By Ahmad Safi, Executive Director of the Palestinian Animal League
When the Palestinian Animal League was founded, and my colleagues and I sought to register the organisation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs – a process required of non-governmental organisations operating in the occupied territories – we were sent away by the officials. We were told to find something better to do with our time than to focus our concern on animals. “Worry about the people” we were told. “Worry about Gaza” we were told. “Worry about house demolitions” we were told. “Worry about the prisoners” we were told. We were used to this by now as, in the year previous that we had been working on establishing the group, we were told many, many times that our good intentions were misguided.
Another person asked me with a laugh: “So, tell me, have you solved all of your problems now, as I see you have time to spend worrying about the rights of animals?” I reminded him that I am from a refugee camp, and that my problems and those of my family, my friends and my wider community are far from solved. He continued to berate me and to question my motives for establishing an NGO focused upon the protection of animals.
I held my hand up and motioned for him to wait a moment. He stopped speaking. I asked him: “What is Palestine?” and he looked at me, confused. I asked him again: “In your opinion, what is Palestine?” He didn’t answer.
“Is Palestine just people, or is it more than that?”
He tentatively waited for me to continue, not sure what to answer. I continued…
“If Palestine were just the people, then we could be Palestinian anywhere. We could escape the occupation, we could move to another country and our Palestinian identity would remain intact. If Palestine were just the people, then why have so many Palestinians died, been injured or imprisoned as part of the resistance against occupation? To these people, Palestine is more than just people”.
He nodded slowly, and motioned for me to continue.
“So Palestine cannot just be people, it must be more than that. It must be the land, the trees, the air, the environment and the animals and birds. All of these things are components of Palestine. Palestine is incomplete without all of its components and so to work to protect any of these components is to contribute to work to protect the whole”.
We continued the discussion for some time, but by now I had his attention and I could tell that he was thinking about what I had said. In my view, I explained, there are things that we cannot change right now and, of course, I firmly believe that all Palestinians must continue to work to bring an end to the occupation and to ensure that human rights are respected and upheld. We all know that this is not something that will happen overnight, but this is not an excuse to do nothing to fix society’s other problems in the meantime.
For many people Palestine represents nothing more than a political struggle, with both its supporters and detractors. Palestine in the eyes of the international community is defined by conflict and occupation and this manifests itself in the generation of stereotypes of the Palestinian people (both positive and negative), as well as a number of assumptions made about what should (and should not) be deemed a priority within this part of the Middle East. For many, both within the occupied territories and abroad, animal welfare is, frankly, not one of those priorities.
But, whilst the political situation certainly dominates our lives in many ways, the people of Palestine continue with day-to-day life. And day-to-day, our concerns, interests and passions are as varied and diverse as within any other society around the world.
Like in any civil society, Palestinians care about animals, about living in a healthy and rich natural environment and about protecting our natural heritage. Testament to this is the 300-strong volunteer team we have working with our young organisation. So while there is willing and interest in working to better protect animals in Palestine, we plan to continue to try to do just that. After all, I told him, if we had to wait until the occupation had ended before we even began to consider the smaller problems that our society faces, then we may be waiting a very long time.
Soon after this discussion, PAL’s application was finally accepted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and became the first formally registered animal rights organisation operating in the occupied territories. Since that day we have continued to work towards our ultimate goal: rights and justice for all Palestinians… regardless of species.