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Meet Palestine's animal rights activists

An invitation to visit the site slated for Palestine’s first vegan cafeteria led me to discover the buzzing, if incipient, world of animal rights activism in the West Bank.

I have a confession to make: I, how shall I put this, don’t like animals. Whether it’s the annoying dog wagging his tail next to me on the street or the cute spoiled cat seeking an embrace, they just don’t do it for me.

I tried to learn the code of acceptable conduct among pets’ adoptive families, though I always managed to fail by offending someone. Most of the time I extracted myself from the embarrassment through joking, “C’mon I’m an Arab, you know, for us a dog is a dog, and family is family.” I’m also neither a vegetarian nor a vegan, but don’t really like meat and can get along very well without it for several days.

I was approached by a group of young Palestinian women attempting to open the first vegan cafeteria in Palestine at Al Quds University in Abu Dis, Jerusalem. They’re seeking public aid to realize their dream of helping animals survive in Palestine, educating youth about animal rights, and supporting disadvantaged students at the university. The goal is to employ single mothers from Abu Dis to cook with Palestinian ingredients from Palestinian farmers, without any Israeli products.

Parting Waze

This is too good to be true, I said to myself. Why would anyone care about Palestinian animal rights when Palestinian people see their rights violated on a daily basis?

I decided to see for myself, and took Waze along with me to the Al Quds campus. After an hour on hilly roads the app declared confidently: “You’ve reached your destination.” I got out of the car and found myself facing a particularly tall fence. That’s no university!

I approached a teenage passerby and asked: “Where is the university?”

“The Hebrew University?” He asked.

“No, not the Hebrew University. Al Quds. Waze says it’s here.”

He laughed out loud. “Yes, it’s here, just behind this fence. Do you have a helicopter? If you go down this road you’ll reach a settlement, but the road is blocked. You’ll have to go back up through Abu Tor, then go down the Maaleh Adumim-Jericho road to Eizariya, and then back to the university. What, you’re not from here?”

I pretended to understand his directions and set off to find Palestine’s first vegan cafeteria.

On a side road, I stopped by an old decrepit man who was negotiating a steep upward slope while carrying a lot of bags and looking like he was about to collapse. I asked him where the university was.

“No, not the Hebrew University,” I said before he had a chance to ask.

“Oh dear, it’s far away. How did you end up here?” Before I knew it, he filled the inside of my car with an odor that was a mixture of fruits and vegetables and male sweat. He told me how the fence has encroached on their lives, and how public transport doesn’t go anywhere anymore. I dropped him off after a while, and then he directed me to a roundabout that would lead me to the checkpoint to Jericho, and then at some point make a right to Abu Dis.

I parted from Waze and from the fragrant gentleman and drove off. I tried to call my host, Sameh Erekat, the coordinator of student volunteering, but there was no reception, of course. I asked around until I finally reached the campus.

Breaking the cycle of violence

Mr Erekat was waiting for me, embarrassed, as if he knew what I had gone through even before I said a word. “I’m really sorry you were stranded like that,” he said. “I really appreciate your coming here. I didn’t expect you to make it!”

“Neither did I,” I said after a two-hour journey that was supposed to be no more than 50 minutes.

We walked over to the building where the cafeteria was slated to open, where we met four sweet teenagers from the Ramallah branch of the Palestine Animal League and three guides who were sitting outside.

Israeli animal rights activists take part in a vigil against the meat industry, displaying a 1-day-old dead calf on a big plate in center Tel Aviv, December 10, 2013. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israeli animal rights activists take part in a vigil against the meat industry, displaying a 1-day-old dead calf on a big plate in center Tel Aviv, December 10, 2013. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Ahmad Safi, a PAL employee, gave us a presentation about their work. I was amazed by the amount of knowledge he had on animals in Palestine. He told us about their rescue operation to save animals from Gaza’s Khan Younis zoo who hadn’t eaten for 52 days during the 2014 Gaza War, and on treating working animals: the volunteers go to villages where donkeys and horses work the land, vaccinate them and instruct the owners about treating them respectfully.

They also have a campaign to raise awareness among children about their pets.

“We have to break the cycle of violence,” he said. “We have to tell these kids that what they see the occupation doing – killings, incursions and raids into their villages and schools – is not a natural reality. This violence eventually comes out on defenseless animals, and kids think it’s all right because violence is king. Everybody harms the weaker, and animals are an easy target.”

“We try to convey to them that we are all living creatures, and we all have feelings – animals and human beings alike, “Sham, a volunteer, explains. “The same way we fear a tank or an armed soldier, they do too. We are under the occupation together, and therefore should help every living creature.”

“It says so in the Qura,” Jiwa adds.

Our ancestors didn’t eat meat

I ask them whether they are vegan – khudaryat, in Arabic, meaning “herbivores.”

“Sort of,” says Siham. “I barely eat meat. Since I became involved in this I noticed I don’t like the taste that much.”

“I am vegetarian,” says Dana. “I gradually stopped eating murdered stuff, I can’t put in my mouth something that was once living.

Sham says she does not proselytize or try to enforce anything on her family. “Palestinian cooking has so many vegetables. Even if they eat meat and I eat salad and rice, I’m happy.”

“So many vegetables, yes,” adds Jiwa. “And how can you open a cafeteria without falafel? It has all the iron and protein that you need. Who needs shawarma?”

“But meat is a requirement at any special meal,” I say. “Look at the iftar meal after Ramadan. Is there an Arab dinner party anywhere that doesn’t have meat?”

“That’s right, Safi says. “We were taught meat was prestigious. But what did our ancestors eat? Plants and vegetables. They ate meat only once a week because they couldn’t afford it. Meat-eaters were considered the rich ones, that’s why it took over our diet. The meat industry here uses hormones profusely, we learned that from Israel. The owner of one of the biggest chicken farms in Palestine said that he learned from Israelis how to feed his chickens a mixture of chicken meat leftovers, intestines, hormones, antibiotics and some seeds, instead of the regular food, to make them fat quickly, and cash in on it. Since when did Palestinian farmers start growing chickens like that? It’s all about the money. Jews and Palestinians want to be as rich as they can.”

“You said you wanted to be part of the boycott Israel movement. If you want to be vegan, that’s fine. What’s the boycott got to do with it?”

“We see the occupation as the bane of the Palestinian people and animals alike,” says the guide. “A Dutch company provides attack dogs to the Israeli army, to be used against Palestinian women and children in checkpoints and during raids, and we can’t be expected to be silent. We joined hands with the BDS movement and stopped the supply of the dogs. It’s a flagrant exploitation of the animals and a terrible affront to Palestinian human rights.

“What about medicines, vaccines, medical equipment? It’s got to be Israeli, you can’t be saying that the Palestinian Authority supports you?”

“You’re right, there are some ingredients that Israel prevents us from importing or producing,” he said. “Israel is the only source for those, and some of these chemical elements are banned from Palestine because they can allegedly be used for terrorist activity. That’s how Israel controls the industry. We learned to make some of the medicines ourselves, and we ship some of the ingredients over from England and cook them manually. But no, we don’t get any support from the PA. About one percent of its budget goes to agriculture, so just imagine how much of that is allocated to animal protection.”

“On the other hand,” he adds, we have lots of support from the local government – municipal inspectors helping us catch animals with no extra charge. Even the space for the cafeteria, worth $70,000 annually, has been given to these girls for free. So our assumption is that everyone can contribute. Don’t say people first, animals later. It can be both.”

“I’m not a big expert,” I say, “but it seems to me that many vegan Israelis are animal rights and anti-occupation activists at the same time?”

“It’s like that everywhere in the world. Environmental activists, left-wing intellectuals, animal rights activists – they share values. It doesn’t mean that they have to cooperate. They have a fair share of work to do, these good Jews, fighting the occupation. We don’t need to join hands at the moment. Israel would seize the opportunity use us to whitewash the crimes it commits, so no thank you.”

To support Palestine’s first vegan cafeteria, click here.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    1. R5

      Thanks +972! Now I know Palestine is better than Israel for the environment, for gay rights, for animal rights, for race relations, for everything my thoroughly progressive moral compass could ever desire! And OF COURSE that one bad Palestinian meat farmer learned his evil ways from Israel. I mean, duh!!! Black Lives Matter was totally right, Palestinian values=progressive American/Canadian values 100% perfectly. Please report on the next thing that Bernie or Bust folks like me can read about to learn more about how we are exactly like Palestinians, would really appreciate it.

      Reply to Comment
    2. i_like_ike52

      This piece is directed to those who are trying to maintain the “Red-Green-Brown” coalition against Israel. “Red” of course refers to the Marxists/Communist/Radical Left. “Brown” are the neo-Fascists and “Green” refers to both the Islamists and the “Environmentalist” activists. Of course, this is a real odd collection of people who have nothing in common EXCEPT for opposing Israel. Thus, it can lead to centrifugal political forces. In order to try to maintain the coalition, attempts are made to show that the Palestinians are supposedly in the forefront of causes dear to the Reds and environmental Greens.
      Considering that the Palestinians, like most of the rest of the Arab and Muslim world seems to be apathetic to the fratricidal slaughter their brother Arabs/Muslims are perpetrating on each other in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and other places, it would seem to be difficult to believe that more than any tiny handful of Palestinians would be willing to get emotionally involved in animal rights, but at least they can pretend for the sake of their erstwhile Red and enviornmental Green allies.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ben

      Ike: Everything is “brother Arabs” and “brother Jews” with you not “brother humans” so everything seems like an “us” versus “them” McCarthyist conspiracy so I’m not surprised by the “Marxist-Communist” claptrap. But “neo-Fascist” is especially rich coming from a supporter of Netanyahu, Shaked, Bennett and Feiglin. Meanwhile, in the real world, +972 Magazine maintains its impressive integrity with a calm, steadfast and unwavering moral compass, with a focus on human rights for all. And models so admirably how Arabs and Jews can come together. And describes in this article an intelligent and reasonable linking, made by Palestinians, of animal rights and human rights. Very impressive. And you are stuck muttering about “communists.”

      Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        he first clause of the Palestinian constitution says that the Palestinians are an integral part of the Arab umma. They do NOT say “we are part of the human race”. THEY define their fellow Arabs as their brothers, ahead of saying they are “just folks” like you want them to say. That is why Egypt calls itself “The Arab Republic of Egypt” and Syria is “the Syrian Arab Republic”. Egypt does NOT call itself “The Human Republic of Egypt”.
        Nationalism is an integral part of humanity. European-style anti-nationalist is alien to most of the world. “Progressives” should realize they don’t speak for all of humanity.

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    4. Dena

      So proud of you! Wishing you so much success! You are each AMAZING and ARE making a difference! Go! Go! Go!

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ben

      You want it both ways, Ike. You want Israel to put on the airs of being a modern western democracy–superior to those around it–but when it really comes down to it you want it to be a Jewish Nationalist State that gets down and dirty and underneath the facade steadfastly maintains an ethnocracy on the ground when it comes to land, water, civic spending, etc. If you want to come clean and rename Israel “The Jewish Israeli Republic” or something then by all means do it and let’s get it out in the open. But lets stop playing “let’s pretend.” And all rhetoric about what the Arabs do elides the fact that Egypt is not brutally occupying millions of Jews for 50 years–it actually made a lasting peace with you. Neither is Syria. It is Israel that is occupying millions of Palestinians for 50 years.

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    6. R5

      Ben: Do Israelis prefer occupation to being an 8-mile wide country with Iran on its front porch? Yes. This doesn’t mean they categorically prefer to rule the Palestinians (except for the religious Zionist minority)? No. Syria, Egypt and every Arab country that has a monarchy or autocratic government do not face the same existential security dilemma, and they remain non-democratic. That Israel maintains a democracy within its recognized borders and would rather get out the West Bank with its viability intact makes Israel far superior to its neighbors from a moral and political point of view. Your argument is garbage. And how you think Egypt or Syria (before it fell apart) have a leg up makes no sense – they’re both dictatorships. West Bank Palestinians enjoy more self rule than Syrians or Egyptians.

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    7. I am overjoyed to hear of the animal activist community in Palestine! It’s wonderful how fast this movement is growing. I hope compassionate people like the teenagers creating this vegan cafeteria can put aside their differences and work together for a better world. I was very upset to read that last line in which the respondent said that they would not work with Israeli animal activists, even those who oppose the occupation. I think that is a terrible opportunity loss. Palestinian and Israeli animal activists, working together to fight all forms of injustice could be the start of a new era of cooperation, one that could really have strong political influence over the Israeli government. I hope they rethink their actions. As an animal activist myself, any opportunity to better the lives of animals is one to seize. I hope they can put away their differences for themselves and the animals.

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    8. Rachelle Pachtman

      Do you know about Diana George Babish and the well-run shelter for dogs she established in Bethlehem? If not, this is a great story!

      Reply to Comment
    9. As a human being who is deeply concerned and committed to the furtherance of both human and animal rights, I would like to make a plea to those of you reading this. While animals may be your priority, and while you may not have a clear understanding of the situation here in the region in which I live, I ask that you trust that I do. As someone who lives with the military occupation enforced by the Israeli armed forces every day of my life, and having seen the terrible consequences of it on my land and my people, I ask that you think carefully before promoting the IDF in any forum; and particularly in one, such as the animal rights community, which ostensibly rejects violence in all forms. The continued positive publicity for this army in the international arena may seem like harmless, apolitical support for small victories in veganism, but for us it simply serves to further legitimise the atrocities carried out against the Palestinian people by these self-same soldiers.

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