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In Gaza, the zebra is a donkey

Gaza City — At Gaza’s "Happy Land Zoo," donkeys earned their stripes and became zebras.

The two made-in-Gaza zebras have become symbols of life under the Israeli blockade, a local attraction and a bit of a joke.

"The zebras are locally manufactured," says zoo director Mahmud Barghut, grinning from ear to ear.

"We take a donkey and draw stripes on it."

The operation takes two days and entails the use of sticky tape and French-made hair colouring, which Barghut says works best for this kind of job.

The two imposters stare at visitors with sad eyes from a tiny, fly-ridden cage.

"We couldn’t afford real zebras," says Barghut.

Since the Islamist Hamas movement seized power in the Gaza Strip in 2007, the Palestinian enclave has been under a blockade, with Israel and Egypt only allowing in humanitarian and basic supplies.

Hundreds of smuggling tunnels have since been built under the border with Egypt, to bring in anything from weapons to cars, petrol and toys.

But the tunnel imports can be costly and Israel drives up the prices by regularly bombing the smuggling tunnels.

The zoo’s lion and two ostriches were brought in through the tunnels when they were babies, but a zebra would be prohibitive.

"It would have cost us 30,000 dollars," says Barghut. A donkey — a ubiquitous feature of Gaza’s streets — can be had for just 700 dollars.

Smuggling wildlife into Gaza came to international attention in March 2007 when EU officials who were monitoring the Rafah border crossing with Egypt at the time caught a Palestinian woman trying to sneak in three live crocodiles.

The toothy reptiles, each about 40 centimetres (16 inches) long, were taped to the woman beneath a loose fitting robe.

The woman, who came under suspicion for appearing inordinately fat, told border guards she intended to sell the crocodiles to a Gaza zoo.

In a sealed-off, overcrowded territory of 1.5 million people that has little in the way of entertainment, the zoo on the outskirts of Gaza City is highly popular.

"There’s nothing but the zoo or the beach," says Barghut.

But visitors from outside may well find "Happy Land" a sad place.

Other than the would-be zebras, lion and two ostriches, there’s only a camel and some birds.

Their cages are tiny and their food is strictly rationed. The lion gets 10 kilos (22 pounds) of meat per day, about half of what Barghut said is the recommended amount.

The animals are often sick and the medicine they need is unavailable in Gaza.

"If there was an animal protection group here, they would have us all arrested for mistreating the animals," says Barghut. "I tell myself that it’s a sin not to take care of them properly, but I try to do my best."

There used to be other animals, including a leopard and monkeys, but they were killed during Israel’s devastating military offensive at the turn of the year.

"Most died of thirst or hunger. For three weeks, we couldn’t approach the zoo. An (Israeli) tank was posted by the entrance," Barghut said.

"I called emergency services but they told me they weren’t even able to help people." About 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the 22-day offensive.

Barghut says he loves the little zoo he built just over a year ago but, after pumping all his funds into it, he’s now broke and putting the animal park up for sale.

"I have no more money to maintain it."

The zoo isn’t exactly a cash cow.

Most Gazans have little money and Barghut has to keep the entrance fee affordable — the equivalent of 30 cents (0.20 euro) per child.

"The zoo is meant for children. When they come here, they are happy, they run, they have fun. They want to see the lion and the zebra — they believe it’s real," says Barghut.

But four-year-old Yara al-Masri isn’t fooled.

"I know it’s not a real zebra, but it’s a pretty donkey," she says, laughing.