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Ramona Wadi

Companions in Conflict: Animals in Occupied Palestine

Displacement and loss of territory is synonymous with Palestine and Palestinians [Getty]

Date of publication: 12 June, 2019

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Book Club: Penny Johnson's novel skilfully brings attention to how Israel's colonial and military occupation of Palestinian land has ravaged not only human lives, but also animals and the environment.

In the midst of Israel's ongoing colonisation of Palestinian land, there is a tendency to overlook what, in the grand scheme of things, seems of less importance. Penny Johnson reverses this thinking in her book Companions in Conflict: Animals in Occupied Palestine and skilfully brings the reader to acknowledge and appreciate how Israel's colonial and military occupation of Palestinian land has ravaged not only human lives, but also animals and the environment.

Johnson commences with an overlooked reality. "The human-animal relationship is deeply embedded in both our histories and our psyches and is lost at our peril." Tracing the history of animals in historic Palestine, Johnson weaves an intricate narrative that includes literature, memory anecdotes and contemporary life, while looking at how Israel's expansion across Palestine has altered all aspects of living.

Displacement and loss of territory is synonymous with Palestine and Palestinians. In her book, Johnson shows how animals suffered the same fate. Her choice of phrase, "companions in conflict", reflects how territorial expansion and loss of territory resulted in people and animals experiencing similar predicaments.

However, the author also asks, "Can humans engaged in conflict – and Palestinians living under occupation – be concerned with the lives and welfare of other mammals?"

The answer is rarely straightforward. From a distance, the fact that Palestinians and the animals inhabiting the land are sharing common predicaments is lost. Yet, through Johnson's travels, observations and interviews, it becomes clear that the people and the animals have to contend with Israeli impositions that are detrimental to their well-being.

Johnson weaves an intricate narrative that includes literature, memory anecdotes and contemporary life, while looking at how Israel's expansion across Palestine has altered all aspects of living

There is an awareness of how, before the Nakba, nature was more likely to be in harmony within the environment. Prior to urbanisation and settlement expansion, the author notes, it was possible to see camels in Jerusalem, for example. Their importance in Palestinian life prior to the Nakba is documented by Johnson. Now, she says, their near-absence carries parallels to Palestinians' forced displacement.

Johnson adds important value to her book by evoking reflections of Palestinian life through her observation and analysis.

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Her descriptions of hyenas, disliked in Palestine and tormented by stone throwing, is used by the author to reflect about Israeli military incursions in Palestinian villages and the ensuing Palestinian retaliation by stone-throwing. Regarding her metaphor of the "caged hyena", Johnson states, "both in many ways are hunted. Common lives in Palestine come in strange shapes."

Palestinian livestock, on the other hand, is directly targeted by Israel when villages are slated for forced displacement. The repetitive violations which also include settlement expansion have deprived families of grazing areas for their flocks.

In the face of such aggression, Palestinians have remained resilient – in the words of one interviewee – "this land is our inheritance." This routine of resistance – important though it is for Palestinians – is rarely acknowledged precisely due to its repetition. "If each story is told for its bare facts, each story sounds the same."

There is an awareness of how, before the Nakba, nature was more likely to be in harmony within the environment

Yet in the sameness lies an intricate weaving of lives, each dependent on the other. Palestinians, however, have had to prioritise and choose at times between their well-being and that of their animals. How is one going to provide necessary medication for his animals when he can't buy medicine for his children?"

The author also notes how Israeli settlements have contributed to a closer proximity between wild animals and the people.

The Apartheid Wall, Johnson says, has negatively impacted the environment, while sewage from the settlements has attracted wild boars, for instance. Jackals have also been sighted closer to human-inhabited areas, thus altering the normal boundaries of a land that should have been harmoniously shared between animals and people.

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Likewise settlements and urbanisation have also threatened other forms of wildlife. Johnson reflects upon "the problem of understanding the lives and prospects of the wild creatures in a land that is crisscrossed with human barriers, both physical and ideological, and where "capital", occupation and conflict supersede both human and animal welfare."

Activists face limitations in a colonial landscape. The contradictions, for example, of being able to transfer zoo  animals out of Gaza while people remain incarcerated by Israel in the enclave raises questions about the cruelty that the Palestinian environment has become.

Johnsons's metaphor of companions with reference to the animals is tested throughout the book. In a non-colonial framework, animal activism would have flourished, instead of having to contend with priorities and forced to contemplate the absurdities of possibly being able to initiate activities for animal protection while the people themselves have no protection.

Such cynicism, however, Johnson insists, leads "to deeper understanding of the common conditions faced by people and other animals in occupied Palestine."

In the end, what tethers people and animals in Palestine is the result of settler colonialism creating complexities. Johnson's narrative detailed and connecting, provides the reader with an opportunity to rethink the repercussions of colonialism on Palestinian land and to refrain from marginalising the inhabitants which have been rendered more voiceless than the people whose voices and lives are continuously bludgeoned.

Order your copy of Companions in Conflict: Animals in Occupied Palestine here

Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger specialising in the struggle for memory in Chile and Palestine, colonial violence and the manipulation of international law. 

Follow her on Twitter: @walzerscent


 

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