Lions, monkeys take underground route to Gaza zoo

Zoo stocked almost entirely with smuggled animals, is a sign of Gaza's ever-expanding tunnel industry.

smuggling tunnel 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
smuggling tunnel 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The monkeys and lions were drugged, tossed into cloth sacks and pulled through smuggling tunnels under the border between Egypt and the besieged Gaza Strip before ending up in their new homes in a dusty Gaza zoo. But to draw the crowds, what zoo manager Shadi Fayiz really wants to bring through the underground passages is an elephant. The "Heaven of Birds and Animals Zoo," stocked almost entirely with smuggled animals, is a sign of Gaza's ever-expanding tunnel industry. At least dozens of passages are thought to snake under the border, serving as a mainstay of the local economy. Smugglers say a new effort by Egypt to blow the passages up will have little effect, allowing the flow of products like cigarettes, weapons and lion cubs to continue unhindered. Gaza's commercial trade was literally forced underground after Hamas seized the coastal territory last summer, prompting neighboring Israel and Egypt to restrict the flow of goods through commercial passages. While Israel has allowed more goods in since a June truce with Hamas, it is not enough to answer Gaza's needs. Tunnel smugglers fill the gaps, bringing in contraband drugs and guns and more mundane items like frilly underwear, laptop computers and exotic animals, like the lion and lioness that prowl in a cage at the Rafah zoo. They were purchased as cubs from Egypt for $3,000 each, drugged and dragged through a tunnel in sacks. Fayiz said he went through a middleman to put in his order. At the small zoo, umbrellas shade battered couches. Under one covered walkway is a parrot who was sneaked through a tunnel in a cage. The parrot can ask for a kiss in Arabic, Fayiz said, which startles conservatively veiled Gazan women walking by. Two monkeys were bought together as babies. So were three spindly-legged gazelles, one of whom bit several tunnel smugglers when they forgot to drug it, Fayiz said. All told, his animals cost over $40,000. He opened shop in June. "Without the tunnels, I couldn't have done this," the 23-year-old said. Egypt, under Israeli pressure, has noticeably ratcheted up its efforts in recent weeks to destroy the passages, blasting tunnel entrances on its side. But smugglers say they can easily build new ones. "You can't kill a snake," said middleman Abu Mohammed, referring to the passages by their Gazan slang. Like other traders interviewed by the AP, he declined to give his real name, fearing retribution from Egypt and tax demands from Gaza's Hamas rulers. Gaza traders come to his office in Rafah with lists of products - food, clothes, motor oil. He contacts Egyptian traders to find them, then shops for the cheapest tunnel to haul them through, ensuring a bigger profit. "Some tunnels want $100 a box, some just $70. You have to compare prices," he said. Such competition in the smuggling market was unthinkable before the Hamas takeover, when there were fewer passages and overland borders still worked. Rows of lacy underwear hang in Abu Mohammed's shop, left from a previous shipment. They were big sellers through the summer, when most Gazan weddings take place. This season, traders are ordering nuts for Ramadan, an upcoming Muslim holy month when the devout fast throughout the day and usually snack through the night. Traders estimate around a hundred tunnels now run under the border, with the number rising since the Hamas takeover. Israel has demanded that Egypt block weapons smuggling into Gaza. Israel's main concerns about the current truce is that Hamas will use it rearm. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said he believed Egypt was devoting more energy to destroying the passageways, but also said Hamas was exploiting the calm to strengthen its military wing. Earlier this month, five tunnel workers were killed when Egypt blew up a tunnel exit, suffocating them inside. An Egyptian border official said authorities destroy about a tunnel a day. Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, says tunnels can't provide a solution to Gaza's woes. "A tunnel can bring in a mobile phone, but it can't bring in raw materials, and because of that, Gaza is paralyzed," Abu Zuhri said. But zoo manager Fayiz has a high opinion of the smugglers' ingenuity. "It's just a matter of time until they make a tunnel an elephant can walk through," he said.