Washington Says Goodbye to Pandas Amid Bitter US-China Backdrop 

Mei Xiang, a female Giant Panda, investigates a birthday cake presented to her on his 25th birthday at the National Zoo in Washington, US, July 22, 2023.
Mei Xiang, a female Giant Panda, investigates a birthday cake presented to her on his 25th birthday at the National Zoo in Washington, US, July 22, 2023.
TT

Washington Says Goodbye to Pandas Amid Bitter US-China Backdrop 

Mei Xiang, a female Giant Panda, investigates a birthday cake presented to her on his 25th birthday at the National Zoo in Washington, US, July 22, 2023.
Mei Xiang, a female Giant Panda, investigates a birthday cake presented to her on his 25th birthday at the National Zoo in Washington, US, July 22, 2023.

No matter the distance or the weather, Jane Christensen was determined to see the giant pandas before they left Washington.

Now in her 60s, Christensen told AFP she had been captured by the species' magical cuteness over a half-century ago, when China first gifted two pandas to the United States.

"I've had 'panda-monium' ever since,' she said under a chilly rain outside the Smithsonian National Zoo's panda exhibit - hundreds of miles from her home in Michigan.

All three of the zoo's pandas are leaving for China by the end of the year, bringing at least a temporary end to a decades-old connection between the cuddly animal and the US capital.

The zoo has kicked off a week-long "Panda Palooza" event ahead of the departure, welcoming thousands of fans, many outfitted in panda-themed hats and shirts.

And while the pandas' departure had been expected due to contractual obligations, many can't help but see the shift as reflective of the growing strains between Beijing and Washington.

The first black-and-white furballs arrived from China in 1972, as a gift following then-president Richard Nixon's historic visit to the Communist-led nation.

Recognizing the species' uncanny ability to attract fans -- and a potential source of income for its conservation program -- China continued to loan out pandas to Washington and other zoos around the world, since dubbed "Panda Diplomacy."

At the Smithsonian zoo, millions of dollars have been spent on the pandas' enclosure and studies, especially related to breeding, including a popular 24-hour "Panda Cam" to monitor their behavior and health.

"We've been watching on the live cam every day leading up to this point," said Heidi Greco, who traveled hours by car from Ohio with her family.

Her daughter Stormy, who had on a panda hat and carried a just-bought panda umbrella, is "obsessed with pandas," Greco said.

The family had watched the pandas make some laps around their separate outdoor enclosures, then passed through an indoor viewing area where visitors can watch the animals eat snacks and bamboo up close.

"When I heard that these pandas were leaving, and the Atlanta Zoo pandas were leaving, and there would be no panda bears left in all of North America... (except) one very old one in Mexico, I was really, really upset," said Greco.

Zoo Atlanta, in the southern US state of Georgia, will send its four pandas to China by late 2024.

'Soft power'

Pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived in Washington in 2000, and have since had four surviving cubs. Xiao Qi Ji ("Little Miracle" in English) was born in 2020 and will also depart by December.

During Xi Jinping's state visit in 2015, the last by a Chinese leader to the United States, his wife and the US first lady held an official ceremony to unveil the name of panda cub Bei Bei.

Eight years later, with mounting tensions over Taiwan and continuing trade disputes between the two powers, the panda exhibit is about to be closed.

The Chinese government tends to "bestow" pandas on "nations with whom China's relations are on the upswing, as a form of soft power projection," said Kurt Tong, a former high-ranking US diplomat and managing partner of the Asia Group consultancy.

"In that respect, given the current tenor of US-China relations it is not surprising that Chinese authorities are allowing panda contracts with US zoos to expire," Tong said in an email to AFP.

He noted that the loans also help China "augment the panda conservation budget."

The Smithsonian pays $500,000 annually to its Chinese conservation group partner, the zoo said.

The pandas' departure "closes a major chapter of an international animal care and conservation success story," the zoo said in a statement, adding that it "remains committed to continuing its efforts to secure and safeguard a healthy future for giant pandas."

One attendee saying her goodbyes at the zoo highlighted successful efforts to grow the wild population of pandas.

"We've come a long way in getting the numbers back up," said Michaela from Maryland, who had her face painted like a panda. The species remains listed as vulnerable.

As the rain let up, a steady stream of visitors began filling the area around the panda's outdoor enclosure.

Known for being a bit sluggish, the panda made repeated laps around the acre-sized plot, climbing up and down the hills -- making sure everyone got one good, final snapshot.



Celebrity Owl Flaco Dies a Year after Becoming Beloved by New York City for Zoo Escape

A Eurasian eagle-owl named Flaco sits in a tree in New York's Central Park, Feb. 6, 2023. (AP)
A Eurasian eagle-owl named Flaco sits in a tree in New York's Central Park, Feb. 6, 2023. (AP)
TT

Celebrity Owl Flaco Dies a Year after Becoming Beloved by New York City for Zoo Escape

A Eurasian eagle-owl named Flaco sits in a tree in New York's Central Park, Feb. 6, 2023. (AP)
A Eurasian eagle-owl named Flaco sits in a tree in New York's Central Park, Feb. 6, 2023. (AP)

Flaco, the Eurasian eagle-owl who escaped from New York City’s Central Park Zoo and became one of the city’s most beloved celebrities as he flew around Manhattan, has died, zoo officials announced Friday.

A little over one year after he was freed from his cage at the zoo in a criminal act that has yet to be solved, Flaco appears to have collided with an Upper West Side building, the zoo said in a statement.

“The vandal who damaged Flaco’s exhibit jeopardized the safety of the bird and is ultimately responsible for his death,” the statement said. “We are still hopeful that the NYPD which is investigating the vandalism will ultimately make an arrest.”

Staff from the Wild Bird Fund, a wildlife rehabilitation center, responded to the scene and declared Flaco dead shortly after the collision. He was taken to the Bronx Zoo for a necropsy.

“We hoped only to see Flaco hooting wildly from the top of our local water tower, never in the clinic,” the World Bird Fund wrote in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Flaco's time in the sky began on Feb. 2, 2023, when someone breached a waist-high fence and slipped into the Central Park Zoo. Once inside, they cut a hole through a steel mesh cage, freeing the owl that had arrived at the zoo as a fledgling 13 years earlier.

Since the zoo suspended efforts to re-capture Flaco in February 2023, there has been no public information about the crime.

Until now, Flaco had defied the odds, thriving in the urban jungle despite a lifetime in captivity. He became one of the city’s most beloved characters. By day he lounged in Manhattan’s courtyards and parks or perches on fire escapes. He spent his nights hooting atop water towers and preying on the city’s abundant rats.

He was known for turning up unexpectedly at New Yorkers’ windows and was tracked around the Big Apple by bird watchers. His death prompted an outpouring of grief on social media Friday night.

One of Flaco’s most dedicated observers, David Barrett, suggested a temporary memorial at the bird's favorite oak tree in Central Park.

There, fellow birders could “lay flowers, leave a note, or just be with others who loved Flaco,” Barrett wrote in a post on X for the account Manhattan Bird Alert, which documented the bird’s whereabouts.


Saudi Coffee Tops Heritage Components in Celebrations of Founding Day

File photo: A Saudi farmer and his son harvest Khawlani coffee beans at a coffee farm in the southwestern region of Jazan on January 26, 2022. (AFP)
File photo: A Saudi farmer and his son harvest Khawlani coffee beans at a coffee farm in the southwestern region of Jazan on January 26, 2022. (AFP)
TT

Saudi Coffee Tops Heritage Components in Celebrations of Founding Day

File photo: A Saudi farmer and his son harvest Khawlani coffee beans at a coffee farm in the southwestern region of Jazan on January 26, 2022. (AFP)
File photo: A Saudi farmer and his son harvest Khawlani coffee beans at a coffee farm in the southwestern region of Jazan on January 26, 2022. (AFP)

A heritage corner was set up during Saudi Arabia’s Founding Day celebrations at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs branch in the Al-Baha region, SPA said on Friday.
It showcased ideas through which the participants expressed their pride in their values, heritage, and the historical depth of their country that spans three centuries. The corner featured popular foods, arts and crafts, textiles, and tools used in ancient times.
As a well-established tradition of Saudi hospitality, Saudi coffee was served in the local style.
The corner contained the most famous and distinguished types of Saudi coffee grown on the Al-Bahah region's mountain terraces.
The region includes over 200 farms and 22,000 trees of the finest types of Arabian coffee.


Saudi Ministry Launches 1st National Cultural Metaverse Platform in the World

The flag of Saudi Arabia (Asharq Al-Awsat)
The flag of Saudi Arabia (Asharq Al-Awsat)
TT

Saudi Ministry Launches 1st National Cultural Metaverse Platform in the World

The flag of Saudi Arabia (Asharq Al-Awsat)
The flag of Saudi Arabia (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The Ministry of Culture announced Friday the launch of the first national initiative in the world of the Metaverse supported by the artificial intelligence system for Generative Media Intelligence (GMI), SPA said on Saturday.
The initiative is launched in partnership with droppGroup and its World's First 'Phygital' Metaverse using Hyper ledger Fabric 2.5 block chain technology, which is represented by the Saudi Heritage Metaverse platform.
The platform offers a mix of cultural shows, performances and digital innovation powered by GMI technology, and hosts a dynamic digital environment that allows users to experience many activities and attractions "in real life".
This includes engaging cultural attractions such as the History Walk, sectors dedicated to music, art, history, culinary arts, and crafts, as well as mini-video games. The Performance Center will also stream live events including the Founding Day Commencement Symphony Concert on the ministry's Metaverse platform.
The Ministry of Culture's Metaverse platform is a fully immersive, and web-based experience ready for Mobile XR, ensuring accessibility across a wide range of devices, whether through mobile phones, VR headsets, desktops and other digital devices, as the users are guaranteed a seamless entry into the Metaverse to embody the Ministry of Culture’s commitment to inclusivity, enabling a diverse global audience to explore and participate in the rich history of Saudi culture.
This experience enables millions from the Kingdom, and from all over the world, to experience Saudi events in the Metaverse, which represents a turning point in cultural participation, and this initiative represents a major leap in the future of cultural expression and participation.


More Australian Towns Threatened by Massive Bushfire 

A CFA strike team is seen at a fire near Raglan in Victoria, Friday, February 23, 2024. (AAP)
A CFA strike team is seen at a fire near Raglan in Victoria, Friday, February 23, 2024. (AAP)
TT

More Australian Towns Threatened by Massive Bushfire 

A CFA strike team is seen at a fire near Raglan in Victoria, Friday, February 23, 2024. (AAP)
A CFA strike team is seen at a fire near Raglan in Victoria, Friday, February 23, 2024. (AAP)

Fresh evacuation warnings were issued on Friday for dozens of rural Australian towns as around 1,000 firefighters battled a bushfire in Victoria state which has destroyed properties, killed livestock and is threatening to spread through towns.

More than 2,000 people on Thursday fled from towns in Victoria's west after emergency evacuation orders were issued to leave while it was still safe and head east to the nearby regional hub of Ballarat, 95 km (59 miles) west of Melbourne.

Firefighters, supported by more than 50 aircraft, battled to contain the massive blaze on Friday. Roughly 11,000 hectares (110 square kms) have been burnt, authorities said.

"We are sadly hearing reports of property loss that are starting to come through," Victoria state Premier Jacinta Allan said during a press briefing.

"Given the active nature of the fire and the difficult terrain in the area, it is going to take some time to assess the full extent of the damage."

At least two schools have been closed and students in four have been relocated to other schools, while around 5,000 properties are without power across Victoria.

Stronger-than-expected winds are spreading fires faster and closer to towns as emergency crews urged residents to take shelter indoors if unable to leave.

A cold front off Australia's south coast moved overnight to the regions in the east battling bushfires, pushing temperatures down but strong winds continued to fan the wildfires.

"Unfortunately, those winds did not drop to where we thought they were going to be and that is what led the fire to accelerate where it did," said Jason Heffernan, chief officer of Victoria state fire department.

Emergency crews would begin taking stock of damages from Friday though early reports indicate significant losses of sheds and livestock as the fire spreads through several farms, Heffernan said. One home has been confirmed lost.


Private Lander Makes 1st US Moon Landing in More Than 50 Years

Intuitive Machines employees cheer during a watch party moments after they became the first commercial company to softly land on the moon on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Houston. ( Raquel Natalicchio/Houston Chronicle via AP)
Intuitive Machines employees cheer during a watch party moments after they became the first commercial company to softly land on the moon on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Houston. ( Raquel Natalicchio/Houston Chronicle via AP)
TT

Private Lander Makes 1st US Moon Landing in More Than 50 Years

Intuitive Machines employees cheer during a watch party moments after they became the first commercial company to softly land on the moon on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Houston. ( Raquel Natalicchio/Houston Chronicle via AP)
Intuitive Machines employees cheer during a watch party moments after they became the first commercial company to softly land on the moon on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Houston. ( Raquel Natalicchio/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Odysseus, a private lander, on Thursday made the first US touchdown on the moon in more than 50 years, but managed just a weak signal back until flight controllers scrambled to gain better contact.

Despite the spotty communication, Intuitive Machines, the company that built and managed the craft, confirmed that it had landed upright. But it did not provide additional details, including whether the lander had reached its intended destination near the moon’s south pole. The company ended its live webcast soon after identifying a lone, weak signal from the lander.

“What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” mission director Tim Crain reported as tension built in the company’s Houston control center.

“I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon,” added Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus.

Data was finally starting to stream in, according to a company announcement two hours after touchdown.

A previous moonshot by another American company last month ended in failure, raising the stakes to demonstrate that private industry had what it took to repeat a feat last achieved by US space agency NASA during its manned Apollo 17 mission in 1972.


Music Beats the Blues in Tunisian Youth Project

Students attend a music class financed by the after-school club Tunisia 88, at the Haffouz secondary school in Tunisia's northern Kairouan region on February 2, 2024. (Photo by FETHI BELAID / AFP)
Students attend a music class financed by the after-school club Tunisia 88, at the Haffouz secondary school in Tunisia's northern Kairouan region on February 2, 2024. (Photo by FETHI BELAID / AFP)
TT

Music Beats the Blues in Tunisian Youth Project

Students attend a music class financed by the after-school club Tunisia 88, at the Haffouz secondary school in Tunisia's northern Kairouan region on February 2, 2024. (Photo by FETHI BELAID / AFP)
Students attend a music class financed by the after-school club Tunisia 88, at the Haffouz secondary school in Tunisia's northern Kairouan region on February 2, 2024. (Photo by FETHI BELAID / AFP)

The Tunisian town of Haffouz lies in an impoverished region known for high rates of joblessness and suicide, but every Friday traditional music and techno beats lift spirits in a dilapidated classroom.

Local children and teenagers come together in the afternoon to compose and rehearse music for a creative break from their bleak surroundings in the dust bowl of central Tunisia, Agence France Presse reported.

"It's a place of escape and to free yourself from the stress of school, to compose songs, organize outings, take part in events," said the club's elected leader, Eya Makhloufi, 16, who plays the electric organ.

The after-school music club project is called Tunisia 88 -- a reference to the number of keys on a piano -- and aims to get youngsters to develop their creative and leadership skills, AFP said.

It has engaged 5,000 to 10,000 youths a year across Tunisia's almost 600 schools since it was founded in 2017 by US concert pianist Kimball Gallagher and Tunisian entrepreneur Radhi Meddeb.

Local clubs put on concerts and compete nationwide for the best song and best event, all entirely organized by the students.

"They do everything on their own," even looking for sponsors, said Rabaa Mwelhi, coordinator of Tunisia 88 clubs.

The goal, she said, "is not really music itself but that they work as a team, learn to manage everyday stress, and work within a limited deadline".

Gallagher, 43, said the clubs cater to young musicians but also those interested in graphic design, videography and public communication with venues and art centers.

Each club, he said, "is a protected space where young people can express themselves, make their voices heard and convey very interesting messages: extreme emotions, the fulfilment of women, the state of the country, their dreams, the environment".

"For us, a student is not an empty glass to be filled, but a seed that we plant and which will grow if we offer the right conditions," added Gallagher, whose project provides instruments, teachers and training in musical creativity and leadership skills.


China Plans to Send More Pandas to US Zoo

A Chinese giant panda male Ru Yi eats bamboo at its enclosure at the Moscow Zoo in Moscow on February 13, 2024, as the zoo celebrates its 160th anniversary. (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP)
A Chinese giant panda male Ru Yi eats bamboo at its enclosure at the Moscow Zoo in Moscow on February 13, 2024, as the zoo celebrates its 160th anniversary. (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP)
TT

China Plans to Send More Pandas to US Zoo

A Chinese giant panda male Ru Yi eats bamboo at its enclosure at the Moscow Zoo in Moscow on February 13, 2024, as the zoo celebrates its 160th anniversary. (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP)
A Chinese giant panda male Ru Yi eats bamboo at its enclosure at the Moscow Zoo in Moscow on February 13, 2024, as the zoo celebrates its 160th anniversary. (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP)

China said Thursday it had signed agreements to send pandas to a zoo in San Diego, after nearly all the beloved black-and-white animals on loan in the United States were returned during years of diplomatic tensions.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a regular press briefing that "Chinese institutions have already signed agreements with... the San Diego Zoo in the US".

The agreement centered "on a new round of cooperation in giant panda protection", she said.

A deal was also signed with a zoo in Madrid, and Beijing is in talks with zoos in Washington and Vienna, she added, according to AFP.

China has long deployed the fluffy envoys to various countries as "panda diplomacy", often to further its foreign policy aims.

Tensions between Washington and Beijing mean that only a handful of the bears remain in the United States, with three having left the national zoo in Washington in November.

The last remaining pandas in the United States, currently at a zoo in the southern city of Atlanta, are due to return to China by late 2024.

But after a meeting last year with US President Joe Biden, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said that China could send new pandas as "envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American people."

The White House said it would be happy to have more of the bamboo-chewing bears.

"Giant pandas are a national treasure of China and are deeply loved by people all over the world," Mao said on Thursday.

"We look forward to a new round of international cooperation on the protection of giant pandas with the relevant countries," she said.

There are an estimated 1,860 giant pandas left in the wild, according to environmental group WWF, and about 600 in captivity in panda centers, zoos and wildlife parks worldwide.


Eurovision Scrutinizes Israel's Song Lyrics amid Gaza Furor

An Israeli tank maneuvers near the Israel-Gaza border, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, as seen from Israel, February 22, 2024. REUTERS/Susana Vera
An Israeli tank maneuvers near the Israel-Gaza border, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, as seen from Israel, February 22, 2024. REUTERS/Susana Vera
TT

Eurovision Scrutinizes Israel's Song Lyrics amid Gaza Furor

An Israeli tank maneuvers near the Israel-Gaza border, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, as seen from Israel, February 22, 2024. REUTERS/Susana Vera
An Israeli tank maneuvers near the Israel-Gaza border, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, as seen from Israel, February 22, 2024. REUTERS/Susana Vera

Eurovision Song Contest organizers are scrutinizing the Israeli submission after lyrics leaked to the media appeared to refer to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that triggered the Gaza war.

Eurovision, which this year will take place on May 7-11 in the Swedish city of Malmo, bills itself as a non-political event and can disqualify contestants deemed to have breached that rule, Reuters reported.

Israel's entry, "October Rain", is a ballad sung by female soloist Eden Golan.

According to the Israel Hayom newspaper, it includes lines such as "There's no air left to breathe" and "They were all good children, each one of them" - apparent allusions to people who holed up in shelters as Hamas gunmen carried out a killing and kidnapping spree at an outdoor music festival and other sites.

The song also contains a reference to "flowers" which, Israel Hayom said, is military code for war fatalities. A source in national broadcaster Kan, which sponsors the Israeli entry, confirmed to Reuters that the leaked lyrics were accurate.

In a statement, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organizes Eurovision, said it is "in the process of scrutinizing the lyrics, a process which is confidential between the EBU and the broadcaster until a final decision has been taken.

"If a song is deemed unacceptable for any reason, broadcasters are then given the opportunity to submit a new song or new lyrics, as per the rules of the contest," the EBU added.

Kan said it was "in dialogue" with the EBU about the issue.

Israeli Culture Minister Miki Zohar said in a post on X that any decision to disqualify "October Rain" would be "scandalous".

He denied that the song is political, saying it "gives voice to the feelings of the people and the country nowadays".


Saudi Arabia: NEOM Announces Unique Wellness Retreat Embedded in Nature

Elanan is situated on the pristine Gulf of Aqaba coastline where the mountains meet the sea. SPA
Elanan is situated on the pristine Gulf of Aqaba coastline where the mountains meet the sea. SPA
TT

Saudi Arabia: NEOM Announces Unique Wellness Retreat Embedded in Nature

Elanan is situated on the pristine Gulf of Aqaba coastline where the mountains meet the sea. SPA
Elanan is situated on the pristine Gulf of Aqaba coastline where the mountains meet the sea. SPA

The Board of Directors of NEOM has announced Elanan, an exclusive guest retreat that redefines luxury and well-being experiences, set in the heart of nature.

Its announcement marks the latest addition to NEOM – the evolving sustainable development taking shape in northwest Saudi Arabia.

Situated on the pristine Gulf of Aqaba coastline where the mountains meet the sea, Elanan sensitively emerges from within its lush oasis surroundings, fed by ancient natural springs. Featuring 80 bespoke rooms and suites, the retreat is designed with well-being at its core, offering a unique nature resort that embraces all the senses.

Elanan takes a modern approach to wellness, perfectly blending new technologies in a discreet luxurious setting that promotes relaxation and reflection. The signature facilities provide numerous options for guests to embrace themselves in tranquility, rest and recharge.

Elanan's architectural vision is underpinned by innovation and natural harmony. Utilizing ultra-modern design techniques, it creates intricate sculptures that delicately blend with the surrounding natural beauty. It boasts a contemporary aesthetic but retains a synergy with nature, creating a unique architectural experience for all to enjoy.

Guests can explore the large plazas, enjoy specialty private dining, find relaxation in the sun garden, or soak up the spectacular views from the top of the observation tower. From the moment visitors arrive, they begin a rejuvenating journey within the calming embrace of nature.

The revealing of Elanan follows the recent announcements of Leyja, Epicon, Siranna, Utamo, Norlana, Aquellum, Zardun, and Xaynor which are sustainable tourism destinations within the Gulf of Aqaba, all interlaced by NEOM's commitment to sustainable development.


Pet Dogs Bring Both Joy and Worry to Displaced Gaza Teenager 

Displaced Palestinian teenager Hassan Abu Saman holds his dog on a beach, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, February 20, 2024. (Reuters)
Displaced Palestinian teenager Hassan Abu Saman holds his dog on a beach, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, February 20, 2024. (Reuters)
TT

Pet Dogs Bring Both Joy and Worry to Displaced Gaza Teenager 

Displaced Palestinian teenager Hassan Abu Saman holds his dog on a beach, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, February 20, 2024. (Reuters)
Displaced Palestinian teenager Hassan Abu Saman holds his dog on a beach, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, February 20, 2024. (Reuters)

Keeping three dogs while living in a tent on a beach in Gaza complicates an already difficult situation, but the smile on teenager Hassan Abu Saman's face when he pets the animals shows that it's worth the trouble for him.

A passionate dog lover since childhood, he had 16 of them before the Israel-Hamas war that has devastated the Gaza Strip, but managed to take just three of them, Mofaz, Lucy and Dahab, when he fled his home in Al-Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza.

"When things settled, I was able to secure a car to go and get the rest, but when I got back, I did not find any of them, they were lost. I went back a second time to look for them and found the house bombed," said Abu Saman, 17.

He is one of the estimated 1.5 million Palestinians crammed into Rafah in southern Gaza, close to the boundary with Egypt, to escape from Israel's military onslaught -- although Israel has said it was planning a ground offensive there too.

Abu Saman is living in a sprawling tent camp in a beach area on the outskirts of Rafah, along with family members and the three dogs, who follow him everywhere he goes. They are popular with camp children who take turns stroking them.

Abu Saman referred to the dogs as "my friends from another kind" and spoke about them as he would about people.

"He has been feeling so down because of the war," he said of Mofaz, the largest of the three.

Finding enough food was a problem for dogs as well as humans, and Abu Saman said Lucy and Dahab had lost weight because they usually ate a special kind of dog food that was no longer available.

The future was uncertain for the teenager, his family and his beloved pets.

"If we were to return, the house is flattened. He does not have a house or anything," he said, referring to Mofaz, who he was stroking while talking.

The war was triggered by Hamas militants who attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking 253 hostage, according to Israel.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel has responded with an air and ground assault on Gaza that has killed more than 29,000 people, according to local health officials. It has also displaced most of the population of 2.3 million, caused widespread hunger and reduced much of the territory to rubble.