JERUSALEM – A woman with three crocodiles strapped to her waist was stopped at the Gaza-Egypt border crossing after guards noticed that she looked "strangely fat," officials said Monday.
The woman's shape raised suspicions at the Rafah terminal in southern Gaza, and a body search by a female border guard turned up the animals, each about 20 inches long, concealed underneath her loose robe, according to Maria Telleria, spokeswoman for the European observers who run the crossing.
"The woman looked strangely fat. Even though she was veiled and covered, even with so many clothes on there was something strange," Telleria said.
The incident, which took place on Thursday, sparked panic at the crossing.
"The policewoman screamed and ran out of the room, and then women began screaming and panicking when they heard," Telleria said. But when the hysteria died down, she said, "everybody was admiring a woman who is able to tie crocodiles to her body."
In her defense, the woman said she "was asked" to carry the crocodiles, said Wael Dahab, a spokesman for the Palestinian guards at the crossing. She was permitted to cross without the animals.
The reptiles, which had their jaws tied shut with string, were returned to the Egyptian side of the border.
Dahab said the animals were likely meant for sale to Gaza's small zoo or to private owners. The crocodiles would fetch "good money," even in the impoverished territory, he said. In Gaza, the animals can fetch about $500 -- roughly two months' salary for a low-ranking policeman.
The woman was not the first to try to illegally smuggle exotic wildlife through the Rafah crossing, Dahab said: another woman tried to bring in a monkey tied to her chest, and other travelers tried to smuggle in exotic birds and a tiger cub. Border guards more frequently confiscate cigarettes, prescription drugs and car parts.
The crossing is the only way in and out of Gaza for residents of the crowded coastal strip.
Since Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, the crossing has subject to a complex system of control: Egypt and the Palestinians are responsible for the crossing, with European monitors stationed at the terminal and Israeli inspectors watching from a distance over closed-circuit TV.
Israel retains final say over whether the crossing can open, and has kept it closed over 80 percent of the time since an Israeli soldier was captured by Hamas-linked militants in Gaza nine months ago, charging that the crossing is being used to smuggle money and weapons to militants.