KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — They fan out along the tense frontier with Israel in the pre-dawn darkness, setting traps and training their eyes on the other side of the separation fence — where the parakeets are.
Dozens of Palestinian men and boys have taken up bird trapping in recent years. It's a rare if meager source of income in Gaza, which has been under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since the militant Hamas group seized power 15 years ago.
Their quarry is ring-necked parakeets, an invasive species of tropical bird that has proliferated in Israel and the Palestinian territories in recent years, most likely after being brought there as pets. In Gaza, the bright green birds with red beaks are sought-after as caged songbirds.
“It’s a beautiful bird, and everyone loves it,” said Khaled al-Najjar, a trapper and father of two. “I catch them to make a living and feed my children.”
The birds nest on Israeli farms on the other side of the fence but fly into Gaza when workers head into the fields to tend crops. The Palestinian bird catchers on the other side lure them with chirping played on portable speakers and catch them in nets and other traps.
It can be a dangerous occupation.
Israel has imposed a 300-meter buffer zone along the fence and forces closely monitor the border, looking for any Palestinians suspected of trying to sneak into Israel, plant explosives or dig attack tunnels. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several smaller battles over the years, and earlier this month Gaza saw three days of heavy fighting between Israel and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group.
A bird-catcher was shot dead by Israeli forces last year, and Palestinian rights groups say several trappers have been shot at.
Once they've netted their quarry, the trappers return to Gaza's crowded cities, where they sell the parakeets to pet shops. Al-Najjar says he gets 30 shekels (around $10) for a pair of parakeets. At some pet stores in Gaza, a pair is resold for twice as much.
There's little if any regulation of the bird trade in Gaza, where unemployment hovers around 50%. The trapping of migrant birds like swallows and quail, as well as native species like goldfinches, has severely depleted the local population.
But by trapping the parakeets, they might be doing the region a favor. The population of invasive parakeets and myrnas — a bird of the starling family — has exploded over the past 15 years, driving a decline in the populations of local species like the house sparrow and the white-spectacled bulbul.
A 2019 study by Israeli researchers found that 75% of the most common bird species in Israel have declined over the last 15 years, while the population of invasive species has grown at rates between 250% and more than 800%.
Abdel Fattah Abd Rabou, an environmental science professor at the Islamic University of Gaza, said the parakeets threaten native birds like hoopoes because they occupy their nesting areas. They can also be a pest to farmers by feeding on grapes and figs, he said.
For the trappers, and a smaller group of recreational bird-catchers in Gaza, it's a way to pass the time.
The blockade severely limits movement into and out of the narrow coastal strip, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians. Israel says the closures are needed to contain Hamas, while the Palestinians and human rights groups view it as a form of collective punishment.
"There is no work and there is nothing to fill my time other than hunting,” al-Najjar said as he inspected a parakeet tied to dry branches that he planned to use as bait.
“In the morning, my children ask me ‘where are you going?’ I tell them to hunt. Pray for me and thank God, who responds to their prayers and provides a living for me.”
By FARES AKRAM Associated Press
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.