»Occupation and veganism are incompatible«

Animal rights work in Palestine – an interview with Ahlam Tarayra

What does political work for animals look like under the conditions of the Israeli occupation regime in Palestine – is it actually possible? For good reason, the oppression of the Palestinian people is an important issue not least for internationalist and anti-imperialist leftists. However, not much is known about the situation of animals and the fight for their interests in Palestine. This is why we spoke to Ahlam Tarayra from the Baladi Palestine Animal Rescue Team, which is active in the West Bank. In the following interview for our circular, she talks about rescuing and caring for street animals in the West Bank and Gaza, what it means to work for progressive causes under conditions of the occupation and the “veganwashing” of Israeli politics. Also, she explains why the fight against the occupation regime ought to be of concern for the animal rights and animal liberation movement – as the recent Israeli military offensive has once again shown.

Ahlam Tarayra lives in Ramallah and is a founding member of Baladi. She is also the managing director of MUSAWA - The Palestinian Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession.

Please note: Due to the current situation, we are calling for solidarity and financial support for both Baladi and the organization Sulala, which rescues and provides for animals in Gaza.

Ahlam, we had originally intended to do an interview about animal rights activism and the military occupation in Palestine. However, considering the latest events, let’s start by discussing the situation in Gaza and the recent Israeli aggression. At this point – it’s mid-November –, some 12,000 people have already been killed, especially in northern Gaza, and large parts of the infrastructure have been destroyed by Israeli bombardment. Thousands of people have been displaced to the south of Gaza and the humanitarian situation continues to worsen. Right now, it seems impossible to predict how the overall situation will develop militarily, politically, humanitarianly. How have you experienced the last few weeks?

Like everybody else in Palestine, I have not been well. This world seems to get darker for the vulnerable. Most of the time I feel that we have lost all hope. The agony of not sharing what our people in Gaza, both human and nonhuman, are enduring whilst they are disconnected from the world has been excruciating. I’m ashamed of having access to electricity, drinkable water, a roof over my head, and the ability to easily get bread from the nearby shop in the West Bank – basic privileges that people in Gaza have been deprived of since October 7th. I am ashamed that I am not experiencing the horror of bombings too. The agony of the complicity of the Western governments in this genocide is overwhelming. Also the extreme anger about them allowing the bombings of hospitals, all in the name of self-defense, to happen while it is in reality a defense of occupation and ethnic cleansing. This trauma will forever haunt us.

The aggressions are not limited to Gaza: increasingly, attacks are being made in the West Bank by the Israeli military and armed right-wing settlers. What is the situation there like?

I may tell the story of me as a Palestinian from the West Bank, to shed light on what’s happening here. I was in Jordan for a one night and was supposed to return home on October 7, the morning the Palestinian fighters began their attack on the Gaza envelope Israeli militant bases. I found myself stranded in Jordan for eight nights as Israel blocked the borders. I was attempting to return home every single day without success, until I managed to cross the borders, but it meant that I had to spent the night sleeping on the street in miserable conditions with thousands of Palestinians sharing this plight. Despite a misleading announcement that borders were open throughout the day, Israel permitted entry for only 1000 Palestinians via the Jordanian borders every day that week. This situation was painful and extremely frustrating, and the deep-rooted generational trauma of never being able to return home was taking a toll on my sanity. Returning home eventually felt like a miracle so that I did not complain about getting stuck at an Israeli checkpoint for two hours after it had already taken 18 hours only to cross the borders.

The West Bank is currently undergoing a different form of turmoil. Day and night there are Israeli raids on Palestinian cities and towns, mass arrests, bombings in Jenin and Tulkarem, extrajudicial killings, and settler attacks that have led to evacuations from areas in south Hebron. These incidents have also prevented many farmers across the West Bank from harvesting their olives, causing a significant increase in olive oil prices. Additionally, ongoing closures and blockades at city entrances have persisted since October 7 and continue to impact the region.

How do you think things will develop overall? And what is the aim of the Israeli approach?

Ethnic cleansing is what Israel aims for. This has been very obvious and can be clearly observed through the occupation’s colonial policies and practices throughout the past 76 years. Nobody knows how things will develop. Many people are losing their jobs and livelihoods and the uncertainty is the only thing certain now. What we want is for the aggression on Gaza to end, the prolonged siege to entirely end too, and for the displaced people to be rehomed. Winter has started and we see displaced people in Gaza asking God to stop the rain because they are literally living in the open air. I share the hope that those who committed war crimes and atrocities against my people will be held accountable and will be prosecuted.

Not only do people suffer from the occupation, but also animals – whose interests you are also committed to: Among other things, you have co-founded Baladi Palestine Animal Rescue Team in 2020. How does one become an animal rights activist in Palestine?

Well, I think the same way as in other places! You keep experiencing moments of compassion and solidarity with animals, and at some point you decide to follow these impulses and take action. My parents were small farmers who first raised sheep and later ran a small chicken farm. I always helped out there and witnessed for myself what it means for animals when small farmers are under economic pressure and have to be competitive. That was normal for me, but it always felt wrong to breed animals for sale and for slaughter. Later, after I was able to go to England for my studies and got to know industrially packaged chicken parts, I already had great inhibitions about eating chicken meat. But there was one particularly formative experience: my parents had a few sheep for a long time and the oldest ram was their leader and had a name. At some point, he developed an aggressive behavior and hurt my father, so he decided it was no longer halal to sell him. So he had him slaughtered. He organized a barbecue, and as the oldest child in my family, I was forced to be the first to eat the meat. But I couldn’t get a bite down, and the thought of eating the ram I had lived with for so long almost made me throw up. That was the last time I have eaten red meat. I went vegan only later, but from that time on I could no longer eat mutton because all sheep reminded me of my family’s ram. The fact that I wasn’t vegan yet was more due to social reasons – I didn’t want to inconvenience my friends and family. However, I was already starting to become more aware of veganism and animal welfare. At some point, I then eventually became active in the rescue work. During this time, I decided to go vegan and actively advocate animal rights.

You also co-founded the association Vegan in Palestine (ViP) in 2020. How does its work look like, what do you do?

Vegan in Palestine is the association within which the rescue project, Baladi, operates.  Our goal with ViP is to promote awareness of veganism being a compassionate and responsible response to ethical concerns regarding animals, the environment, and health. We organize events to introduce veganized versions of traditional and popular foods. Notably, we’ve launched the first vegan labneh, the traditional cream chese, in Palestine which is in no way inferior to its dairy counterpart. Additionally, we aim to challenge the practice of slaughtering animals in general and during religious occasions, viewing it as an outdated norm or practice that can be replaced with more compassionate and solidarity-oriented approaches.

Baladi primarily works with animals on the street: you arrange »adoption services, subsidized veterinary visits for street animals and educate people about animal rights and safety measures in Palestine«, as you write. In Palestinian cities, many dogs in particular live on the streets, often in very poor conditions. Why is this the focus of your work?

Because that is practically the main concern here. In the Western world, the animal rights and animal liberation movement can focus on the animals that are bred and killed for the industry, because the meat industry is the central player. And for dogs and cats living on the streets, for example, there are at least animal welfare laws that prohibit eating or mistreating them. In Palestine, as in other places around the world, the situation is different. Besides the animal industry, a large problem concerns mainly the mistreatment of dogs and cats. The situation for cats and especially dogs on the street is very bad. Legally, there is almost no protection for street animals. Their mistreatment is only punishable in a highly unspecific way, and the mistreatment of an animal is only punished with a fine of just five Jordanian dinars, the equivalent of 7 US dollars – if someone reports the mistreatment at all. In general, therefore, there is hardly any compassion for street animals. This is reinforced by cultural and religious factors, because dogs in particular are considered unclean animals in Arab culture. In addition, there is a widespread belief that the alleged problem of street dogs can be »solved« by simply shooting or killing them in other ways. Unfortunately, this has been and still is propagated by almost all authorities, including the Palestinian Authority.

It sounds like you’re also aiming at creating awareness for the stray animals.

Exactly. From the perspective of the animal rights movement, you can’t focus directly on the meat industry and ignore the issue of street animals. Moreover, their condition offers more opportunities to raise awareness of animal issues in everyday life: Many people here, for example, believe that the conditions of farm-raised animals are good and in some way more »natural«. We make it clear that this is not true and that animals are treated like tools. The way they are kept andslaughtered is also not as halal from a religious point of view as many like to believe. So we try to create compassion and an awareness that animals are fellow creatures. Hence our name: »Baladi« can be translated as »native« and draws attention to the connection between nature, humans and animals. So, for us, helping street animals is a key to make the animal issue an issue here in the first place.

It is impossible to talk about working with animals in Palestine without talking about the oppression caused by the Israeli occupation. It is omnipresent, and there is no aspect of everyday life that is not in some way, be it politically, historically or materially, influenced by it. What impact does the occupation regime have on the situation of the animals and on your work in the West Bank?

As far as the animals are concerned, the military occupation results in a general lack of resources for day-to-day work with street animals, for example. This affects us personally, but also, for example, veterinarians here in the West Bank. Due to the checkpoints and because the import of some medicines is prohibited, there is a lack of medicines used by veterinarians, for example, or the materials and tranquilizers we need to collect and treat panicked street animals, for example. There is a lack of knowledge, materials, infrastructure and premises. Many of those who have the opportunity to do so send their animals to Israel for treatment because the treatment facilities there are more advanced.

Is »pure« animal rights work even possible under these circumstances?

No, it is not, for several reasons. Let me start with a small historical example: Some time ago, a friend sent me an excerpt from a book that documented a Palestinian organization that was founded in Jaffa already back in the 1920s, which is remarkably early. The organization campaigned for the animal cause – something that would seem impossible under in the current circumstances. If you contrast this with today’s situation, you see what the tragedy of the colonization of Palestine has changed here: it has massively set back this and other progressive issues and makes it difficult to campaign for them to this day – this applies to the animal cause just as much as to other progressive concerns.

Against this background, many people would now probably say: you have to deal with the occupation first, everything else has to come later.

Yes, but I don’t agree with this. On the one hand, the occupation has a negative impact on all progressive and emancipative concerns – as in our case – through political and material restrictions. On the other hand, it affects them politically, because it becomes the central issue, in the face of which many people think they have to put other political concerns last on the list: They then say you can’t address gender justice as long as the occupation is there, you can’t address capitalism as long as the occupation is there, you can’t talk about LGBTIQ concerns or other progressive concerns without an end to the occupation. I don’t agree with that. However, this situation means that we are faced with the task of combining progressive concerns with the fight to end the occupation in both respects. But I believe that putting progressive goals on the back burner and postponing them is the wrong approach.

You said that many people take their animals to Israel because the care is better there. But Baladi does not work with NGOs from Israel as a matter of principle. Why is that?

Because we want to reduce dependencies and asymmetry. In our view, the best thing that animal welfare and animal rights organizations in Israel can do, given the circumstances I have just described, is to take a political stand against the occupation in order to improve the situation of Palestinian organizations. They should do their part to ensure that organizations like us eventually become less or no longer dependent on support from Israel. So this policy is about self-empowerment and enabling Palestinian organizations to act independently. However, I would never condemn anyone who seeks contact with Israeli organizations and NGOs in order to do the best for their animal. This is completely understandable, and the shortage situation here repeatedly creates dilemmas for us all.

What is the situation in Gaza like? At the moment, it is difficult to predict how everything will develop. However, even before the latest escalation and the bombing of Gaza by Israel, the humanitarian supply situation was already catastrophic due to the blockade and interdiction. What is the situation like for the animals?

As part of my work for a project in partnership with a UN organization, I have been lucky to have been granted permission to enter Gaza four times so far and have been able to see for myself. Overall, the situation for animals, including street animals, is extremely bad in Gaza. This is mainly due to the blockade. Among other things, like the lack of medicine and materials for treatments, it means that more animals, for example donkeys, are being used by people as work animals – and the conditions I had to observe were sometimes really hard to bear. Some of the animals are in an extremely critical condition, but this is practically not an issue because it is just everyday life there and the circumstances often don’t allow for anything else. For example, I saw a donkey that was completely starved and poorly fed, but at the same time completely overloaded with transportation goods. Things like this happen because many people have no access to petrol – imports are severely restricted by Israel – or are unable to pay for it and the electricity is also regularly cut off for many people. In general, there is hardly a typical middle class in Gaza – there are some who are very rich, but the absolute majority are very poor. As a result, many people cannot afford to look after the animals properly and use them as work animals due to lack of resources.

But I also got to know the Sulala in Gaza – the only organization in Gaza, as far as I know, that works with animals. And although the situation in Gaza is generally catastrophic, Sulala’s work is even more advanced and comprehensive than what we do in the West Bank. At Baladi, we focus on the injured and weakest animals we find. Sulala, on the other hand, takes the approach of really rescuing all animals in need without exception, even though their resources are really very limited. If someone calls and reports an emergency, which some do, they come and do their best. I was really impressed with how well they work with the animals under the siege conditions, even though the team is mostly not made up of trained animal caretakers. They were even able to convince the local administration in their community to stop the policy of poisoning and shooting street animals, and had been given a piece of land by the administration to house and care for rescued animals – dogs, cats, but also donkeys. During the latest Israeli military attacks, Sulala had to leave its territory and flee, and unfortunately we currently have no contact with the team. One of Sulala’s staff was killed in an Israeli bombing at the first day of the aggression.

The ongoing Israeli aggression against Gaza has taken its toll on all living beings, including street, farm, and working animals. It’s safe to say that all areas in Gaza were bombed, including residential areas, where some people had animals living with them. Now that the fuel supply to Gaza was cut off with the onset of the aggression, working animals, such as donkeys, mules, and horses, are increasingly being utilized to transport displaced families or bring injured individuals to hospitals. The animal-drawn carts are now being repurposed as mortuary vehicles too. In the vicinity of Al Shifa hospital, as Israeli tanks approached and heavy shootings and bombing taking place, a doctor reported that street dogs and cats, along with thousands of besieged Palestinians, sought refuge at the hospital. Numerous displaced individuals were observed bringing their companion animals with them, but it is likely that many others had to leave their animals behind during the evacuation.

Israel’s government is working hard to promote Israel as a »vegan paradise« in order to cultivate an image as a »progressive« and particularly tolerant country – a practice that is also referred to as »veganwashing«, analogous to »pinkwashing«. For example, it is officially advertised that the Israeli army is the »most vegan army in the world« and that soldiers can be equipped with vegan leather shoes, for example.

Yes, this is of course a propaganda measure to gain sympathy from the vegan movement and generally liberal and progressive-minded people. For this reason, the Israeli government is also cooperating with vegan influencers. In the end, the designation as a »vegan paradise« is actually only due to the fact that Tel Aviv has a particularly large number of vegan dining options. That’s nice, of course, but from this perspective, the West Bank is also a vegan paradise – after all, you can find falafel on every street corner here, it’s just normal street food!

However, if you understand veganism not just as a diet or lifestyle, but as a consequence of a policy of solidarity directed at the abolition of exploitation and oppression of all living beings, then it is fundamentally at odds with state policies of oppression. It is completely ridiculous to support a policy in which people are oppressed and regularly shot in cold blood on the one hand, while at the same time worrying whether the soldiers get vegan meals or wear vegan leather shoes. Occupation policy and veganism are incompatible.

So we need to raise awareness of the fact that Israel is instrumentalizing the apolitical lifestyle veganism of many people. Contrary to the »veganwashing« propaganda, a lot of meat and milk is also consumed in Israel, the meat industry is extremely strong, and the example of our work also shows that animals also suffer from the occupation. But of course, it is not enough to be a vegan and animal rights activist and only campaign for the interests of animals in Palestine: Anyone who is really serious about the fight against suffering and oppression must also stand up for the oppressed Palestinian people.
I wonder what apolitical vegans now think about the vegan Israeli soldiers bombing Palestinians, human and nonhuman animals alike, in the current aggression. I really wonder how it is even possible for a human to call themselves vegan, yet indiscriminately kill helpless and innocent beings, and by beings, I mean both humans and animals. I saw a post by an Israeli vegan being very concerned about the shortage of vegan meals suppliedto their soldiers in Gaza. We know that they don’t care about Palestinians, and they have been dehumanizing us in every possible way to justify our killings, but it’s disturbing to see how determined they are about keeping their veganwashing propaganda while they are actually killing animals everyday in their aggression on Gaza.

You mentioned the Israeli meat industry. It is generally known, for example from publications by trade union organizations or the International Labour Organization, that Palestinian workers in the Israeli economy are sometimes particularly blatantly exploited since they have a particularly precarious status due to insecure residence permits, have to accept lower wages and have poorer opportunities to represent their interests. Do you know if this is also happening in Israel’s meat industry?

Unfortunately, I don’t! As far as I know, not much is known about the Israeli meat industry, and there has been no investigative research into it by Israeli animal rights activists. However, I can confirm what you describe with regard to the situation of Palestinian workers. If you want a work permit for Israeli companies, you usually have to pay a lot of money to middlemen to get it, and of course very few people have that. Many are therefore there illegally to work, and they have to put up with extreme forms of exploitation: They are paid below the Israeli minimum wage, have to do hard labor and accept longer working hours, and they are also constantly vulnerable to blackmail because the entrepreneurs can threaten to expose them, which would result in fines or even prison and a ban from entering Israel for several years. This system also creates several groups within the Palestinian wage earners whose position in the Palestinian economy differs from one another. But as I said, I can only speculate about the Israeli meat industry. Unfortunately, it is also the case in Israel that large parts of the animal rights movement are exclusively dedicated to the animal cause and do not differentiate between the workers in the industry and their bosses – which is why the situation and interests of the exploited workers are not taken into account.

Apart from donations and financial support, what is the best way to support your work? What do you expect from the international animal rights movement?

Of course financial support is helpful. Beyond that, it especially helps us  when people draw attention to our work. I think the more networked and better known we are, the more we can move and achieve. We are a small team and we are currently still in the process of building up our work. The better we are positioned, the more people we can reach here locally. We also want to strengthen our work with animals as a contribution to the liberation of Palestine. We expect the animal rights movement not to close its mind to this issue, but to see the fight against the Israeli occupation and for the liberation of Palestine as something that concerns them and that they should support. One cannot stand up for the liberation of humans and animals and remain silent about the colonization of Palestine.