QALQILYA, West Bank (Reuters) - Shouts of joy from excited schoolboys greeted the arrival of an Israeli convoy on its entry to a Palestinian town where visitors from the Jewish state are usually soldiers searching for militants.

Tel Aviv-area natives Gvir, Grass and Nabuko were so apprehensive about their arrival into Qalqilya, where Israelis are usually greeted with bullets or stones rather than cheers, that their tongues lolled and drool dripped down their chins.

"They'll be the main attraction," said Dr Sami Khader, the veterinarian and taxidermist at the native born Israelis' new home, the Qalqilya zoo. "(Lions) are the king of any zoo. Without a king, you've got a problem."

The three lions, along with two adolescent zebras and a deer, were gifts to Qalqilya Zoo from the Ramat Gan Safari park in central Israel, institutions that have maintained close ties despite nearly four years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

The warm friendship between the zoos and their staffs contrasts sharply with the hostility and suspicion that usually characterizes relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

But both the Palestinian vet and his Israeli counterparts believe a shared love of animals may help their warring peoples build a bridge to peace.

"If we forge lots of little links then maybe it will result in one big connection and better understanding between the two peoples," said Israeli vet Motke Levison, who escorted the animals to Qalqilya.


In the past, before the Palestinian uprising began in 2000, Israelis would pack the streets of Qalqilya and nearby villages to shop for fruit and vegetables. Some even visited the zoo.

Palestinian residents of Qalqilya, which sits on the West Bank's border with Israel, entered the Jewish state to work and sometimes even take their children to the Ramat Gan Safari park.

But Israeli army roadblocks and an internationally condemned barrier blocking Qalqilya off from Israel has made it difficult for Palestinians to enter the Jewish state.