Tension rises as bulldozers tear down zoo in Rafah

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The Independent Online

With a parrot that had escaped the Israelis perched on his shoulder, and a kangaroo crouching in the corner of the room, Mohammed Juma contemplated the little that was left of the zoo he had spent five years creating. "This was my life," he declared. "I watched my dream being destroyed."

With a parrot that had escaped the Israelis perched on his shoulder, and a kangaroo crouching in the corner of the room, Mohammed Juma contemplated the little that was left of the zoo he had spent five years creating. "This was my life," he declared. "I watched my dream being destroyed."

The first bulldozer, he said, had come, escorted by a tank, at 2am on Thursday morning. Between then and when Israeli soldiers left the zoo at dawn yesterday, he had watched as the army killed birds and animals, uprooted shrubs, trees and grass, destroyed pens and cages, and then dumped much of the debris and wreckage into the zoo's swimming pool.

The despoliation of the zoo at the Brazil refugee camp may seem insignificant after 41 Palestinian deaths in Rafah this week and the trail of destruction left by the Israelis elsewhere in the Al Salaam and Brazil camps - the Israelis demolished an estimated 43 homes in Brazil, reducing them to rubble still awaiting clearance yesterday - but it is a potent symbol of the much wider havoc wrought in the two camps and a third, Tel Sultan, since the Rafah incursion began on Monday.

The zoo, the only one in the Gaza Strip, was perhaps the only attraction for children in a town almost entirely without public amenities. Admission cost just one shekel - about 12p. The destruction betrayed a wantonness that went beyond anything that could be deemed militarily necessary to hunt down militants or find tunnels used to smuggle explosives. Although soldiers commandeered the top floor of one of the three buildings for sniper positions, it was much more difficult to explain the damage to the harmless recreation space below their vantage point.

Mr Juma insisted that he had watched with his own eyes as the Israeli bulldozer drivers broke into a cage containing 40-45 Macaw parrots and put them into the cabin of one of the bulldozers before taking them away. "It looked as though the drivers knew about animals," he said.

According to Mr Juma, 40, the Army also released some 80 animals, including monkeys, a fox, a non-poisonous snake and - adding yet another danger to those already faced by the residents of the Brazil camp - seven jaguars. Mr Juma held a sickly looking raccoon in his arms, betraying a deep gash under its hind legs, and pointed to a long row of feathers on the ground indicating a dead ostrich buried beneath the debris.

The Israeli Army claimed last night that it had been forced to pass through the zoo because explosive devices had been planted in the roads and that it had made "every effort not to harm any of the animals". But Mr Juma said: "I believe they planned to do this. I can't call the Israelis animals because animals are beautiful."

Despite the partial withdrawal from the Brazil camp yesterday, the Israelis made it clear that the operation would continue. Some tanks remained in the camp as a funeral procession followed the bodies of four militants killed by Israeli forces in the past 24 hours, including Khaled Abu Maza, head of Hamas's military wing in Rafah. Abu Maza was killed by a missile targeted at him while he was in the Al Salaam camp.

But in the absence of any new finds of tunnelling, Gideon Ezra, a Likud government minister, said that the operation would rely increasingly on intelligence, while a senior Army officer was quoted by Israeli media as saying that Palestinians in Rafah would not yet be able to "rest easy".

Residents in the Brazil camp talked angrily of homes destroyed by bulldozers, despite earlier denials by the army that this was happening.

The army destroyed a one-and-a-half acre olive grove in the centre of the camp, uprooting its 300 trees and the home of the owner's father, Suleman Qishta, 95. The owner, Mehidan Qishta, said that a bulldozer had pushed through the wall as his father lay on his bed. Debris which had crashed down on the bed was still visible yesterday, as were cuts and bruises on the old man's arms and legs. "I heard my father screaming after the bulldozer came," said Mr Qishta. "I thought he was dying."

Shakria Khamis, 60, tried to stay in her house even after a bulldozer pushed through a wall. Her daughter, Iktimal Awad, 35, said: "My mother was shouting, 'I don't want to leave'." She was forced to flee as masonry continued to fall.

Ms Awad's sister, Menal, who works at a health centre in Gaza, said she had lost many souvenirs. She said: "A human being is worth more than these items, but my memories of this house are unforgettable."

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