RAFAH, Gaza Strip // A pair of lion cubs bound for a wildlife sanctuary in Jordan have been forced to stay on in Gaza at least until Sunday after the Erez border crossing with Israel was shut before they got there.
The animals and their entourage were stuck in no-man’s land the crossing for several hours on Friday before Gaza’s Hamas rulers allowed them back into the Palestinian territory.
The Israeli security branch responsible for the crossings said the lions showed up out of the blue after the crossing had closed and without any prior coordination and appropriate preparations, unlike in a previous case involving lions.
The cubs’ handlers checked into a Gaza hotel, with the animals in crates, to wait until the crossing reopens on Sunday.
The lion cubs had been kept for more than a year by Gaza resident Saed Eldin Al Jamal, living as pets at his family’s home in the southern border town of Rafah.
Mr Al Jamal bought the cubs when they were a month old from a zoo in Rafah, after it was hit during last summer’s war between Hamas and Israel.
He said the original owners of the small South Jungle Zoo were worried they eventually would not be able to afford to buy meat to feed the cubs as they grew.
The pair – a female, Mona, and her brother, Max – became well known across the Gaza as Al Jamal took them to parks or the beach, where children who were brave enough would come up to pet them.
His family kept the cubs in their small, one-floor home inside a crowded refugee camp in Rafah, where they quickly became star attractions. Scores of visitors came to see the cubs play with Al Jamal’s sons and grandchildren in the camp’s narrow alleys.
Mr Al Jamal cried on Friday as he gave up the cubs to Amir Khalil from the British charity Four Paws International, which is taking them to Jordan.
His 17-year-old son Ibrahim also burst into tears as he hugged and kissed Mona good-bye before the the cubs left the family home.
Four Paws had been trying for months to convince Mr Al Jamal to hand over the cubs. As time passed and concerns grew that the lions would become too big and attack people, he relented and agreed to “donate” them in return for about US$2,500 (Dh9,183).
The cubs posed a danger to the health and well-being of the Al Jamals, especially the children, and needed a place that was better for them, too, Mr Khalil said.
“A lion living in a flat is not a normal thing,” Mr Khalil said. “The lion doesn’t need to sleep on tiles, but on grass, sand or savanna.”
Last September, he helped to send a trio of scrawny lions from the Al Bisan zoo in the Gaza town of Beit Lahiya to the same Jordan sanctuary.
Mr Khalil said there were still more than 45 lions in Gaza, living in makeshift zoos, and even homes, often being looked after by untrained staff.
Most of the zoo animals in Gaza have been hauled into the isolated territory through smuggling tunnels linking the strip with Egypt. In one famous scene captured on film, Gazans used a crane to lift a camel over the border fence by one of its legs as the animal writhed in agony.
Israel and Egypt have imposed a blockade on Gaza since 2007, when Hamas seized power there.
* Associated Press