In Palestine, where Israel’s occupation and military checkpoints, encroaching settlements and the imminent threat of annexation are daily realities, animal welfare is not really a priority for most people. This is not the case, though, for the founder of the Palestinian Animal League (PAL), Ahmad Safi.
The charity has been based in Ramallah since it was established in 2011. It was the first of its kind in the West Bank, and despite the myriad challenges that PAL faces, it remains at the forefront of efforts to deal with animal welfare in Palestine.
PAL has several major projects, including a scheme for rescuing, treating and rehoming street dogs, cats, horses and donkeys, as well as a “Youth for Change” programme which trains university students to teach school-age children about animal welfare. The aim of the youth project, explains Safi, is to encourage locals to change their attitude towards animals.
“We have to convince the local community not to complain about the dogs in the streets,” he tells me. “We have to try to get them to offer to help these animals, instead of complaining to the municipal authorities who will then poison or shoot them.”
One reason why it is so important to change local attitudes, he says, is because PAL is not always able to reach the animals in need because of the restrictions on freedom of movement in the West Bank imposed by the Israeli occupation. In the past, the League has tried to circumvent some restrictions by rescuing animals in the middle of the night. Even then, however, it has struggled to overcome the restrictions.
In one case, he says, PAL volunteers travelled to rescue a group of dogs in the northern town of Tulkarem in the middle of the night but were turned back by Israeli soldiers. “The soldiers asked us what we were doing there during the night… and then did not even allow us to catch the dogs which were only 500 metres away from the wall.”
On other occasions, would-be rescuers have been forced to take circuitous routes to reach the animals. In one rescue attempt late on a Saturday night, the group had to drive from Ramallah via Jericho, located in the eastern Jordan Valley, en route to Tulkarem.
“We prepared the materials for an animal portacabin in Ramallah and had to drive it to Tulkarem, but the way was closed, so we had to go around via Jericho. We drove for three hours instead of 45 minutes just to reach Tulkarem that night.”
Despite the restrictions, in 2019 PAL rescued and rehomed approximately 260 animals across the West Bank. Such success is partially a result of an agreement with the Palestinian Authority. Under the accord, Safi points out, the PA allows vets and cars handling animals to have access to every area in the West Bank.
However, the coronavirus pandemic has brought with it additional curbs on freedom of movement and curfews, which mean new difficulties for the League, at a time when demand for rescues has risen dramatically. Attempts to bypass the restrictions are no longer viable because of the coronavirus.
In the past, rescue animals found near Ramallah were taken to PAL’s centre for urgent medical care before being put up for adoption. Animals rescued further afield were handed to a network of volunteers who fostered them temporarily before adoption. Coronavirus-related restrictions, however, have made these solutions obsolete.
Moreover, since the first case of the virus was recorded in the West Bank in March, says Safi, foster carers have told PAL that they are finding it harder to care for the animals. In one case in Hebron, which is a hotspot for coronavirus infections, a group of women caring for cats and dogs told PAL that they are unable to obtain basic necessities, including animal food.
In the past, the animal welfare group would have tried to organise a delivery of food to foster carers unable to access supplies. However, localised pandemic lockdowns, compounded by often arbitrary Israeli-imposed restrictions, have made the delivery of desperately needed supplies impossible.
Before the pandemic, PAL was looking to expand its services. The organisation raised the funds to buy an animal ambulance. However, it has been unable to import a suitable vehicle from Israel because the PA cut coordination with the occupation state following the unveiling of Donald Trump’s “Peace Plan” in January.
“There is some irony here,” Safi smiles. “We have the money to buy an ambulance, but we cannot import a suitable vehicle. We cannot bring a vehicle registered in Israel into Palestine and register it as Palestinian because there is no coordination. We have the money to buy the ambulance, but we cannot actually buy one.”
Nevertheless, despite the challenges of the occupation and the pandemic, Safi insists that the Palestine Animal League is in a strong position. Now in its ninth year, the charity is planning to open a shop selling homemade vegan products and has started organising vegan tours of Palestine.
“With every project or idea that we come up with,” he concludes, “there is always some complication in how we can make it a reality. There is always some complication… it used to be the Israeli checkpoints, now we are dealing with annexation and coronavirus. This is important work, though, so we won’t stop.”