And apparently no real-life manger scenes anywhere in the war zone
BETHLEHEM, GAZA, RAMAT GAN––Images of real-life manger scenes might have been expected to emerge from war-torn Gaza in particular at Christmas 2023, showing Palestinian refugee families huddled among donkeys, sheep, and camels, with parachute flares lighting the sky like the Star of Bethlehem, but in hours of scanning the latest visuals from Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel, ANIMALS 24-7 found not a one.
The closest approach was an Al Jazeera photo of Gazans moving south by donkey cart, early enough in the fighting that no bomb damage was visible––or perhaps the photo was taken even before the October 7, 2023 Hamas massacre of more than 1,400 Israeli music festival attendees and kibbutz collective farm residents that started the fighting.
No Christian imagery
Even and perhaps especially Hamas, quick to amplify and exploit other imagery from the 80-day-old war, on Christmas Eve 2023 appeared to shy away from anything evoking Christian imagery.
Bethlehem, just six miles south of Jerusalem, the reputed birthplace of Jesus, inside the Palestinian-governed but Israeli-occupied West Bank, has long been a flashpoint for trouble, often erupting at Christmas.
The majority of Bethlehem residents, historically for more than 1,700 years, have been Christian Palestinians, a tiny minority tending to be at odds both with other Palestinians, most of whom are Muslim, and with Israeli “settlers,” whose enclaves now almost surround the city of about 28,000.
Currently the Christian population of Bethlehem may be as low as 16%.
“Hotels are empty in Bethlehem and other cities this year, and worshippers are nowhere to be found,” reported Jack Khoury for Haaretz, the most liberal of the three major Israel newspapers, the others being the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Times.
Agreed Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based pro-Palestinian newspaper and web site which tends to favor Hamas, “The typically bustling biblical birthplace of Jesus resembles a ghost town after Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem were called off because of the war.”
“Explosive belts adapted for children”
Did someone say Christmas is for children?
Even as Hamas amplified a claim that Israeli ordinance has now killed 20,424 Gazans, including more than 8,000 children, Haaretz reported that the Israeli Defense Force had “located a munition storage in a building where civilians were sheltering,” including “explosive belts adapted for children, dozens of grenades, hundreds of mortars and Hamas intelligence documents.”
The Israeli Defense Force believes at least 8,000 of the dead Gazans were in fact Hamas fighters.
Those who were not were unfortunate enough to have been used as living shields by Hamas, whose miles of tunnels dug beneath hospitals, schools, mosques, and refugee camps have been gradually coming to light.
The repeated discoveries of Hamas tunnels beneath hospitals, in particular, should long since have destroyed the credibility of United Nations personnel who vehemently insisted to the last that no such arsenals, ambush points, and command centers existed.
Santa Claus will not be coming to town
Also a casualty of the tunnel discoveries should have been the credibility of critics of Israeli “war crimes” for bombing such arsenals, ambush points, and command centers, the very placement of which in itself constitutes a war crime both premeditated and executed for many years in complete disregard for Gazan civilian well-being.
Very likely all that will be coming down chimneys in Gaza come Christmas morning will be more bombs and grenades directed at Hamas holdouts in Gaza City, Khan Younis, and elsewhere, leaving behind a residue of charcoal on the socks of the dead.
What about the animals?
Amid the fighting, hardly anyone reporting from the scene has so much as mentioned animals in weeks.
The one source of information about animals coming from within Gaza continues to be terse reports relayed from Sulala Animal Rescue founder Saeed al Err, 53, by Belgian volunteer Annelies Keuleers.
Sulala Animal Rescue, whose name is translated from Arabic in several other ways, was begun in 2006 by Saeed Al-Err, his wife Sally, and their sons and daughters.
The only incorporated animal charity in Gaza, Sulala Animal Rescue normally receives support from Animals Australia, the Austrian-based charity Four Paws, and various other western animal aid charities, but under wartime conditions no new supplies have come through in three months.
“The fighting is closing in”
“It is clear Saeed, his family, and the animals will have to leave,” Keuleers posted to Facebook on December 22, 2023. “The fighting is closing in on them and his area will soon be a combat zone.
“For Saeed, the animals are an absolute priority. Saeed and his family are working now to find a way to get all of them to safety,” Keuleers said.
Saeed Al-Err and family, along with most of the Sulala Animal Rescue cats, dogs, and other animals, already had to relocate once, from northern Gaza to just south of the Wadi Gaza river, actually more of a muddy ditch, which originally demarcated the zone that Israel warned would be bombed and invaded.
“A disaster every day”
As Hamas moved forces and firepower south through the tunnels, and continued to launch rockets into civilian communities in Israel, the Israeli attack followed, forcing many Gazans to relocate multiple times––some with their animals, others without.
Many cats in Gaza were formerly indoor pets. Most dogs have always been street dogs.
“Usually when we post about animals suffering,” Keuleers observed on December 2, 2023, “most people want to hear a solution because the images of the suffering alone are too difficult to live with.”
But there can be no solutions for the animals while the war goes on.
“Saeed says he sees a disaster every day he goes out into the street,” Keuleers continued.
Horses & donkeys
“Horses and donkeys are the only means of transportation now, and so their work load has become so much heavier. He is talking to the owners, but finds himself getting angry. He is telling people not to take rides from drivers who beat their animals. And Saeed’s son will go out to buy the sick and exhausted donkeys soon,” Keuleers promised, “even at the insanely high prices” resulting from scarcity.
“An Egyptian organization called the Mersal Foundation is sending animal food and medicine from Egypt to Gaza through Rafah,” Keuleers announced hopefully on December 10, 2023.
“We don’t know yet if it will work, because there are lots of strict rules and conditions, but it’s nice to know that people are trying. If it works, the food should arrive in three to four weeks.
“Another big player has been in touch with us to get food in, get permits to move around, and maybe get animals out.
Food running out
“The big animal organizations are already involved. Animal organizations in Egypt can’t do more than what is already being done,” Keuleers said.
Tempering her optimism, Keuleers mentioned, “Food and medication is running out for humans too. Anything that can still be found is insanely expensive. Saeed when I last spoke to him still had flour for two days, but many people have gone weeks without. He still has cooking oil.
“He found potatoes and tomatoes but they’re very expensive. No yeast, no salt, nothing sweet like chocolate or cookies.
“There is still food for the cats,” Keuleers added, “but unfortunately it is running out.”
In her next report Keuleers on December 14, 2023 recounted how houses near Sulala Animal Rescue “were bombed a few nights ago. Dust from the rubble has mixed with constant rain, which turned the streets into rivers of mud.”
By December 17, 2023, Keuleers’ reports relayed from Saeed Al-Err had become increasingly desperate.
“I expected food would start coming in since a week ago, but it hasn’t,” Saeed Al-Err said.
Despite that, Saeed Al-Err and sons rescued an abused donkey the following day, and smashed the cart the donkey had pulled.
“The costs of the donkey’s treatment and food will be covered by Steve McVicar, a Canadian orthopedic surgeon who came to Gaza with an international organization as an aid worker years ago, who visited our shelter and has been supporting us ever since. Dr. Steve also picked a name: Norton!” said Keuleers.
Food from Egypt & Israel stuck at gates
As of December 20, 2023, Keuleers said, the two pallets of animal food and medicine sent from Egypt were still stuck aboard trucks waiting to enter Gaza at the Rafah gate from Egypt.
“We have also been told that on the Israeli side, already 60 bags of food have been donated and are waiting to come in, once the Kerem Shalom gate is opened,” Kueleers posted.
“Even in adversity, Saeed is rescuing, feeding, and providing first aid to stray animals,” updated Muzhira Amin for the Pakistani periodical Dawn on December 21, 2023.
“Currently, he is looking after over 120 cats, at least a dozen dogs, and even donkeys and horses.
Kueleers told Amin that while, “We haven’t reached out to the Israeli authorities directly,” seeking help in getting animal food, “we have asked through an Israeli animal aid organization.”
Situation grim in Israel too
Grim as the situation is in Gaza, the entire portion of Israel bordering on Gaza has also been evacuated for nearly three months, Hamas is still firing rockets into that area, and it remains very dangerous for anyone to approach who is not in a tank or an armored personnel carrier.
Northern Israel close to Lebanon has likewise been completely evacuated for several weeks due to Hezbollah rocket fire, leaving the Israeli animal charities with a considerable extra volume of displaced animals to look after.
The biggest Israeli animal charity, Let The Animals Live, which before October 7, 2023 had the longest and strongest record of helping Palestinians, lost many volunteers and donors to the Hamas attacks, with several more still believed to be prisoners of Hamas.
Let The Animals Live continues to post frequent updates about the dead and missing.
“There were dozens of police officers working security at Nova festival near kibbutz Re’im. Fifteen of them were killed in battle against the Hamas terrorists who murdered hundreds of young party goers,” Let The Animals Live recounted on December 4, 2023.
“One of those officers was senior staff sergeant major Dvora Avraham. In winter, Debby would bring warm blankets, snacks and treats to our shelter.
“Even as part of her work as a police officer, if she found an animal in distress she would do whatever she could to help.
“Debby would care for the cats of the Ofakim police station where she served, feed them, and have them spayed and neutered, all at her own expense.
“Since her murder, the cats hardly come, say the other officers. They sense she is not there.”
“Dozens of cats and dogs are waiting for Doron Steinbrecher,” Let The Animals Live added on December 11, 2023. “They don’t understand where she disappeared to. Doron the veterinary nurse, with the smile and touch that soothed all their apprehension when they entered the clinic.
“On October 7, when Hamas terrorists invaded Kfar Aza, Doron was home alone. She texted her family about the shooting and yelling in Arabic she kept hearing outside her house.
“When terrorists broke in Doron sent her friends a voice message: ‘They caught me, they caught me, they caught me.’”
Doron Steinbrecher is believed to be still a Hamas hostage.
On December 13, 2023, Let The Animals Live announced that, “Yesterday, the Israeli Defense Force retrieved the body of Eden Zechariah, who had been kidnapped by Hamas. Eden attended the festival at Re’im with her partner Ofek Kimhi, who was murdered.
“Eden adored dogs and raised Teddy and Kai like her children.
“On that wretched Saturday, when Hamas terrorists started shooting, she managed to send a message: “They’re shooting at us. It’s really close. Take care of the dogs.”
Idan, who rescued a puppy
On December 19, 2023, Let The Animals Live introduced Idan, who “rescued Luca, a sweet pointer puppy, from an Arab village, just before October 7.
“He signed up for a delegation to Africa, to help the children there. To the party in Nova, Idan went to photograph friends who played there.
“Idan’s friends were murdered. He was injured and kidnapped to Gaza. Luca is waiting for him at home.”
Let the Animals Live also remembered “The Zohar family, Yaniv and Yasmin and their daughters Keshet and Tchelet, who were murdered in Nahal Oz on October 7.
A fox and a hyena
“13 year old Ariel, who went for a morning run, was miraculously saved. The dog Habibi was murdered with the rest of the family.”
Between death announcements, Let the Animals Live thanked Israeli Defense Force soldiers who, amid the fighting, found and rescued a young hyena with a fractured pelvis and leg, and a fox who somehow became stuck in a rusty barrel.
Both animals were transferred to wildlife rehabilitation centers.