An extraordinary international conference will be taking place in Palestine in May. During the three-day event, organised by the Palestinian Animal League (PAL), participants will not just focus on the plight of animals in a land under occupation. The conference will highlight the fact that animal and human rights intersect.
The conference, entitled “Defending Palestine: Liberating the People, the Land, and Animals”, will take place from May 3 to 6 at the Youth Village¹ in Palestine’s West Bank. It will include tours of Bethlehem, Jericho, Ramallah, and Jerusalem.
“We see the goal of seeking justice for people and animals as interlinked challenges that can, and should, be tackled in tandem,” said PAL’s executive director Ahmad Safi. “We cannot wait until the end of occupation to build a society where there are equal rights for all.”
PAL, which has international representatives in Poland, Italy and Spain, was set up in 2011 and is the only locally run animal protection organisation operating within the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
“The organisation was founded by a group of young people who became aware of the consequences of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian children,” Safi (pictured left) said.
“Growing up in a violent environment caused by the occupation has led children who are stressed, fearful, and angry to release those emotions by being violent to each other and to animals.”
The members of the PAL team are working to break this circle of violence and negativity by teaching young people about animal and human rights.
“We want to show them that animals are not tools or slaves, but are beings that are equal to us,” Safi explains. “We are working with schoolchildren and with students in universities.
“We have normalised the violence against us and against others. We need to change the way that people are dealing with oppression.”
PAL delivers veterinary care and is engaged in numerous other activities to improve the welfare of animals. The organisation prioritises education and raising awareness about the plight of animals and its Youth for Change project is extremely successful.
“We are seeing a new generation of young people who are growing up with a love for animals and a respect for all beings in our society,” Safi said.
PAL also runs programmes that promote the benefits of vegetarian and vegan nutrition.
“The work of PAL challenges not only the systemic abuse of animals under occupation, but the theft of native Palestinian land and life, both human and nonhuman,” Safi said.
“For PAL, animal liberation cannot be divorced from anti-colonialism, Palestinian liberation, and solidarity.”
PAL, Safi says, is strongly focused on community engagement and empowerment.
Community open days, which offer families the opportunity to learn about animal welfare and vegan and vegetarian nutrition, and are attended by more than six hundred people, are held at least once a year.
Working with other NGOs, PAL has organised fun days for children in refugee camps in the West Bank and summer camps at which youngsters are given the opportunity to take part in field trips to learn about the local environment.
Current projects include setting up veterinary clinics to provide care to animals who would otherwise be denied treatment, and the implementation of programmes to control stray animal populations humanely.
PAL is also collaborating with students and lecturers at Birzeit University in the West Bank to work on developing drafts for animal welfare laws in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. “We have been doing research, but we lack the funding to take this further,” Safi said.
The organisation is also producing a documentary entitled Nation of Their Own.
Caring for stray dogs and cats
In the West Bank, one of the most visible animal welfare problems is the population of stray dogs and cats.
“While we do not know precisely how many stray animals there are, we can see a large number of them in varying states of health,” Safi said.
“There is no relevant animal welfare legislation in place in the region and no established culture of neutering pets.”
Safi says the stray populations are made up primarily of abandoned pets and their offspring, working animals who have escaped from their owners, and their offspring. “There are also animals deliberately released into Palestine. The Israelis let loose attack dogs that have been retired from the army.”
Many local people consider dogs as a nuisance, a danger to public health and safety, and/or unclean. They are poisoned by council officials and local people, Safi says, and cats and other animals, including family pets, become victims of the lethal control campaigns.
In February 2016, PAL launched Palestine’s first trap, neuter, vaccinate, and release (TNVR) scheme in the city of Tulkarem. The league has been getting help from the UK-based charity, the Dogs Trust, formerly known as the National Canine Defence League, and is working to get funding to implement a TNVR scheme in Ramallah.
There are about a thousand stray dogs in Tulkarem city, about three hundred in Ramallah, and about nine hundred in Jericho.
PAL has produced a best-practice manual and other educational resources to help local authorities develop and implement their own TNVR programmes.
Youth for Change
The Youth for Change programme got underway in March 2015. A PAL team trained students in three universities in the West Bank to act as mentors to schoolchildren, helping the children to identify and understand animal welfare problems in their local communities and create child-led campaigns to tackle those problems.
In the first year, more than forty university students were trained by the PAL team. They learned leadership skills and were taught about animal welfare science and animal ethics (how humans should be treating animals).
They also learned how to conduct successful animal protection campaigns and, in 2015, passed on their knowledge to more than 280 children in 14 schools and community groups throughout the West Bank.
Forty more students were trained in 2016 and they educated more than four hundred children in 18 schools and community groups in Palestine.
About 240 children have already “graduated” from the Youth for Change programme this year and PAL estimates that about one thousand young people were reached by the project in 2017.
Hampered by occupation
Obstacles faced by PAL don’t exist in countries that are not under occupation, Safi says. One example is the lack of anaesthetics for stray dogs.
“Also, if we want to send money to Gaza and work there, we can’t. If we want to move from place to place we have to go through checkpoints. And there are some large organisations that refuse to donate funds to us because we are in a conflict zone.
“Sometimes we have to stop doing our work because there are mortar bombs in the street and people are dying.”
Safi says PAL cannot import any supplies for its work without the permission of the Israelis.
“When we import things from the UK or the USA, the Israelis hold them for three months and we end up paying three times the original price.”
Safi gives the example of supplies that cost 1,450 US$. PAL had to pay 2,000 US$ extra, which pushed up the cost to 3,450 US$.
Excessive regulations have made it difficult for PAL to import trap cages to catch stray dogs and veterinary kits. “We have had to go and buy kits for vets from the Israeli markets. And we had to make six of our trap cages ourselves.”
The occupied West Bank, Safi explains, is divided up into three zones: Area A, which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority; Area B, where the Palestinian Authority governs in civilian matters, but has no authority over security; and Area C, which constitutes 60 percent of the West Bank, and is under full Israeli control. “We cannot work in Area C,” Safi said.
The movement of Palestinians within the Occupied Territories is monitored at checkpoints maintained by Israel and all Palestinians need permission to cross the Green Line, which is the geopolitical border separating the West Bank from Israel proper. (There are much harsher restrictions on Palestinians living in Gaza. Very few people are accorded permits to go out of Gaza, even for emergencies such as urgent medical treatment.)
Safi gives the example of a PAL volunteer being asked to help with a stray dog found in Area C of the West Bank, for example in Hebron. “We would be asked if we could take the dog to a checkpoint so that the soldiers could then then take it to a shelter in Israel.”
There is less risk, Safi says, of being shot at a checkpoint when he is involved with a dog rescue than if he is alone. “It’s a shocking situation. The soldiers are more merciful with the dogs than with the Palestinian people.”
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Improving the lives of working animals
PAL collaborates closely with the Brooke international animal welfare charity, whose mission is to improve the lives of working horses, donkeys, and mules.
In Palestine, a large number of horses and donkeys are used as working animals – some in tourism, many in farming, and others for recreation (riding). To date, no assessment has been made of the main welfare challenges.
PAL has been working with a Bedouin community in the tourist destination, Wadi Qult, with a farming community in Tulkarem, and with a riding school in Turmus Aaya.
“The project had to be put on hold for more than a month at the end of 2015 because an upsurge in violence in the West Bank made travel from place to place dangerous for the PAL team,” Safi said. “Once it was safe to do so, the team was back in the communities, working hard.”
PAL’s recent plans to go to Wadi Qult had to be postponed because of the lethal crackdown on the “Great Return March” protest, which began on March 30 (Palestinian Land Day) and is due to continue until May 15 (Nakba, or Catastrophe Day).
On March 30, tens of thousands of people in Gaza went to the area bordering Israel, demanding the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Israeli forces firing live ammunition, rubber-coated steel bullets, and tear gas across the border have killed at least 31 people and injured more than 1,400.
PAL had intended, during its trip to Wadi Qult, to give talks to the owners of working animals and explain about the manual they have just published.
The manual is the first one to be produced in Arabic that provides information and advice about caring for working animals. It is designed not only for those who own or breed the animals, but also for vets and coordinators in local communities.
PAL’s veterinary team has provided free health checks and first aid to about 150 donkeys and horses in Palestine. They also gave advice to owners and noted significant progress after just the initial visits.
“We are seeking to implement community action plans that will be led by the animal owners themselves, supported by PAL,” Safi said.
The PAL team has also distributed much-needed medical supplies to farmers, with clear explanations about correct usage.
“Our team has focused on spreading awareness about preventive medicine and health,” Safi said. “We have given guidance about proper nutrition and the lengths of time an animal should work in the course of a day.”
PAL set up the first vegan cafeteria in Palestine, Sudfeh, in the Al-Quds University Campus in Abu Dis, Jerusalem, in late 2016. Sudfeh is also the first vegan cafeteria in the world to open in an Arab university.
The cafeteria is a completely not-for-profit initiative. All proceeds are split equally between two strands of funding: giving financial support for animal protection projects and providing scholarships for struggling students.
Sudfeh, which means serendipity in Arabic, was masterminded by a group of Palestinian schoolchildren.
Safi uses the term “vegan washing” to describe what the Israelis are doing with regard to animal welfare.
“A lot of animal rights activists are blind to what is happening in Israel, which portrays itself as a haven of enviro-veganism,” he said.
“Israel is using vegan washing in order to cover up the damage it is causing to Palestinian life and to veganism in Palestine, and is gaining international support from considerate and well-known vegans, who have intentionally or unintentionally become marketing tools in the game being played by this so-called ‘vegan paradise’.”
Campaigns like the one run by “Vibe Israel” are being perceived positively by the international vegan community, Safi says, and that community is ignoring the Palestinian “elephant in the room”, and “disregarding a seven-decade occupation, theft, and appropriation of the culture and history of Palestine”.
Israel is one of the biggest meat consumers in the world, with more than 80 kilograms of meat eaten per capita per year, Safi says. “And it is by far the biggest poultry consumer in the world, with more than 57 kilograms of poultry eaten per capita per year.”
Animal testing in Israel is on the rise, Safi adds. “Half of animal testing involves the maximum pain allowed and nearly every animal is killed after the testing.”
Much of the production of vegan products consumed in Israel takes place in the illegal Israeli settlements inside the Palestinian territories, Safi says.
“This poses a moral dilemma for vegans who are also human rights activists as a lot of the vegan food found in Israel was produced in stolen land, inside settlements that violate international law.”
Safi quotes Israeli law professor Aeyal Gross (pictured left), who wrote in an opinion column in Haaretz: “In Tel Aviv today, it is far easier to find food whose preparation has not involved the exploitation of animals than to find food whose production has not entailed the oppression and uprooting of other human beings.”
When veganism becomes a tool to improve the image of the IDF, or that of Israel as a whole, “and when attempts are being made to cover up the fact that the IDF operates an occupation mechanism that denies people their basic human rights”, veganism is being appropriated for propaganda purposes, Gross says.
One must not, Gross says, ignore “the gap that exists between increased support for veganism and the ever-growing indifference in Israeli society to the oppression and exploitation inherent in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory”.
There is no contradiction, Gross writes, between concern for animals and concern for human life.
“Quite the contrary, opposition to the suppression of human beings easily dovetails with opposition to the suppression of animals; in both cases, one is expressing an overall sensitivity to the oppression and suffering of the Other and to the exploitation of the weak.”
Cruelty in pet shops
PAL volunteer Danielle Williams started a petition on change.org to stop cruelty in pet shops in Palestine, where cats, dogs, birds, fish, turtles, and rodents are on sale.
The petition states that there is horrifically cruel and inhumane treatment of animals in many pet shops across Palestine.
“These animals are suffering daily, in the freezing cold or sweltering heat,” the petition states.
The petition, which refers specifically to pet shops in Ein Misbah, Birzeit, and Kalandia, calls on city councils in Palestine to put an animal welfare law into effect to stop the cruelty and prevent the suffering of animals in the future.
The PAL slogan is “Adopt animals; don’t buy them”.
Conference will highlight racism and Islamophobia
Safi says the upcoming conference will intersect with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and exerts pressure on Israel to comply with international law.
“It will also highlight the problems of Islamophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Arab racism that exist within the animal rights movement.”
Safi gives the example of animal rights activists in Europe condemning Islam as a whole when they talk about Muslim slaughterhouses. “Killing is killing. Why is kosher slaughter not condemned in the way halal killing is?”
Palestinians are maligned around the world, Safi says. “We are Muslims and we are Arabs, so it’s very easy to stereotype us.”
The toll on zoo animals
The occupation of Palestine has led to horrendous conditions in the zoos in the territories. The international media has run stories featuring extremely disturbing photos of dead and starving animals and Palestinians have sometimes been blamed for a situation in which they are themselves victims.
“People often fail to ask why it was not possible to get food to these animals. Take the situation in 2014, for instance, when Palestine was under heavy Israeli bombardment. How could we care for animals in the zoos?” Safi said.
Safi talks about the much-publicised occasion in 2015 when PAL worked with the international animal charity FOUR PAWS to transfer two lion cubs, who were being kept in a refugee camp in Gaza, to a wildlife sanctuary in Jordan. The owner of the cubs had bought them from the Rafah Zoo.
The operation to get the lion cubs out of Gaza was severely hampered by the Israeli authorities. Just when the rescue team was about to exit Gaza, Israeli officials abruptly closed the border.
The rescue team – along with the lion cubs – spent the night in a hotel in Gaza before finally being allowed to pass through the last border post to Israel and continued their journey to Jordan.
The cubs’ transfer involved officials and volunteers not only from Palestine and Israel, but also from Egypt and Jordan, and support even came from the French animal welfare organisation, 30 Millions d’Amis.
“A disaster was averted by removing the big cats from a domestic home where an eventual injury, to either the lions or the people being allowed to interact with them closely, seemed inevitable,” Safi said at the time.
“However, we remain concerned that the root cause of the problem has not been addressed and we will continue to liaise with both the zoos and the authorities in Gaza to combat the idea that the ownership and sale of dangerous wild animals is appropriate.”
Several wildlife species in Palestine are endangered, including the Palestine mountain gazelle (Gazella gazella), which is also native to Jordan, Turkey, and Israel. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says the population fell from 10,000 in 2001 to about 3,000 in 2013, a decline of at least 70 percent over three generations (15 years).
The IUCN says the population is continuing to decline as a result of poaching, road kills, and habitat degradation and fragmentation.
It has been reported that only 2,000 identified individuals of the species now remain.
The Arabian gazelle (Gazella arabica) is listed as vulnerable, and the IUCN says the population is decreasing.
The Buxton’s Jird (Meriones sacramenti), which is a species of rodent, is listed as vulnerable and the Palestine loach (Oxynoemacheilus insignis) is classified as threatened and the population is decreasing.
The IUCN also says there is a decrease in the population of the Palestine mole rat (Nannospalax ehrenbergi), but there is insufficient date to classify the animal.
The Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarious) is listed as critically endangered.
Caring for all beings
The May conference will be an occasion for animal welfare and human rights activists from outside of Palestine to gain first-hand insight into the challenges and complexities of working on animal liberation in the context of settler colonialism.
“Despite border militarisation, land theft, displacement, war, and occupation, Palestinians strive to provide proper care for all beings,” Safi said.
There are still about ten conference places available. (The capacity is fifty.) Anyone interested can register here.
- The Youth Village is an educational, environmental, sports and entertainment village established by the Sharek Youth Forum. It is located west of Ramallah on 35 acres of land near the village of Kufor Nemah. and provides environmental and cultural education for young people, protects the land, promotes environmental investment.