Wayward camels cause tension on Israel-Egypt border

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

CAIRO/TELAVIV: Every year, hundreds of camels cross the border from Egypt into Israel. Some wander into Israel unwittingly, in search of greener pastures to graze, while others are deliberately sent from Egypt to smuggle in drugs or other illicit materials.

Israeli authorities are concerned that the camels wondering into Israel from other countries could be carrying deadly diseases, like Rift Valley fever.

Once a camel or any other animal sets foot on Israeli soil, sending them back into Egypt is not a viable option, since there is no way to prove which country these unmarked animals are from.

“In some of the areas surrounding us, the veterinary supervision is not as stringent as it is in Israel and since diseases know no borders, we have to do all we can to prevent them from getting in, Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture told The Media Line.

There is also speculation that sending them back into Egypt could cause a diplomatic row between the two countries, with fear that it might send out the underlying message that the Egyptian veterinary services are not good enough for Israel and that exposing Egyptians to disease is less important than exposing Israelis.

In hundreds of cases, the camels are allegedly put down by the Israeli authorities, a move that is drawing fire from Israeli animal welfare organizations. In some cases, Israeli army patrols have shot and killed camels during pursuits of smugglers.

Etti Altman, director of the Let Animals Live organization, claims that thousands of camels have infiltrated the border from the Egyptian Sinai desert into Israel over the past three years, when she first became aware of the problem and reckons that around 300 have been killed.

“If they posed such a danger, they would have put up a fence along the border, she says.

Egypt shares a 266 kilometer-long border with Israel, which is mostly comprised of low barbed wire that is often breached by illegal immigrants and smugglers.

Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement 30 years ago and today maintain cold but cordial relations.

Camels, which are in abundance in the Sinai desert, are apparently not deterred by the modest boundary and frequently wander into Israeli territories.

When this happens, the Israeli army has orders not to approach them or capture them, but to alert the relevant authorities and turn them over to the Agriculture Ministry. Israeli military sources, however, said that when they do capture contraband-laden camels, they remove the saddles and send them back to Egypt where they instinctively return to their herd.

Altman is currently following the case of two camels that were caught in late August on the Egyptian border, held on the border and have since then “vanished, in her words.

Despite her protests, and her issuing a court order against putting them down, she claims the ministry has probably killed them, purely for political reasons of ego and honor.

“They won’t stand for an NGO defeating the ministry because they want the last word, she says.

But the Israeli Agriculture Ministry said the issue of how to deal with the wayward camels was complex and even a matter of life and death.

“The veterinary services at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development are tasked with protecting the health of the public and the animals against animal diseases, a spokeswoman said. “Within this framework, the ministry is responsible for collecting camels which cross the border from Egypt, out of concern that they are carrying diseases that don’t exist in Israel and pose a health threat, and even danger of death, to humans and animals. For example, many camels carry Rift Valley fever which can cause blindness in humans and even death.

An Israeli camel expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Media Line that the first measure that had to be taken was to build a proper barrier across the border, to stop camels from wandering into Israel.

This frequently happens because Israel has greener areas and the camels are naturally drawn to them.

The second step is to build a quarantine center on the border where crossing camels will be kept until it has been verified they are not carrying diseases, before they are returned to Egypt.

Such a center, in theory, would accommodate veterinarians from both sides, to ensure that neither country is facing a health hazard.

But the Ministry of Agriculture said this solution was far from ideal.

“The diseases that camels could be carrying are, in many cases, diseases that have no visible symptoms and no antibodies in the blood. So even if camels are kept in quarantine for a long period, there is still a substantial danger they will spread diseases when they are released, the ministry said.

“Because of this, the decision to kill camels entering Israel through the Egyptian border is necessary. This is the way the ministry protects public and animal health, and human life is the primary principle we have to think of.

But there are objections to this viewpoint.

“That’s nonsense, Altman said. “Hundreds of camels are entering the country and leaving every day. Throughout the year hundreds of camels cross the border and back again and there have been no diseases. I say it’s all about ego and has nothing to do with diseases, she said.

The camel expert said it all depends on what you want to emphasize.

“Most diseases do have visible symptoms, he said. “It’s all a matter of what you stress and that boils down to politics. It seems there’s a PR matter here, but there’s a difference between what they’re saying and what happens on the ground. They caught two camels a few weeks ago and they were kept at a crossing while the courts bickered. If it’s such a health hazard how come they let them hang out at the crossing?

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