Israel Uses Animal Rights to Distract From War Crimes

As unarmed Palestinians continued to be “gunned down like birds on their own land,” in the words of human rights lawyer Noura Erakat, news of an avian rescue set Israeli and international media aflutter. “Sick Gaza parrot saved by Israeli animal rights group,” as the Times of Israel’s headline proclaimed.

The story of Koki the African Grey, who was operated on by an Israeli bird specialist after accidentally ingesting bleach, was even picked up by The Washington Post and The New York Post — coverage largely denied to the thousands of Palestinian men, women and children prevented from accessing similarly vital medical interventions every year because Israel has refused them permits for treatments unavailable in the blockaded Gaza Strip.

Representations of Koki as a beneficiary of Israel’s salvation disguise the fact that he was also a victim of the state’s colonial policies. The oppressiveness of the occupation was the mostly hidden background context of the parrot’s plight: As the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has pointed out, the reason that veterinarians are so scarce in Gaza is because the stifling illegal blockade has barred aspiring veterinary students from leaving the territory for training.

The anti-human and anti-animal effects of Israel’s colonization practices — the wall that divides Palestinian families and blocks animal migration routes; the razing of olive trees that destroys Palestinian livelihoods and animal habitats; the settlement sewage-dumping that poisons waters and environments that sustain Palestinian humans and animals; the regular exercises of bombing and bulldozing that exact a heavy toll in animal as well as human lives — are obscured by portrayals of Israel as an all-species Shangri-La.

In 2015, for example, the Israeli Defense Forces branded itself a “vegan-friendly” army — as if kindness toward animals offsets a long record of likely war crimes against humans.

North America-based animal rights organizations like Mercy for Animals and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have also exalted Israel for its supposed “vegan revolution.” Never mind that Israel’s per capita rate of meat consumption is not only actually one of the highest in the world, according to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data, but is also almost four times that of the Palestinians. Many Palestinians are deprived the privilege of choosing whether to be vegetarian or not, since meat is largely an inaccessible luxury in Palestinian territories economically suffocated by occupation, and where 31.5 percent of households are food-insecure.

Israelis are valorized for displaying humanity toward animals, while Palestinians, conversely, are dehumanized as inhumane. For example, PETA recently reprimanded Hamas for reportedly using falcons to carry flammable materials into Israel, stating that “animals claim allegiance to no nation, don’t choose sides, and can only rely on human beings to show them mercy, and it is unacceptable to use them as weapons of war.” The fact that Israeli forces also routinely use animals like attack dogs as “weapons of war” when conducting home raids against Palestinian civilians — a practice opposed by organizations like the Palestinian Animal League — went completely unremarked upon.

Feel-good news stories profile animals given sanctuary in Israel, while demolitions of Palestinian homes proceed at an alarming rate. International media thrill over the breeding of rare species in Israel’s zoos, while Gazans remain trapped in an open-air cage. Apparently, colonial projects are able to extract moral capital not only from “saving brown women,” as post-colonial theorist Gayatri Spivak famously observed, but from saving endangered white rhinos and golden lion tamarins, too.

Such efforts at what one might call “fur washing” have a long colonial history. In the discourse of European “civilizing missions,” Indigenous populations’ failure to treat and use animals according to European norms was cited as proof of their “uncivilized” nature, rationalizing brutal projects of domination that colonized human and non-human animals alike.

For instance, British settlers castigated Kenyans for their violent treatment of animals, which they penalized with the violence of harsh corporal punishment. As the eminent Kenyan writer and academic Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o remarked, “To the settlers, dogs ranked infinitely higher than Kenyans; and Kenyans were either children (to be paternalistically loved but not appreciated, like dogs) or mindless scoundrels (to be whipped or killed).” Unsurprisingly, British behaviors involving harm to living beings, such as hunting and colonialism, were not similarly treated as signs of “backwards” tendencies.

In India, British colonizers implemented legislation prohibiting cruelty against animals, but the law exclusively targeted Indian practices, while exempting British uses of animals for research and sport. In fact, British scientists in India took advantage of the opportunity to perform torturous experiments on animals that they were precluded from conducting back home.

A selective compassion for animals was also used to justify the colonial presence in Egypt. One of the patrons of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Egypt was the British Consul-General Evelyn Baring, the first Earl of Cromer — who subsequently served as the president of a pro-vivisection society in London dedicated to defending often-cruel practices of experimentation on animals. (For example, one member of the society did research on gunshot wounds by shooting living dogs in the head).

Such hypocrisy was not a departure from the green but par for the course for Baring, who is perhaps now best known for parading as a liberator of women in the colonies while heading the League for Opposing Woman Suffrage in the U.K.

Humanitarian hypocrisies continue to be mobilized in support of present-day colonial and imperial projects. U.S. media and government websites, for example, wax saccharine over soldiers who rescued stray dogs during the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, even as animal rights activists in the U.S. have been prosecuted as terrorists.

In Canada, Indigenous seal-hunts have been subjected to a persistent and concerted campaign of demonization — in a country where more than 800 million land animals are killed every year in a factory-farming system that denies them adequate legal protections against immense suffering.

In colonial orders, violence against human and non-human animals is intimately intertwined. This is made apparent when colonizers attempt to legitimize oppression against the colonized by comparing them to animals; Israeli politicians, for example, have referred to Palestinians as grasshoppers, crocodiles, dogs, snakes and beasts. The unspoken premise is that these non-human lives are infinitely violable and disposable, and so the human lives analogized to them are similarly worthless by extension.

When it comes to the idea that colonialism can protect or liberate either humans or non-humans, there is one animal-related expression that comes to mind: a load of bull.