In the crowded streets of Gaza City, donkey carts piled high with produce, building materials and garbage are a common sight, clip-clopping amid the traffic. Donkeys have become critical for transport here due to Israel’s 15-year economic blockade on Gaza, which restricts trucks and fuel. But now a donkey shortage threatens this vital lifeline, after Israel banned donkey imports from crossing the border in late 2021.
Livestock merchants say the price for a single donkey has shot up to nearly $1,000 from around $400 previously. With most vendors unable to afford that, demand far outpaces supply, leading some to warn that donkeys may disappear entirely from Gaza.
“One day there will be no donkeys in Gaza,” said Hani al-Nadi, a livestock dealer in Jabaliya, who used to import some 700 donkeys annually from Israel to keep up with demand.
The reasons behind Israel’s donkey embargo remain vague, though authorities told merchants they were acting on complaints from animal welfare groups about mistreatment of the animals. Without donkey imports, breeders in Gaza struggle to make up the shortfall.
“The demand has doubled now,” said Omar Akal, Gaza’s biggest donkey breeder with just 15 jennies. “I have to tell people ‘no’ all the time.”
Critical Role of Donkeys in Gaza
For over a decade, Israel has maintained tight control of all movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza, a 25-mile long, 6-mile wide coastal enclave jammed with over 2 million Palestinians. Gaza’s economy has been devastated by repeated cycles of armed conflict with Israel and prolonged economic blockade.
With trucks limited and gas expensive, donkey carts fill a vital transport niche. About 3,500 carts operate in Gaza City alone, carrying everything from produce and scrap metal to construction materials and household garbage. Some children even ride donkeys to school.
Donkeys do much of the hauling that diesel trucks cannot. The Hamas-run municipal government relies on donkey carts for half its garbage collection. After Israeli airstrikes, donkeys clear rubble. Thousands of vendors and haulers rely on the animals for income.
“We barely make any income every day, but it’s better than nothing,” said Ehab Marzouq, 22, selling produce from a donkey cart he borrowed after his own animal fell ill.
Donkeys: Symbols of Gaza Life
Beyond their utility, donkeys are part of the fabric of daily life here. Market carts are colorfully painted, some fitted with awnings. Gaza artists feature the animals in their works. In 2009, a zoo even painted black stripes on white donkeys to stand in as “zebras” after failing to import the real thing.
But not everyone appreciates donkeys roaming the crowded streets. Drivers get frustrated sharing tight lanes with plodding carts. Pedestrians pick their steps carefully to avoid dung. For some, donkeys represent poverty and underdevelopment.
Still, residents say the animals are a symbol of Gazan grit and resourcefulness. “I was shocked by how many donkeys are here in the city,” said Rana Batrawi, an artist who returned after years away. “But this is a way people sustain life with what’s available.”
Causes Behind the Donkey Shortage
Gazan merchants imported most of their donkeys from breeders in Israel and the West Bank, crossing through the heavily-guarded Erez border crossing.
But Hani al-Nadi’s regular shipment of 30 donkeys was abruptly blocked in December 2021. Israeli authorities informed him they could no longer permit donkey transfers at the behest of animal welfare groups. These organizations had complained the animals were mistreated in Gaza due to overcrowding, overwork, beatings and malnutrition.
Tzvie Kimelman, an animal dealer in northern Israel, confirmed to al-Nadi that the donkey trade was now forbidden across the border due to pressure from activists.
Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), which oversees Gaza crossings, has not officially banned donkeys. A COGAT spokesperson said any permit requests would “receive appropriate consideration.” But no imports have been allowed since late 2021.
With supply choked off, Gaza’s donkey population dwindles. Local breeders cannot come close to meeting the demand. “Half of my business went away,” said al-Nadi, who also imported cattle.
Ripple Effects of the Shortage
The donkey shortage reverberates across Gaza, just one thread in the web of economic hardship here.
Vendors who rely on carts for income say they can’t afford to replace aging or ailing animals. Some have left the trade entirely. Farmers and builders say donkeys haul cheaper than motorized options. Municipal officials worry garbage may pile up without carts to supplement their aged trucks.
“Israel prevents us from getting bulldozers and trucks, and now they prevent us from getting donkey carts,” said Abdraheem Abu Qomboz, director of Gaza City’s sanitation department.
Even the Islamic militant group Hamas now encourages breeding more donkeys to fill wartime reconstruction needs. During the May 2021 conflict, carts hauled rubble from 300 destroyed buildings in Gaza City alone.
Animal welfare concerns are valid, but must be balanced with economic needs, residents argue. Some admit abuse is common as impoverished owners focus on survival over animal care. But many more value their donkeys as essential tools.
“They take the money from the work and feed themselves, forgetting about the donkeys,” said Omar Akal, a breeder. “That is Gaza.”
Seeking a Way Forward
With tensions rising, some analysts warn Gaza faces another war unless conditions improve. Donkeys are minor players in these dynamics, but their shortage reflects the broader despair.
“Minor humanitarian stepsfuel hope,” said Gisha, an Israeli human rights group monitoring Gaza. “Major restrictions quash it.”
But groups like Starting Over, which rescues abused Israeli donkeys, argue banning the animal trade protects welfare. “They can breed all the donkeys they need if they take care of the ones they have,” said Starting Over lawyer Ofer Storch.
Yet more cuts to an already battered economy only deepen the crisis in Gaza, residents say. A way must be found to balance compassion for animals with compassion for people.
For now, the remaining donkeys of Gaza soldier on, still proudly clip-clopping the streets with their carts full. But their higher price puts them further out of reach for the families that need them most.