Donkey power is king on restricted West Bank

Ayed Samamri sniffs the goaty fug of hay and dung, and grins. Around him, the Dhahiriyah animal market - a braying, bleating festival of capitalism - is booming.

The gravel lot is thick with men haggling over sheep, scrutinizing horses' teeth, eyeing gangly young camels. Vendors lay skewers of lamb over glowing embers. Sage-scented tea perfumes the breeze, a sweet top note in the musky air.

Amid the hubbub, Mr. Samamri happily notes that donkeys are in demand. That means the stocky farmer, sidesaddle on his pregnant burro, Zarqa, is sitting on a gold mine.

During 34 months of conflict, Israel has blocked most West Bank roads in an effort to stop suicide bombers. But damming the movement of people and goods is choking the Palestinian economy. In response, Palestinians are turning to donkeys, making an age-old economic engine one of the West Bank's hottest commodities.

"There's $200 inside this donkey already!" exults Samamri, tapping Zarqa's white mane with a beefy finger. "Prices keep getting higher. I heard of a donkey that went for $1,600," he adds, voice and eyebrows rising in happy unison.

Across towns and cities in the West Bank, farmers tell the same story of rising donkey prices and scarce supply. As the summer bounty of plums, melons, and tomatoes ripens, everyone is looking for ways to get their goods from soil to souk.

Fifteen donkeys were on offer when the Dhahiriyah market opened at 6 a.m. Three and a half hours later, just one nameless burro stands patiently in the heat, its neck festooned with a garland of pink and yellow plastic beads. Its owner, a taut, wiry man named Faisal Ali, looks a little sour.

"Someone offered me $750 for her, but I know I can get $1,000," he grouses. "There's a shortage of donkeys now because there's a great need for them."

Roads turned to rubble

Since the Israeli-Palestinian second intifada began in September 2000, Israel has worked to control Palestinian movement in an attempt to disrupt suicide bombers and their helpers.

"We are aware that [this is] seriously disrupting and disturbing life for many Palestinians, we wish [them] to lead a normal life," says Israeli Defense Force (IDF) spokeswoman, Maj. Sharon Feingold. "Yet due to the violent activity of Palestinian terrorist organizations, we are compelled to take measures."

Aid workers estimate that the IDF has cut off, dug up, or gated shut the roads leading to 80 percent of West Bank villages. The IDF says it has no figures on blocked roads, but driving through the territory's rolling, stone-studded hills and olive groves, it is common to see an exit sign followed by a towering pile of dirt and rubble where the road once ran.

The group Physicians for Human Rights Israel says strictures on movement have tightened in the past few months, even as political negotiations resume. At major cities, where some entry roads still exist, the army recently imposed a system in which goods must be transferred from incoming trucks to local vehicles that are allowed inside cities and towns.

"There's no way to use a car. How can you move goods across the road barricades?" asks Mr. Ali, the donkey trader, who answers himself with a salesman's flourish. "You need a donkey!" He has gained an audience of thin, sun-baked men who rest their work-hardened hands on the donkey's back and murmur in agreement.

"The Israelis have sent us back 100 years," shouts one, Yusif Mohammed, a contractor turned animal trader. In the crowd of traditionally robed men, he stands out in his dusty business suit, a vestige of his lost life.

Indeed, restrictions on movement have led to a free fall in general welfare. At one point in 2002, unemployment reached 45 percent, the World Bank says. It estimates that 60 percent of Palestinians now live on less than $2.10 a day, compared with 21 percent before the conflict began.

The World Bank warns in a recent report that restrictions on movement will continue to "throttle the economy," but notes that it still functions because of donor support, strong family networks, and widespread lending and sharing.

Musbar Attrash, who lives near Halhul, a town 30 minutes north of Dhahiriyah, uses a borrowed mare along with his own donkey to get his plums to market.

Halhul and its market are cut off by a small mountain of rubble and soil heaped on the road, which means Mr. Attrash's two-mile trip has become a sweaty, nerve-racking, two-hour obstacle course of barricades and busy highway crossings.

Attrash has to hustle his steeds across Route 60, a major West Bank artery, because he's effectively barred from using it. The IDF has segregated roads in response to Palestinian drive-by shootings, so major highways are now reserved for Israeli settlers only. For many Palestinians, walking is often the only alternative.

"If I don't walk my crops in, I'll lose everything," Mr. Attrash says bitterly as he shoves his donkey off the highway and onto the shoulder. Once he gets her to the Halhul barricade he will have to pay a bus driver $12 to carry his plums the rest of the way, a deep bite into the $45 worth of crops the donkey carries in 18 tightly stacked boxes.

Attrash falls silent as he watches a car zoom down Route 60 toward Israeli settlements near Hebron. "They say there's a road map that will make our road easier," he says, referring to the US-backed peace plan now under way. "Empty promises," he scoffs. He slaps his donkey's flank, sending the burro doggedly up the steeply graded hill that separates them from Halhul. The borrowed mare follows haltingly, her long legs churning in the dust.

Better than a horse

Traders at the Dhahiriyah animal market say that if you're looking for alternative transport, a donkey is a much better deal than a horse.

"Donkeys consume less food than a horse and take up less space," explains donkey trader Ali. "They're calm and gentle and if you need to" - he fires off a command to a small boy who scampers away and returns with a lamb, bullying it along until it's beneath the donkey - "you can keep your sheep underneath them!"

Palestinians aren't sentimental about their donkeys - they are workers, not pets, one reason why they are rarely named - but they respect the animals for their steadfast natures. Indeed, some literature use the donkey as a symbol of the Palestinian people and their resilience.

But the Dhahiriyah men have no time to talk literature. Ali, the business-suited Mr. Mohammed, and others in the crowd are too busy firing off pointers for the would-be donkey owner.

"Look at their teeth!" says one.

"No, no, much more important to look the donkey's mother," counters another. "That's how you get an idea about your donkey's size and strength."

Someone else throws out a tip about good height and long legs and then there's a sudden lull in the din.

The men turn in unison to appraise Ali's unsold, unnamed donkey, which has stood amid the crush and the noise without budging.

"I know," says Mohammed, breaking into a laugh and turning to Ali. "You can name him after [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon." [Editor's note: The original version of this article mischaracterized an animal trader's comments.]

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