- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network.
The pair of lion cubs born on Monday in Gaza’s Bissan Zoo were hailed as a triumph — a rare optimistic sign in a region that has been devastated by militants within the Strip and a blockade along its borders. But that sudden spring of hope was quashed quickly when zoo officials announced yesterday that the cubs had died.
"It’s a huge achievement for them just to be born here in Gaza," zookeeper Mohammed Shabai told reporters when they were born. "Now they must survive." Reports have cited several possible causes of death for the cubs, who were reportedly born healthy. The lioness that birthed them refused to feed them, so zookeepers substituted whole milk and nursed the cubs by hand. The lion that fathered them showed signs of aggression toward the cubs. Zookeepers had to rely on experts in Egypt, reached by phone, for advice on the cubs’ care. On Tuesday, an Israeli airstrike targeting rocket-launching militants startled the lioness. At least according to one report, she stepped on the cubs. Zookeepers brought the cubs into a warmed room to protect them from the November chill, but later told reporters that they did not have the facilities to adequately shelter the newborns. Some reports cited an unidentified illness or "pollutants," and zookeepers noted that they were not able to import the vaccines necessary to inoculate the cubs.
Three days after their birth, the cubs succumbed. They did not live long enough to open their eyes. "We were happy we had them, if just for a short time," a zookeeper said.
As with everything in Gaza, the cubs’ brief life and abrupt death has been heavily politicized. The pair was born a year after Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense, a week-long convulsion of violence in November 2012 in which Gazan militants and Israeli forces exchanged heavy rocket fire and airstrikes, and were named "Fajr," after an Iranian-made rocket favored by Gazan militants, and "Sijil," the Gazan name for the Nov. 2012 conflict. Hamas seized on the lions as a symbol of Gazan resilience, publicizing their birth on Twitter. Even the process by which they were born is steeped in Gazan embargo politics: The pair of lions that parented the cubs were smuggled into the Strip through underground tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border in 2008; most of the tunnels have since been destroyed.
There are three zoos operating in the Gaza Strip. They have struggled to keep animals alive in Gaza’s austere conditions, have been implicated in animal abuse scandals, and resorted to displaying the taxidermied remains of deceased animals.