A sheep plague has been racking flocks in the northern Jordan Valley and has so far killed about 200 lambs and infected dozens of sheep. This is the season that sheep give birth and the lambs are sold, so the epidemic has caused the shepherds heavy financial damage.
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Flocks belonging to six groups of Palestinian shepherds have reportedly been affected, but hardest hit has been the flock of Burhan Bisharat of the community of Khalet Makhul. The disease, which is caused by the virus peste des petits ruminants, also known as goat plague, cannot be transmitted to humans.
As in Israel, in Palestinian Authority areas immunization against peste is not obligatory. But now, once high mortality of lambs was discovered in several flocks, the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry immunized at least 17,000 animals in the northern Jordan Valley.
The ministry has issued instructions about precautionary measures; for example, the carcasses must be buried in deep pits with lime spread on top. Shepherds said they had hitherto been burning the carcasses.
Nearly two weeks ago, sheep carcasses were discovered near Ein al-Hilweh in the Jordan Valley that had been tossed near a natural spring with little flowing water, not far from a Palestinian community.
A retired Israeli veterinarian who joined activists of the rights group Machsom Watch on a field trip saw the carcasses and says they were of the Merino breed, which as far as he knows are only bred by Israelis (on both sides of the Israel-West Bank border). Palestinian shepherds said they did not keep the breed.
But Dr. Tamir Goshen, deputy director of the Israeli Agriculture Ministry’s veterinary services, said late last week that his office had not received any complaints about an unusual mortality rate among Israeli flocks. “If there was widespread mortality, we most likely would have heard about it,” he said.
A Palestinian veterinarian in the Tubas area said he and his colleagues did not know where the carcasses came from.
The Palestinian Agriculture Ministry has no system for compensating shepherds for their loss of income. The affected shepherds live in communities that Israel prohibits from putting up new animal pens and tents for dwelling. It also prevents them from connecting to the water and electricity networks, and the communities often fall victim to demolitions by the Israeli authorities.
These communities are among the poorest in the region. The affected communities – Khalet Makhul, Farisiya, Homsa, Ein al-Hilweh and Umm Jamal – have also waged a legal battle against Israel’s demand to uproot them.
One guideline from the Palestinian Agricultural Ministry is to isolate the healthy lambs and the sheep ready to give birth. The shepherds have expressed concerns that Israel’s Civil Administration will consider any new pens illegal construction and use that as a pretext for their demolition.
But the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry and the Civil Administration’s agriculture unit have reportedly been exchanging information and coordinating the efforts needed to stop the epidemic.