Israeli snipers target Gaza residents trying to earn a living by trapping migratory birds along the border.
It’s a classic bird trapper's ruse. A string tied to the legs of a captured bird acts as bait for others flying overhead. When they land on the ground, thinking there are worms to be had, a net is flipped over the birds. Simple but effective.
But there is one problem. And a very deadly problem at that. Israeli snipers lying in wait, overlooking the land where the birds are aplenty—in the Gaza Strip along the border with Israel.
It’s bird trapping season again in the heavily militarised zone and hundreds of Gaza residents are risking their lives to capture exotic migratory birds in the hope of supplementing their family incomes. Gaza has two bird trapping seasons—in the fall, when several species of birds migrate from freezing Europe to the Middle East, and the second in May, during the breeding season of local birds.
Bird hunting has been a traditional recreational activity for Gazans. But now it is almost a blood sport.
“Thirteen Gazans have been murdered by Israeli snipers while hunting birds in different areas along the borders since the second Intifada in 2000,” says Maher al-Tabbaa, a Gazan economic expert.
The last victim, Mohammed Ammar, 41 years, was sniped recently while trying to lay a net to catch birds, about 500 metres from the fence along the eastern border. Ammar’s brother Kamal was a witness to what Gazans say is cold-blooded murder.
“My brother drowned in his own blood as we waited for over an hour for the ambulance to reach. He was dead by the time we reached the hospital," Kamal says.
Ammar worked as a water meter reader and earned about $300 per month—far less than what he needed to feed his family of nine, including seven children. And selling the birds he managed to trap brought in some additional income.
As the 14-year-long Israeli blockade squeezes life out of Gaza’s economy, the unemployment rate has reached a historic high of 50 percent of its population and as high as 78 percent among graduates, according to Maher al-Tabbaa.
With high food insecurity—as 80 percent of Gazans rely on international assistance—residents of the occupied territory are forced to work in risky conditions to provide the bare minimum for their families.
‘Nothing without him’
It was 11 A.M. when Ammar’s wife heard about the death of her husband, who had gone out early as usual.
“It was a big shock that my children and I will not see him again,” his wife says. “I was waiting for him to have breakfast together.” Their youngest child is just seven years old.
Ammar took paid leave for four days from his public work to go bird trapping so that he could repay some of the family’s debts.
On the first three days, he left at dawn and returned about five hours later to have breakfast with his family. On the fourth day, he returned in a coffin.
Ammar’s widow says she had a premonition of the tragedy that was to fall on the family. “Before he left home that day, I asked him not to go. He ignored my request, and we lost him,” she adds.
With the sole earning member of the family gone, she has no idea how to pay the monthly installments on the house. Or pay the fees of one son who is studying in a university.
“I don’t know how to live after him. Unfortunately, we have no breadwinner anymore,” she adds.
Khaled al-Najjar, 28, considers himself lucky to be still alive. Unemployed and with a child and wife to feed, Khaled too says he had no other option but to take up bird trapping to make a living.
Al-Najjar leaves his home just after sunrise, heading out with his friends on foot to the border areas, nearly a kilometer away from their neighbourhood of Khan Younis in southern Gaza. He takes along with him a bag containing food, water bottles, and some essential hunting tools.
“Before leaving, I always get a long warm hug from my wife. And then I ask her to look after the children,” Khaled says. “Nobody knows what could happen to us in these dangerous areas, where soldiers are watching from military observation towers, and drones are flying overhead.”
Though Khaled sets his nets 300 meters from the fence, he has to venture close to the danger zone occasionally to retrieve his catch and put them in cages.
“I try to hide among trees and grass, from the eyes of Israeli soldiers to save myself from being shot,” he says, adding, “They deliberately killed a number of my friends even though they know we go near the border for hunting."
“They sometimes fire in the air just to scare us and force us to return home, but I don’t care,” he adds. “I have to at least provide the minimum basics for my family, even if it costs my life."
Life under siege
For Mohammed al-Aklouk, 45, trapping and selling birds has been the only source of income since he gave up his job as a builder in the occupied Palestinian territories in 2007 when Hamas controlled the strip after winning the Palestinian legislative election.
He owns a small shop, where he sells some of his birds and raises others in cages on the roof of his house where he lives with his wife and five children.
"I had no other choice but to hunt birds after having worked in Israel for a monthly salary of 5,000 NIS ($1,200)," al-Aklouk said. "I didn't expect to find other good work in Gaza amid our difficult economic conditions."
Over the past years, al-Aklouk was selling birds to Gaza residents through social media, at prices ranging from $10 to $60 depending on their type and size, making not more than $1,000 in a season.
As a result of the increasing demand for exotic birds a few years ago, he established a small bird project that contributed to his fame as a bird-seller in his area and increased his monthly earnings by not less than $350.
"This project has become a source of monthly income for me and my family," he says. “I sell some of my hunted birds, raise the little ones until their weight reaches at least 250 grams in order to be bought at higher prices, and purchase eggs from some bird hunters for the purpose of breeding."
However, demand for birds has decreased in recent times as Gazans have barely enough to survive.
"In recent years, I no longer earn like before as the demand has decreased in half," he says. "Life under siege is getting so unbearable that Gazan residents have been unable to provide for their basic needs."