Tuesday, November 24, 2020

First Palestinian animal welfare organisation aims to “cut the cycle of violence”

By Sarah Bedson - January 14, 2017
Section: [Main News] [Life under Occupation] [Features]
Tags: [Animals] [environment] [Occupation]

Ramallah - The idea for the Palestine Animal League (PAL), the only locally-run animal welfare organisation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, founded in 2011, was first conceived when Ahmad Safi was working on a children’s summer camp. Ahmad, PAL's founder and executive director, saw a child sitting alone and throwing stones at a cat. He approached the boy and questioned his actions.

The boy told him that during the night, Israeli soldiers had entered his house, beaten and abducted his brother. At this moment, Ahmad saw in the boy a younger version of himself, and realised that it constitutes an important and ubiquitous problem in Palestine.

“I started thinking about how this happens. We [Palestinians] normalise violence. This is how we survive here. If you are frustrated or abused, it is normal. You have to deal with it,” Ahmad said.

In the hierarchy of violence, Ahmad believes it is often the animals that bear the brunt, as the weaker beings on which even children can vent their frustration and aggression. Ahmad thus began working with children in Jalazone refugee camp on how to deal with day-to-day life under occupation, anger management and animal welfare.

“We tried to cut the cycle of violence, to teach children how to be responsible for themselves and for weaker members of society,” he said.

“Palestine is everything, not only the human beings. Palestine is the earth, the trees, the animals,” Ahmad added. Together with his friend and co-founder, Sameh Arekat, he tried to promote these values, as well as teaching the children that being kind is not a sign of weakness, while hurting animals is not a symbol of strength, “because this is the culture that we grow up with”.
      A workshop organised by PAL

At the beginning, Ahmad and Sameh faced many obstacles, including scepticism from other Palestinians. Up until now, there are no laws concerning animal welfare in Palestine. When they attempted to register the organisation officially, “people thought we were living in a fantasy world,” said Ahmad. “Animal rights? What about human rights!?, they told us.”

Initially, their request was declined, but Ahmad persevered. “We are the people who need animal rights the most. We understand pain and frustration, we should not inflict the pain we feel on others,” said Ahmad. Eventually, the organisation was given the go-ahead.

PAL became intersectional, working on a multitude of projects concerning animal rights, human rights, the environment and healthy food. Relying on donations and sometimes paying out of their own pockets, the organisation is entirely volunteer-led, with approximately 85 members on the ground.

In 2015, PAL was granted an award from Brooke, a leading equine welfare charity, to launch a pilot project to assess and document welfare concerns for working equines (horses, donkeys and mules) throughout the West Bank. As part of their “Sharing the Load” project, PAL visited farmers in Tulkarem, the riding school in Turmus Aaya and tour guides using donkeys in Wadi Qelt. Offering free health checks and basic first aid as well as educational workshops on best practice for the care of equines, PAL have been able to improve living conditions for the equines and support farmers who lack funds to properly care for their animals.

In Palestine, there are a large number of stray cats and dogs. In February 2016, PAL launched Palestine’s first-ever humane dog population management scheme in the city of Tulkarem. Funded by Dogs Trust UK, 32 final-year veterinary students were trained in spay and neuter surgery and around 240 dogs were treated in the trap, neuter, vaccinate and release (TNVR) project.

In March 2015, PAL began a “Youth for Change” programme with three universities in the West Bank. The PAL team trained over 40 university students to act as mentors for schoolchildren in 14 different schools, encouraging them to identify, understand and tackle animal welfare problems in their local communities.

It was from this project that the idea for Sudfeh was derived by 14-year-old schoolgirls. Sudfeh (Arabic for Serendipity) is not only Palestine’s first ever vegan cafeteria, but also the first in any university in the Arab world. On the 10th of October 2016, Sudfeh opened its doors on the campus of Al Quds Univeristy, Jerusalem, for the first time. The start-up costs were raised via a crowdfunding campaign, reaching over £10,000. Sudfeh is an entirely not-for-profit initiative, with all proceeds being split between animal protection projects and providing scholarships for underprivileged students.

Discussing veganism with Palestinians can be difficult. “We are taught that meat is prestigious. But our grandparents’ diets revolved around seeds, vegetables, fruit and beans,” said Ahmad. The cafeteria aims to remind Palestinians of the abundance of vegan food at their disposal. In the first month, Sudfeh provided over 1,600 vegan meals to students on campus with raving reviews.

PAL has attracted worldwide interest and support. In January 2015, the UK-based group Palestine Animal League Solidarity (PALS) was born, and a number of speaking tours have taken place worldwide.

Like with most aspects of life in Palestine, the occupation directly hinders progress. Take the TNVR project, for example. As there had never been such a programme in Palestine, the necessary equipment and medication was not available in the country. This meant importing it from abroad, which along with severe restrictions on importing through the Israeli border, proved highly expensive and burdensome. After weeks of waiting, the vital equipment never arrived. Following various enquiries, they found that it had been held at Israeli customs for two months. PAL was never informed why, but was forced to pay £1,182 (for 'computer fees’, 'airport fees’, security checks and rent per meter to host the materials) to have the equipment released. In order to avoid normalising and accepting the occupation, PAL boycotts Israel. From now on, PAL will avoid importing and has learned how to create the trap cages and nets inside Palestine.

As for his favourite project in PAL, Ahmad spoke of the victory with the petition “No More Dogs of War”. This saw a call to the Dutch government to bring an end to the export of “attack dogs” from the Netherlands to Israel, where the dogs were then used by the Israeli army against Palestinian civilians. B’Tselem reported in 2014 about attack dogs being set on Palestinians, attacking and biting them. In July 2016, after receiving almost 3,000 signatures from people in over 65 countries, the company responsible for providing the dogs agreed to discontinue their trade with Israel and publicly voiced concerns over the use of animals in human rights violations.

In the future, PAL is hoping to establish Palestine’s first animal welfare law and has already begun work alongside law students from local universities.

Ahmad is proud that PAL has already gained the respect of many people and municipalities in Palestine. Feedback from pilot projects in Tulkarem has been extremely positive and Ramallah municipality is looking to begin working with PAL once there is adequate funding.

One of the major challenges for PAL remains convincing the general public of the importance of their work. Ahmad notes, however, that the principles of animal rights are not new to Palestine’s predominantly Muslim community. “Unlike other countries, we do not hunt for sport, we do not carry out animal testing – in Islam it is not allowed,” he said.

Education and awareness-raising remains a cornerstone of PAL’s work and runs through everything they do. “I think that the future is promising,” said Ahmad, “it might take some time, but we have to start somewhere”.
(Photos courtesy of PAL) 

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