Exotic bird lures trappers to Gaza’s tense border

They fan out along the tense border with Israel in the darkness of dawn, setting traps and peering beyond the separation barrier – where the parakeets are.

Dozens of Palestinian men and boys have taken up bird trapping in recent years. It’s a rare but meager source of income in Gaza, which has endured a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since the militant group Hamas took power 15 years ago.

Their prey is the rose-ringed parakeet, an invasive species of tropical bird that has proliferated in Israel and the Palestinian territories in recent years, most likely after being brought there as a pet. In Gaza, the bright green birds with red beaks are sought after as caged songbirds.

“It’s a beautiful bird, and everyone loves it,” said Khaled al-Najjar, a trapper and father of two. “I catch them to make a living and feed my children.”

The birds nest on Israeli farms on the other side of the fence but fly to Gaza as workers head to the fields to tend to crops. Palestinian bird hunters on the other side lure them with tweets broadcast over portable speakers and catch them in nets and other traps.

It can be a dangerous job.

Israel has imposed a 300-meter buffer zone along the fence, and forces are keeping a close watch on the border, looking for any Palestinians suspected of trying to sneak into Israel, planting explosives or digging tunnels. offensive. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several small battles over the years, and earlier this month Gaza saw three days of heavy fighting between Israel and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group.

A bird catcher was shot dead by Israeli forces last year, and Palestinian rights groups say several trappers have been shot.

Once they have caught their prey, the trappers return to the crowded towns of Gaza, where they sell the parakeets to pet stores. Al-Najjar says he gets around $10 for a pair of parakeets. In some pet stores in Gaza, a pair is resold for twice as much.

There is little or no regulation of the bird trade in Gaza, where unemployment hovers around 50%. The trapping of migratory birds like swallows and quail, as well as native species like goldfinches, has severely depleted the local population.

But by trapping the parakeets, they could be doing the region a favor. The population of invasive parakeets and myrnas – a bird in the starling family – has exploded in the past 15 years, leading to declining populations of local species like the house sparrow and white-spectacled bulbul.

A 2019 study by Israeli researchers found that 75% of the most common bird species in Israel have declined over the past 15 years, while the population of invasive species has increased at rates between 250% and more than 800%.

Abdel Fattah Abd Rabou, a professor of environmental science at the Islamic University of Gaza, said the parakeets threaten native birds like hoopoes because they occupy their nesting areas. They can also be a pest to farmers by feeding on grapes and figs, he said.

For trappers and a small group of birdwatchers in Gaza, it’s a way to pass the time.

The blockade severely limits movement to and from the narrow coastal strip, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians. Israel says the closures are necessary to contain Hamas, while Palestinians and human rights groups see them as a form of collective punishment.

“There is no work and there is nothing but hunting to occupy my time,” al-Najjar said as he inspected a parakeet tied to dry branches he planned to use as a bait.

“In the morning, my children ask me ‘where are you going?’ I tell them to hunt. Pray for me and thank God, who answers their prayers and gives me life.

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