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Gaza Strip – “You only have one chance to catch your prey, even if it flies,” Nasser Taeimah told Al Jazeera.
He was describing one of his most dangerous hunting trips along Gaza‘s border in the eastern part of al-Maghazi refugee camp.
While Israeli military jeeps patrolled the border, a flock of wild ducks flew across the sky. But as he watched his prey soar, Nasser, an 11-year-old boy with piercing eyes, could not risk taking a shot.
“I didn’t have enough time, [even though] I had spent more than six hours waiting for the ducks,” Nasser said. “I just told my brother to follow the Israeli soldiers’ movements while I continued to hunt, but the ducks quickly disappeared.”
Later, Nasser had the luck to spot another flock; as his brother watched the Israeli soldiers, a few minutes passed, but it felt like years, he said. The two brothers were determined to catch their prey, but they did not want to risk being caught by Israeli soldiers for being in an area of Gaza deemed “out of bounds” to the territory’s residents.
Nasser prepared his silenced hunting gun and simulated a duck call. As the flock moved closer to the ground, he took his shot and hit several ducks, but they fell behind the Israeli fence.
Using a branch from an olive tree, he managed to pull the fallen ducks towards him and through a small gap in the fence – but then he and his brother, Saker, heard shots fired from the Israeli side. It was not clear who the Israelis were firing at. Shaken, the two boys hid behind a tree for more than an hour before daring to venture back towards their home.
Although Nasser and Saker – which means “falcon” in Arabic – emerged from the incident unscathed, it could have ended differently.
In most places, hunting game birds is a classic recreational sport, but the situation is different in Gaza, which has been under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian siege for the past decade. During that time, the border area has become one of the most dangerous parts of the territory.
Last year, Israeli forces killed eight Palestinians in Gaza during demonstrations at the border fence and injured around 200, according to Human Rights Watch. Israeli authorities have declared the buffer area around Gaza’s border to be a “no-go” zone, with soldiers firing at people who enter it.
Despite these dangers, Nasser – who prides himself as the youngest bird hunter among dozens who practice the sport in the Gaza Strip – insists on going there to hunt with his father and brother every Friday.
“It’s not only his talent,” his father, Khalil, told Al Jazeera. “He’s challenged his inner fears here.”
Nasser has a stutter that worsened during the 2014 Israeli bombardment of Gaza, and the condition has made him fearful of interacting with other children. He decided that succeeding as a hunter could make him more popular among his peers in Gaza, and has spent the past two years repairing shotguns in his father’s shop in al-Nusairat refugee camp. In the process, he has learned to recognise and understand the differences between various hunting weapons.
He went out on his first hunt a year ago; at the time, he could not even carry the gun, which was taller than him. His father later cut it down to match Nasser’s size.
When he first began to practice shooting, he fired on stationary objects before moving on to birds. He learned to simulate bird sounds to lure them closer before shooting them and bringing the meat home for his family to eat.
To get to the border area, Nasser, along with his father and brother, takes a 30-minute motorcycle ride from their camp. Upon arrival, Nasser does an initial scan to determine the best vantage point from which to monitor the birds’ movements, while also staying hidden from Israeli soldiers.
“Less than 500 metres separate us and the Israeli soldiers,” Nasser explained during a recent hunting trip. “But here, I find my adventure and my inner strength.”
There are more than 500 kinds of birds across Palestine, including several types of migratory birds that arrive in different seasons, according to biodiversity researcher Ayman Dardona. Over-hunting in the besieged Gaza Strip – where many families struggle to meet their basic needs for food and shelter – has had a detrimental impact on the territory’s ecological balance, he told Al Jazeera.
“Migratory birds are useful for agriculture; they work to eliminate insects and larvae, to get rid of dead animals and to pollinate plants,” Dardona noted.
Nasser says that he has caught and eaten a variety of birds over the years – everything from ducks to doves. On a recent day, after returning home from their hunt, Nasser and Saker gave their mother the birds they caught so that she could prepare them for dinner.
“We have not sold any of the birds we hunted,” Nasser said.
“We just have really adventurous times, which end by eating tasty food after a hard day. [Despite the risks], we will not stop our adventures.”