far. 7 Days will hit the Newstand tomorrow.

    Cliff Bennett

  4. alighierispal Says:

    “Maybe they were worried the river would catch fire.”

    That’s exactly what they’re afraid of. They have a lot of experience with fire. And we have next to no experience of it at all. That is one reason why it is so important to do what you are doing – be there, see what you see, tell the truth about it. The sadness is bottomless, yet somehow we must swim – even though the river may catch fire.

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