ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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Israeli pets were taken into Gaza as souvenirs on Oct. 7

Israeli troops’ rescue of animals in Gaza fuels pro-Palestinian ‘looting’ charges

Some anti-Israel activists focus on the issue of pets being brought into Israel as complementary evidence to support a narrative of wrongdoing by Israeli soldiers in Gaza

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Israeli reservists pose with a dog they brought out of Gaza in December 2023. (Courtesy of Glass Walls)
Israeli reservists pose with a dog they brought out of Gaza in December 2023. (Courtesy of Glass Walls)

The dog that Matan Roza took out of Gaza initially appeared like one of the many strays that roam the enclave, both now and before the Israeli ground campaign there.

But on their second encounter, Roza, a father of four from Ma’ale Levona, noticed that that dog was not afraid of men the way many local dogs are. It responded to commands in Hebrew, Roza said, and his fellow reservists realized it was a purebred Malinois, a breed known also as a Belgian sheepdog, which can cost hundreds of dollars in Israel.

“I figured that the chance that it’s an Arab dog is very low,” Roza told The Times of Israel last week on the phone from inside Gaza, where he’s serving in the reserves as a car mechanic. “I called him onto the Hummer and off we went,” Roza said of the dog, which had no tag or chip.

The dog, which Roza later advertised on social media and gave away for free, is one of multiple animals — including many dogs and cats, at least one parrot and three horses — that Israeli troops have taken out of Gaza following the ground invasion by Israel in October.

Seen by some as an act of kindness or rectification, the issue has also drawn accusations that it is an act of organized looting or pillage, which is prohibited by international law and the Geneva Convention.

As Israel faces the much graver charge of genocide at the International Court of Justice – an allegation that Israel and its allies reject outright – some anti-Israel activists are focusing on the issue of pets and other animals being brought into Israel as complementary evidence to support a narrative of immorality by Israeli troops in Gaza. Others who support Israel, meanwhile, point to the care of animals as proof of the opposite.

Matan Roza transports a dog he found in Gaza to his home in Israel in December 2023. (Matan Roza)

“They’re looting. They’re stealing people’s pets, they’re stealing people’s jewelry. They’re even posting videos of themselves doing it,” Richard Medhurst, a British-Syrian journalist, said in a recent video. Medhurst, who has an outspoken pro-Palestinian agenda and more than 370,000 followers on X, showed an Israeli soldier cuddling a kitten and said: “This is probably someone’s cat.”

In his video on the Odysee platform titled “Israel Looting People’s Pets and Jewelry In Gaza,” Medhurst conceded that Gaza has many strays, but argued the one in the photo appears to be a pet. “Look at the condition of the animal,” he said.

The Middle East Monitor, a prominent pro-Palestinian news agency based in London, last month posted on its Facebook page (1.2 million followers) a video it said showed “Israeli soldiers in the northern part of Gaza plundering camels and donkeys from local villagers.”

The video, which features an arid, mountainous background, appears to have been taken in the Negev Desert inside Israel. With a tongue-in-cheek reference to alleged IDF gear shortages in the current war, it shows a soldier riding a camel and saying: “Israelis, thanks for all the equipment donations! Look at the progress we’re making, we set off on a donkey and now we’re riding a camel.”

A screenshot of a video that shows an Israeli soldier riding a camel, which the Middle East Monitor featured on its Facebook page on December 13, 2023. (Screen capture/Facebook)

International law has relatively few provisions that address the issue of animals specifically, according to Tal Mimran, a Hebrew University of Jerusalem scholar of international law and program director at the Tachlith Institute for the promotion of democracy and the rule of law. Taking animals to rescue them would likely not violate the law but it might if the animal is taken to become the property of the taker, or someone they represent, he said.

“The Geneva Convention prohibits ‘pillage’ but does not define it,” Mimran said. “Whether taking an animal constitutes pillage would depend on multiple factors such as: Was the animal taken from someone’s possession or the street? Was it taken with the intent of stealing it or rescuing it? Is it taken into the possession of the person who took it, or handed off to authorities for its rescue?” Mimran said.

Roee Shpernik, founder of the animal welfare nonprofit Glass Walls, dismissed the animal-looting allegation against Israeli troops as “nonsense.” Gaza, he said, “is a Third World place, where animals’ lives count for little, with few exceptions. Animals being brought to Israel are rescued. No one’s stealing their animals.”

Shpernik, 39, has been running a situation room focused on rescuing animals, mainly dogs, from Gaza and the now-evacuated border area inside Israel. Many smaller dogs and purebreds that are “most likely Israeli” are spotted in Gaza and rescued by reservists, he said. But they’re not the only ones crossing over.

“Gaza dogs, whole packs of ferals, are crossing into Israel because the borders are open for army movement. Reservists are bringing in many others. Thousands of dogs have lost their homes in Israel. It’s a catastrophe,” said Shpernik, whose life partner is Tal Gilboa, the Prime Minister Office’s consultant on animal welfare. Her nephew is among the 136 people believed to be held hostage by Hamas in Gaza.

Still, some animals brought over from Gaza to Israel may have a significant monetary value.

An Israeli soldier holds the reins of a horse that he had helped lead from Gaza to Israel on December 26, 2023. (Avi Tzur)

Last month, a soldier named Shai Rabi took three horses out of Gaza with his commanding officer’s permission, he confirmed to The Times of Israel. Rabi declined to answer any of The Times of Israel’s follow-up questions.

Avi Tzur, the owner of the horse feed manufacturing business Shiluveybar, who donated food to Rabi for the animals from Gaza, said the horses “appeared to have been stolen from Israel” in the first place based on the condition and material of their horseshoes and other signs, he said.

“Not that it matters. They were emaciated, starving and without care. They would have died there,” he added. Rabi led the horses from Gaza City into Kibbutz Zikim, about 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) away. A building contractor, Rabi had the horses transported from Zikim to Kfar Baruch near Afula, where he lives, Tzur said.

Responding to a query by The Times of Israel on claims of looting animals and other items, the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s unit said it is looking into the incident involving Shai Rabi. “As a rule, the IDF does not permit soldiers to transfer animals from Gaza to Israel. Requests to do so are considered only in unusual cases where the animal is wounded and in need of assistance,” an IDF spokesperson said, adding the army does not tolerate looting.

A dog lies on the seat of an armored vehicle as Israeli troops transport it out of Gaza in December 2023. (Courtesy of Glass Walls)

Last month, the IDF confirmed it has received a handful of complaints about looting in Gaza by Israeli troops and that at least three are the subject of a military police investigation. That statement did not specify the alleged loot.

Ben Ozeri, an Israeli animal welfare activist who has helped care for multiple animals brought from Gaza, also dismissed the animal looting claim. “I’m not a jurist but if the choice is between ‘looting’ a horse or any other animal to save it and letting it die a slow, horrible death, I’m in favor of ‘looting,’” he said.

When it comes to looting animals, Ozeri added, “Palestinians, and not only Hamas terrorists, engaged in it wholesale on October 7.” According to Ozeri, he has seen at least a hundred videos, uploaded by looters to social media, of Gazans taking animals they looted from Israel to the Gaza Strip on October 7, when some 3,000 terrorists invaded Israel and murdered about 1,200 people and abducted another 253.

Mia Leimberg and her beloved Shih Tzu dog, in the video for Aviv Geffen song ‘Black Sunrise’ — released December 20, 2023 (Courtesy screenshot)

One of the hostages, Mia Leimberg, 17, was abducted along with her dog, a Shih Tzu named Bella, from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak. Leimberg, who was released with Bella in November as part of a prisoner swap that allowed 105 hostages to go free, told Israel Hayom that she hid Bella under a coat during the abduction. Her captors saw she had a dog only when the time came to climb down a ladder into the tunnel where Leimberg and other hostages were kept. They let her keep Bella, and the dog survived on meager leftovers for 50 days in captivity.

Others have been separated from their pets since the Hamas onslaught. A husky named Luna that was in Nir Oz on October 7 was later identified by her Israeli owner, Tal Rokni, who survived the massacre, in TikTok videos from Gaza. Disoriented and held on a short leash, the dog identified as Luna is seen barking frantically in the video, which someone titled “a dog from the settlements” in Arabic. Luna has not been found to this day.

The terrorists were not the only ones who crossed into Israel. An unknown number of civilians followed in their wake, many of them pillaging and looting equipment, farm animals, pets and souvenirs from border kibbutzim and moshavim.

“Several horses were looted for sure, dogs, cats – the ones the looters and terrorists didn’t torture and kill, that is, and there were many such cases,” said Ozeri. “I even saw a bird in a cage being taken to Gaza,” he added.

Yasmin Ra’anan kisses her parrot Nappie on January 30, 2024. (Yasmin Ra’anan)

The bird may have been Nappie, a female cockatiel that belongs to Yasmin Ra’anan, a survivor of the massacre of Kibbutz Be’eri. After the onslaught, Ra’anan, 56, discovered that Nappie and her cage were missing.

“I assumed they killed her,” she told The Times of Israel. But days later, a reservist posted online images of himself with a friendly cockatiel on his shoulder in Gaza, with a plea to share the picture in the hope of finding the owner in Israel.

On December 27, a soldier brought back Nappie to Ra’anan, the caretaker of Be’eri’s petting zoo. She has had Nappie for over eight years. Sobbing with relief, Ra’anan was too emotional to even thank the soldier. A video of the reunion shows Ra’anan repeating the animal’s name for minutes while crying and holding Nappie close to her chest.

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