West Bank zoo stays open, but one by one its animals are dying amid the teargas and panic

The zoo in Qalqilya is unusual. For one thing, there are the bullet holes in the buildings. The zebras were tear-gassed to death. The male giraffe died after stampeding in panic when soldiers opened fire on the zoo. He hit his head against the wall of its enclosure and fell over. Giraffes cannot survive if they fall, because their blood circulation fails.

Qalqilya Zoo is in the West Bank. It was on the front line when Israeli tanks and soldiers reoccupied Palestinian towns and cities last year. More extraordinary than the terrible things which happened at the zoo is the fact it is still open and packed with excited Palestinian children, although the city has been under Israeli military closure for more than a year and spent much of it under 24-hour curfew.

Despite the wretched poverty of the West Bank, where a large and growing number of the children suffer malnourishment, this is no Third World zoo of cramped cages and dirty, starving animals.

Some of the enclosures are as big as the ones at London Zoo, and all of them give the animals room to move around. The animals, which include bears from the mountains of Syria, Nile crocodiles and an African lioness, look healthy and well fed.

The zoo is probably the only place in the West Bank where Palestinian children can have fun. As well as the animals, there is a huge swimming pool, where children splash around. In other West Bank cities, the only game for the children is playing chicken with Israeli tanks and armoured personnel carriers, running up to throw stones and trying to get away before the soldiers open fire, sometimes with live ammunition, sometimes with rubber-coated steel bullets, which can kill at close range.

That is how the giraffe died. On either side of the zoo are two Palestinian boys' schools, where, when the Israeli army was regularly patrolling the streets of the city last year, the children used to gather to throw stones. The soldiers opened fire in the direction of the zoo, and the giraffe panicked. His mate was pregnant at the time. After the male's death, she miscarried. On another occasion, one of the monkeys got so scared he sliced off three of his fingers on the bars of his cage.

The stones are harmless to the Israeli tanks. Sometimes, older youths throw Molotov cocktails, which are not. Once Israeli soldiers fired tear gas to disperse the children. It landed in the zoo. The gas poisoned all the zebras.

The man who kept the zoo going through all of this is Sami Khadr, the resident vet. When the city was under military curfew, he and his colleagues braved the risk of being shot for breaking the curfew to feed and care for the animals. Once, Dr Khadr was called out to tend to a sick animal. "While I was inside the zoo the Israeli tanks came back into the city," he said. "They surrounded the zoo and we were trapped inside. It was a painful experience but we managed to get out through the alleys and backstreets."

Dr Khadr has had to improvise to keep the zoo going. He could not afford a syringe to anaesthetise the animals for treatment, so he improvised his own, getting advice from an Israeli colleague over the phone on how to keep it sterile. He made forceps to pick up the poisonous snakes safely.

As well as caring for the animals while they are alive, Dr Khadr is a taxidermist. He stuffed one of the zebras and when the giraffe died, he stuffed it too. It should now be the prize exhibit in the zoo museum, but there are no funds to enlarge the museum to take it, so it sits in storage, covered in cobwebs. It is not easy to stuff a giraffe; it could fetch more than £6,000 if it was sold, Dr Khadr said.

The zoo was started by a former mayor of Qalqilya, who is despised by local Palestinians because they consider him a collaborator for working as mayor when the city was still under full Israeli control.

"Whatever people say about the mayor, we have to admit he did something for Qalqilya," Dr Khadr said. The zoo was set up with the help of Israeli zoos which helped stock it. "The zoo is a symbol of co-operation between Arabs and Israelis," Dr Khadr said. "We disagree about many things - politics, the land - but about animals there is no disagreement."

Jihan Sa'adi knows how precious the zoo is. She was visiting with a group of children from the village girls' school in nearby Kufr Jammal. Her eight-year-old daughter, Sima, is handicapped. "She needs to come somewhere like this," Ms Sa'adi said. "She can't go anywhere else. If the roads were open I'd come every week." It was the first time Ms Sa'adi had been out of her tiny village for a year. Under the military closure, the villagers have not been allowed to leave the area.

To get to the zoo, the group from Kufr Jammal had to pass through the checkpoint into the city, under the eyes of Israeli soldiers and border police. "Some of the younger girls started crying when they saw the soldiers," one said.

At the checkpoint a member of the Israeli border police, a military-style unit, was screaming at Palestinians queuing in the hot sun for the slow crossing into the city. They stood and took the humiliation - they had no choice - but the resentment was clear on their faces.

An Israeli soldier said: "I don't want be here any more than they do. The problem is we get stuck out here under the hot sun all day and some of us take it out on the Palestinians." He wandered over to try to calm the situation.

Group visits to the zoo started up a couple of weeks ago, which was why the zoo was packed this week. Until now people from outside Qalqilya could not get permission to visit the zoo. Now only groups arranged in advance can visit. Before the intifada, people used to travel from as far away as Gaza, Dr Khadr said. Even Israelis came, because the Qalqilya Zoo is less expensive than their own bigger zoos.

But locals from Qalqilya are reluctant to visit the zoo these days, Dr Khadr said. During the last big public holiday for Palestinians a child was killed outside the main gate.

"He was playing and he was hit by indiscriminate fire," Dr Khadr said. "Do you expect the people to come after this?"

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