Dr. Amir Khalil and his rescue team reached the King Hussein Bridge between Jordan and Israel at 6 a.m. on April 4. It was the first of three borders Khalil needed to cross that day, and his second attempt to do so in a week. With him were three trucks and the tools and medicine necessary to evacuate 47 animals — including lions, wolves, baboons and ostriches — from a struggling zoo in the city of Rafah, in the Gaza Strip.
The privately run Palestinian zoo was dusty and underfunded. Thin wire cages enclosed small squares of dirt in which a few dozen malnourished animals ate, slept and paced.
In March 2018, Four Paws International, a Vienna-based animal welfare charity where Khalil has worked for more than 20 years, sent him to Rafah to assess the zoo's conditions. Four months earlier, things had gotten so bad that the zoo's owner unsuccessfully tried to sell three lion cubs online, hoping to use any profits to buy food for the rest of his animals.
This was his Khalil's fifth assignment in Gaza, which is controlled by the militant Islamist group Hamas and blockaded by its neighbors, Israel and Egypt. He had already evacuated two other Gaza zoos in 2014 and 2016. But this rescue would be his biggest.
Born in Egypt and based in Austria for the past three decades, Khalil is no stranger to crisis zones. The 54-year-old veterinarian has led animal rescue operations and created sanctuaries around the world for more than 20 years — in trouble spots including Iraq, Sudan's Darfur region and Bosnia. He has calmed traumatized bears from Syria and vaccinated thousands of stray dogs in Myanmar. The work can come at personal risk: In Kosovo, he had a pistol held to his head. In Kenya, he says, gunmen shot up his car.
"We go to places where the logic doesn't exist," he says. "The government doesn't exist. No one cares. And where no one will believe you are coming to save animals. You see everyone escaping from a city like Mosul [Iraq], going out. Thousands and thousands. And you are the only car going the other way around. You are going inside."
A backdrop of conflict
When Khalil arrived last year at the Rafah zoo, he provided the animals with desperately needed medication, vaccinations and food. Even so, in January of this year, four lion cubs froze to death overnight. Then a lioness was declawed, with the aim of making her more approachable and drawing a larger crowd.
The zoo owner blamed the death of the cubs and his zoo's dilapidation on Gaza's economic situation. "We do not have enough money, and the blockade is exacerbating the situation," he told the Middle East Eye, referring to the 12-year blockade by Egypt and Israel, which began after Hamas seized control of the region in 2007. Since then, there have been dozens of skirmishes and three outright wars along the Israel-Gaza border, leaving thousands of civilians dead.
Against this backdrop of conflict, Khalil brokered a deal with authorities from Jordan, Israel and Hamas so he could move into Gaza, shut down the Rafah zoo and evacuate the animals. "We are happy to finally put an end to this horror," he said in a statement in March. "For far too long, the animals of Rafah zoo have had to live under unimaginably dreadful conditions. Evacuating more than 40 animals in just a few days will be a logistical, mental and physical feat — it is our biggest rescue mission to date."
On March 28, with the necessary paperwork in hand, the veterinarian made his way from Israel to the Erez Crossing entry point to Gaza.
Then the Israeli authorities changed their minds.
Restrictions on movement
Protests had erupted around the March 30 anniversary of the start of the Great March of Return — a movement comprised of weekend protests over the Gaza blockade. Palestinians, many supported by Hamas, clustered near the border fence, some hurling homemade bombs over to the Israeli side in protest of the economic hardship the blockade had caused.
That hardship has been persistent. The World Bank reported in April that 46% of Gazans live below the international poverty threshold, and nearly 70% of the youth is unemployed. Humanitarian and foreign aid is allowed over the Israeli border, but such efforts have not been enough to staunch the bleeding economy, particularly with the region divided internally.
The Hamas government — cash-strapped from military conflicts with Israel and the continuing blockade — faced a crisis when the Palestinian Authority, the dominant political group in the neighboring West Bank, slashed the wages of its employees in Gaza by more than 40% earlier this year.
With the economic situation so dire, many feel they must leave. But doing so requires a months-long waitlist to travel through the Egyptian border crossing. Palestinians at the border in March were also protesting their inability to move freely.
Gaza-Israel tensions increased as Palestinian militants fired a rocket that struck a home in Israel, and Israel deployed more troops near Gaza and temporarily closed its border crossing. Khalil could not cross into Gaza. He and his team were sent back to Jordan by Israeli authorities. The deal he'd so carefully crafted dissolved.
"I'm just for animals"
On April 4, he returned to the Gaza border, determined to try again. "I have to confirm I'm not really for any party, not for any political gain," he says. "I'm just for animals."
His team's safe passage back to Israel was not guaranteed, but he moved ahead anyway: Israeli authorities let him through to Gaza and gave him three days to return, Khalil says. Then he made his way across the Hamas-run border.
Khalil believes Israel's three-day deadline was to make sure he returned before April 9, the date of Israeli parliamentary elections. The region was in such an unstable state that any change or uncertainty in the political sphere could cause more violence and unrest along the border. If he didn't evacuate the animals in the Rafah zoo before April 9, they could be stuck indefinitely in Gaza.
Khalil and his team of animal transporters and caregivers showed up at the Rafah zoo on the evening of April 4. It became immediately clear that they weren't welcome. Hamas' agriculture minister, who had gotten word of Khalil's crossing into Gaza, forbade him from moving the animals. Evacuating animals because they lived in sub-par conditions in Gaza did not make the Hamas-run territory look good.
"They told us... they would care for their animals, and they don't need our help," Khalil recalls. But it was obvious that the zoo was "no appropriate place to care for the animals." Time was running out.
"I called the team and I said: 'I cannot go back without the animals. I can bring the team back at first to a safe place outside Gaza.' But the team said, 'We come into Gaza one, we come out one.'"
Khalil tried to reach Hamas authorities but couldn't get through. He called United Nations officials, Israeli authorities, Palestinian leaders and international nonprofits. Almost everyone he talked to said there was no guarantee Hamas would let him leave Gaza with the animals. The mission, they warned, would probably end in failure.
"I am a veterinary doctor and I have a problem"
On Saturday night, April 6, Khalil didn't sleep. "I mean, I don't sleep on such missions normally. My mind is working all the time," he says. The three-day deadline was about to expire. Khalil couldn't bring the animals across the border without Hamas' consent.
Khalil decided to try the Hamas government one more time. He rang in all his connections, spent hours talking to bureaucrats, until he somehow found out that the leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, would be in a Gaza hotel the next morning.
"I have to be honest and I have to be very diplomatic," Khalil says of such situations. "I think you have to be very sensitive, very diplomatic, and sure, you have to be wise. Choose the correct time and the correct moment."
Khalil waited outside the hotel for three hours on April 7 before seeing Sinwar. Hamas officials were upset that Khalil had given an interview to the Israeli army's Facebook page, thanking Israel for its help in coordinating passage.
"Hey, I'm not a journalist, I am a veterinary doctor and I have a problem," Khalil told Sinwar. "Your people don't let me out."
Khalil laid out his mission, and a pitch: Hamas would look a lot more favorable to the Palestinian people, and the world, he argued, if it allowed the zoo rescue to continue. Wouldn't it reflect poorly on Hamas if these animals — universally adored — were left to rot away in an underfunded zoo?
Fifteen minutes after their conversation ended, everything was fixed. Hamas gave Khalil 12 hours to transport the animals out of Gaza.
Passage to safety
That night, Khalil and his team darted the zoo's four dozen animals with tranquilizers and loaded them into their trucks. Rafah residents crowded around, relieved to see the animals saved. But the zoo had been a light of joy in their city. It was a sad zoo, filled with mistreated and malnourished animals, but it was still a zoo. Now it was closing. The animals were being saved, but the people were stuck.
Some Palestinians suggested Khalil might sneak them out in his crates. "Why can't you take us with the animals?" he remembers being asked.
Later that same night, Khalil and his rescue team crossed with the animals into Israel. Aside from two anxious wolves and a stressed-out hyena, he felt the animals were in relatively good shape. Since then, several — including three porcupines, three pelicans, two foxes and an ostrich — have been released into the wild in Jordan. The lions, including the declawed lioness, and baboons are living in wildlife sanctuaries in Jordan and South Africa.
All of the former Rafah zoo animals will be supported by Four Paws for the rest of their lives, or until they are ready to be released to the wild.
Following the success of the Rafah zoo rescue, Khalil celebrated in his usual way: "I like to hear Frank Sinatra after a mission. I have a cigar, and my whiskey."
"Infected by my job"
Hamas officials asked Khalil and Four Paws to help establish a wildlife sanctuary in Gaza for mistreated and endangered animals. Khalil is conflicted about this. Only if the sanctuary is safe enough, only if "there are no longer bombs flying around the animals," only if enough changes occur in the region, will he agree, he says.
Sometimes Khalil wishes he could have a normal life, eat a normal dinner with his three daughters without having to worry about conflict areas, mistreated animals or being trapped in crossfire. "I am a human, I have my weaknesses," he says. "But I come to be addicted. I am infected by my job."
He recently went back to Jordan to check on the animals from Rafah that he'd saved. This month, he plans to travel to Myanmar with Four Paws, to help set up an approximately 42,000-acre sanctuary for endangered elephants.
The reality of Khalil's job can be dangerous. When asked whether he feels his life is at risk during rescue missions, he responds without hesitation: "Every day, every day." It can also be frustrating and all-consuming. He will often go three or four days without sleep.
But on another level, his work transcends the politics and circumstances that make it necessary.
"If you speak about humans in Gaza, people go, 'Ah, these are terrorists,'" Khalil says. "If you speak about Israel, 'Ah, these people take our land.' But when you speak about animals, everyone is able to put his classification on the ground and carry the crate with you... And this is the reality. That the animal has no passport, has no nationality, and is not a part of the conflict."