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Gaza zookeeper fears for his animals after fleeing Rafah

A lioness rests in Khan Yunis, Gaza, after it was evacuated from Rafah by its owner to escape the Israeli offensive
— Khan Yunis (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

In a cowshed in Gaza's Khan Yunis, zookeeper Fathi Ahmed Gomaa has created a temporary home for dozens of animals including lions and baboons, having fled with them from Israel's offensive in Rafah.

"We've moved all the animals we had, except for three big lions that remain (in Rafah)", he said.

"I ran out of time and couldn't move them."

Ahmed abandoned his zoo in Rafah when Israel ordered the evacuation of parts of the southern Gazan city.

Before the offensive, the city on the border with Egypt had been spared a ground invasion and more than half of the Gaza Strip's population was sheltering there.

Now, the Israeli offensive has sent more than 800,000 people fleeing from Rafah, according to the UN, with Gomaa and his family among them.

"I am appealing to the Israeli authorities: these animals have no connection to terrorism", Gomaa told AFP, saying he wanted their help in coordinating with aid agencies to rescue the lions left behind in Rafah.

He fears they won't survive long on their own.

"Of course, within a week or 10 days, if we don't get them out they will die because they'll be left with no food or water."

The family have improvised cages for their animals, like these spotted deer which can leap over ordinary fences

Gomaa said he had already lost several of his animals to the war. "Three lion cubs, five monkeys, a newborn monkey and nine squirrels," he said.

And while the squawking of parrots fills the air, many of Gomaa's other birds are no longer with him.

"I released some of the dogs, some of the hawks and eagles, some of the pigeons and some of the ornamental birds. I released a lot of them because we didn't have cages to transport them."

In the cowshed, Gomaa is making do with what he has, using improvised fencing to raise the heights of the pens so that their new inhabitants, spotted deer, can't leap out.

Israeli troops began their assault on Rafah on May 7, defying widespread international concern for the safety of the 1.4 million civilians sheltering in the city.

The bloodiest ever Gaza war broke out after Hamas's unprecedented attack on October 7 resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,800 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.