Israel’s embargo made donkeys critical to Gaza. Now it may take them away.

A fruit seller uses a donkey cart last month in Gaza City. (Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post)

JABALIYA, Gaza Strip — Hani al-Nadi is down to his last donkey.

The lone white female stood in the livestock yard where he used to keep dozens of animals at a time; every year, he would import some 700 donkeys to keep up with local demand.

Donkeys are everywhere in Gaza. Israel’s more-than-15-year-old economic embargo limits the supply of trucks and fuel, so Gazans have reverted to donkey carts to haul produce, building materials, bomb debris and garbage. Even in the center of Gaza City, hundreds of carts add a 19th-century clip-clop to the chaotic traffic.

But now, al-Nadi and other livestock dealers say, donkeys are hard to come by, a consequence of the same kind of Israeli economic controls that made them such a fixture.

A donkey pulls a cart stocked with fruits down a busy street in Gaza City. (Video: Steve Hendrix)

The change began in December 2021, when al-Nadi went to clear the arrival of 30 donkeys being shipped from Israel. A Palestinian Authority agriculture agent broke the news: “They told me that Israel had decided it was now forbidden to import donkeys into Gaza,” he said.

Israel officials, he was told, were acting at the behest of animal welfare groups after they complained of widespread mistreatment of donkeys in Gaza — including overcrowded shipping containers, abusive workloads and malnutrition. He called his dealer in northern Israel, Tzvie Kimelman, who confirmed it.

“Because all those groups objected and made noise and reached people in the government,” Kimelman said, “they closed the transfer of donkeys.”

“Half of my business went away,” said al-Nadi, who also brokers cattle.

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Israel has controlled the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza since the Hamas militant group took power here in 2008. The 140-square-mile territory, home to more than 2 million Palestinians, is one of the most impoverished, densely populated enclaves in the world.

Al-Nadi said the donkey market in Gaza has gone haywire, with the price for a single animal having skyrocketed to almost $1,000 — putting them out of reach for most of the vendors and haulers who depend on them.

“The demand has doubled now,” said Omar Akal, 44, who raises donkeys, camels and other livestock in northern Gaza. “I have to tell people ‘no’ all the time.”

A donkey and its foal in a barn stall in northern Gaza. (Video: Steve Hendrix)

His 15 jennies and one jack make him the biggest donkey breeder in the enclave. But the 10 to 12 foals they produce each year can’t come close to replacing the animals that used to be shipped across the border.

“One day there will be no donkeys in Gaza,” said al-Nadi.

It would mark a significant shift here, where the squat, muscular and often very loud creatures have long been part of the crowded landscape.

The animals have a colorful history in Gaza, and a black-and-white one, too: In 2009, zookeepers painted black stripes on white donkeys to stand in for the zebras they were unable to import.

Some market carts — hawking dates, bananas and figs — are fitted with awnings and trimmed in fringe, the donkeys in beaded harnesses. Some carry children to school or families to the beach. Most carts are piled high with sand, bags of cement or bales of plastic bottles.

All of them share traffic lanes, and parking spots, with Mercedes, Kias and Toyotas. It is not unusual to see young boys driving the carts, and whipping the donkeys with sticks or hoses.

“I was shocked when I saw how many donkeys are here in the city,” said Rana Batrawi, a Gazan artist who returned to the enclave after living for several years in Saudi Arabia. “I worry about how hard they work, but they are very much a part of how I see Gaza.”

A donkey hauls a cart amid traffic in the center of Gaza City. (Video: Steve Hendrix)

Not everyone appreciates the donkeys, seen by many as a symbol of poverty and repression. Drivers make their frustration obvious, and pedestrians have one more thing to look out for.

“I am always very careful where I step,” Batrawi joked. “But this is a way people can sustain life with what is available.”

Ehab Marzouq, 22, was selling eggplants and melons at a Gaza City intersection on a recent evening, his cart pulled by a cousin’s donkey. His animal, which he’s owned for seven years, was sick and boarding with a veterinarian. He can’t afford to replace it.

“The price is terrible now,” he said. “We barely make any income every day, but it’s better than nothing.”

The government relies on the animals to fill gaps in its own vehicle fleet. The carts are the first line of debris removal after periodic air attacks by the Israeli military. For $6 a load, they haul collapsed building rubble to recycling plants.

And half of the enclave’s municipal garbage collection is done by contract donkey owners, said Abdraheem Abu Qomboz, the director of Gaza City’s Health & Environment Department. More than 900 of them gather Gaza’s solid waste and haul it to transfer stations, paid $300 for seven-hour shifts. Without them, the collection would overwhelm the government’s 120 trucks, most of which are decades old, he said.

“They work one day and are in the shop for two days,” Abu Qomboz said. “Israel prevents us from getting bulldozers and compactor trucks, and now they prevent us from getting donkey carts.”

A donkey cart cleans a street and collects waste in Gaza City. Half of the enclave’s garbage collection is done by donkey owners. (Video: Steve Hendrix)

Israel’s donkey policy is vague, in keeping with the ever-changing rules governing the Gazan border. Earlier this month, Israel blocked all shipments from the enclave for four days after finding explosive materials being smuggled out in a load of blue jeans.

The Israeli military unit responsible for policing imports and exports, COGAT, has not officially listed donkeys with other banned items, such as certain fertilizers and batteries. It said in statement to The Washington Post that any requests to import them “would receive appropriate consideration.” The unit did not respond when asked when the last import permits were approved.

Kimelman, the Israeli livestock merchant, said that he and other dealers recently reached an agreement to resume sales, but now there are almost no donkeys to ship and none that Gazans can afford.

The animal welfare campaign, in which Israeli groups buy donkeys to keep them off the market, has all but eliminated the trade, he said. “It is like a product that disappeared from the shelves.”

Ofer Storch, a lawyer with Starting Over, a donkey rescue group, said it wasn’t his organization that persuaded the government to block exports to Gaza. “I wish we had that influence,” he said.

But the group has worked to end the trade of donkeys across Israel and the Palestinian territories because of their often “horrific” treatment, he said. Starting Over has purchased and rescued hundreds of donkeys that were underfed, overworked, beaten and transported in inhumane conditions, including in the trunks of cars.

“I’m sorry for the people in Gaza, but they can breed all the donkeys they need if they take care of the ones they have,” Storch said.

Al-Nadi denied that donkeys are routinely abused in Gaza, saying they are too valuable to their owners. But others acknowledge that mistreatment is common.

Since the animals stopped arriving from Israel, Akal has built his breeding business by buying sick and malnourished donkeys, nursing them to health and reselling them to laborers.

“They take the money from the work and feed themselves and forget about the donkeys,” he said. “That is Gaza.”

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