KHAN YOUNIS (AP) — They fan out along the tense border with Israel in the predawn darkness, set traps and train their eyes on the other side of the separation fence — where the parakeets are.
Dozens of Palestinian men and boys have started catching birds in recent years.
It is a rare, if meager source of income in Gaza, which has been under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since the terror group Hamas took power 15 years ago.
Their prey is ring-necked parakeets, an invasive tropical bird species that has spread in recent years in Israel and the Palestinian territories, 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 earn a living and feed my children.”
The birds nest on Israeli farms on the other side of the fence, but fly into Gaza as workers move into the fields to tend crops. The Palestinian bird catchers, on the other hand, lure them with chirping on portable speakers and trap them in nets and other traps.
It can be a dangerous profession.
Israel has established a 300-meter buffer zone along the fence, and troops are closely monitoring the border, looking for Palestinians suspected of sneaking into Israel, placing explosives or digging attack tunnels.
Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several smaller battles over the years, and earlier this month there was fierce fighting in Gaza between Israel and the smaller Islamic Jihad terror group.
Last year, a birdcatcher was shot dead by Israeli troops — Israel said troops fired at the man after he suspiciously approached the border with two other men — and Palestinian human rights groups say several trappers were fired on.
Once they’ve caught their prey, the trappers return to the bustling towns of Gaza, where they sell the parakeets to pet stores. Al-Najjar says he gets 30 shekels (about $10) for a pair of parakeets. Some pet stores in Gaza resell a pair for twice as much.
There is little or no regulation of the bird trade in Gaza, where unemployment hovers around 50%. Catching migratory birds such as swallows and quail, as well as native species such as goldfinches, has severely depleted the local population.
But by catching the parakeets, they may be doing the region a favor. The population of invasive parakeets and myrna – a bird of the starling family – has exploded over the past 15 years, reducing the populations of local species such as the house sparrow and the white-faced bulbul.
A 2019 survey by Israeli researchers found that 75% of Israel’s most common bird species have declined in the past 15 years, while the population of invasive species has grown at rates between 250% and more than 800%.
Abdel Fattah Abd Rabou, a professor of environmental sciences at the Islamic University of Gaza, said the parakeets threaten native birds like hoopoes because they occupy their breeding grounds. They can also plague 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 restricts traffic in and out of the narrow coastal strip, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians. Israel says the closures are necessary to contain Hamas and prevent arms imports, while Palestinians and human rights groups see it as a form of collective punishment.
“There is no work and nothing to fill my time with except hunting,” al-Najjar said, inspecting a parakeet tied to dry branches that he intended 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 takes care of me.”
Times of Israel contributors contributed to this article.