(IPS) By Eva Bartlett– Nine-year-old Ismail spends every afternoon herding his family’s flock of sheep and goats, a scraggly group of roughly 20 animals. They live in a shanty house district near Tel el Howa in Gaza City, where growth is sparse to non-existent.
“I walk all over to find food for the animals,” he says, swishing his stick to move them along.
His and other flocks can be found throughout the Strip, walking city streets and scavenging vacant lots where rubbish has accumulated, scrounging for any edibles.
On a back lane near Gaza’s Rimal district, Abu Mohammed and two of his sons herd 15 goats and sheep.
“We live on the north end of Jalah Street. We walk everywhere to find food for our sheep,” Abu Mohammed says. He watches as his flock strays into a small, broken-walled vacant lot and head for the overflowing garbage bin. There are some tree clippings here, so the animals feast.
“It’s a 30-minute walk from our house. But there’s not always food here, so we usually have to walk around much more. We don’t have an ideal place for our sheep, just a small holding pen. And there’s nowhere for them to graze properly. But what can we do?”
Like many of Gaza’s over 80 prercent desperately poor searching for any means of earning an income and food, Abu Mohammed started tending sheep and goats when he could no longer wait for the borders to open and the economy in Gaza to revive.
Shortly after Hamas was elected in early 2006, Israel and the international community imposed a siege on Gaza’s 1.5 million citizens, tightening it to extreme levels in June 2007. The combination of the siege and the 23-day Israeli war on Gaza in winter 2008-2009 has devastated the economy and destroyed Gaza’s ability to provide produce and meat as it did formerly. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has reported that 35,000 livestock, including sheep and goats, were killed in the Israeli war on Gaza. The majority of farms lie along the border between Gaza and Israel, a region devastated during the Israeli war on Gaza and on a daily basis by Israeli military invasions, shooting and shelling.
While many have turned to raising sheep as a means of income, others have long been herders and now feel the choke of the siege with respect to their animals and their inability to care for their flocks as they used to.
“We leave early each morning and walk all day, until sunset, just trying to find places for the sheep to graze,” says Um Mohammed, a herder in her 50s living just off the main road between Gaza and Khan Younis.
“Before the siege, we used to bring them hay, rye, and animal feed,” she recalls, noting that it was easier years ago, when the animals could graze naturally.
“Our sheep and goats would feed at the base of trees before the trees were all destroyed,” she says. Over the years of Israeli air and land invasions, Israel’s bulldozing and bombing trees and agricultural land, the environment in Gaza suffers almost as much as the people.
The lack of trees and natural growth is exacerbated by the lack of rain for what grass there is.
With animal fodder only sparingly allowed into Gaza under the siege, that which enters through the tunnels from Egypt is unaffordable to herders like Um Mohammed.
“Because food is expensive or not available, we must take our flock all over, to find any sort of edibles,” she says.
The food insecurity is rendering the animals underweight and malnourished.
“Four sheep died yesterday. They aren’t getting the vitamins and nutrients from the weeds they find,” says Um Mohammed. “They are ill, their wool is falling out.”
She points up the main north-south road, Saleh el Din, and says, “there used to be a factory which processed goat and sheep milk into cheese, yogurt, milk for resale.” This, she says, was destroyed during the Israeli war on Gaza.
While the plight of Gaza’s animal husbandry falls heavily on the shoulders of those herders and farmers trying to eke out a living in impossible circumstances, the importance of sheep and goats is felt by most at festival times.
“At Eid, we used to sell many sheep. But now, because our sheep are sickly, and because sheep imported via tunnels from Egypt sell for a lower price, we cannot sell ours, cannot make money from them,” says Um Mohammed.
The more than thousand tunnels running from Egypt to Gaza bring virtually anything needed into Gaza, at a heavy price. Apart from the price of human lives – more than 140 tunnel workers have died working in the tunnels, after being bombed, electrocuted, or by tunnel collapse – the tunnel imports are expensive, and out of reach for most Palestinians in Gaza.
But sheep and goats are still an alternative to unavailable or highly expensive beef. With increased malnutrition and anaemia rates in Gaza, particularly among children and women, the demand for meat has meant an increase in smuggled sheep, goats, and cattle.
The absence of veterinary drugs due to the siege means that animals smuggled through create the risk of spreading disease