This article was written for Peace x Peace, a global network of peacebuilders in 128 countries.
I sat on the far side of a large, plain room in the municipality building in Zawiya village in the West Bank governorate of Salfit. On the other side of the room, six local men were introducing themselves. I was there to do research for an article about community philanthropy, and I promise I will write that article, but first I need to write about wild pigs.
“Mansour is so big,” one of the Zawiya residents teased, squeezing the bulging forearm of the man sitting next to him, “even the pigs are scared of him.”
The joke was off topic, so I let it go, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It is strange for Palestinians to talk about people and pigs in the same sentence. The majority of Palestinians are Muslim and they, like Jews, consider pigs the dirtiest of creatures. Why were they joking about pigs?
I was sure that I had misunderstood. My Arabic isn’t that good. I probably imagined hearing the word, khanazeer (the Arabic word for pigs). I asked one of my friends.
“There are lots of wild pigs (aka boars) in the villages in the West Bank,” my friend told me. “The Israeli settlers let them loose to destroy Palestinian crops. Sometimes the pigs even attack children.”
Wild pigs? I’ve lived in Palestine for eight years and I’ve seen a lot of inhumanity, but the thought of wild pigs being intentionally released shocked me. Is it possible that, like me, the international community doesn’t know about this?
I found an article or two online, but they didn’t report any details. (There may be more in the Hebrew press, but I can’t read it, and I’m told the Arabic press comments from time to time.) I called the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). They had never heard of the problem of wild pigs, but said it would fall under the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). OHCHR said they were unaware of any reports of wild pigs being released by settlers in Palestinian villages. (The UN does monitor lots of other settler violence against Palestinians). I spoke with the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (B’Tselem) who said they’ve never studied the problem and can’t comment on topics they have not studied. They did mention, though, that there was recently a fatal car accident involving a wild pig (read about it here). Yesh Din, another Israeli human rights organization, said the claim is “fantastical,” and “science fiction.” I started to wonder if the wild-pigs-being-released-by-Israeli-settlers story was an urban legend like the myth that Yasser Arafat died of AIDS.
But Rabbis for Human Rights said that while it sounded unlikely, it was not totally impossible since settlers do release attack dogs on Palestinians. “They even do it on the Sabbath,” he said with disgust. “They somehow rationalize that attacking Palestinians is holy.”
I was no closer to finding out if the story is true, but I was feeling doubtful because since wild pigs are, by definition, wild, wouldn’t the settlers have to first catch the pigs in order to release them in Palestinian villages? These pigs reach 200 pounds or more and have long, sharp tusks. Catching them seems like dangerous, specialized work. Also, pigs are unclean for Jews and most Israeli settlers are religious. Would they really touch pigs in order to harm Palestinians? And besides that, what would prevent the wild pigs from turning around to ravage the crops of the settlements once they finish eating the Palestinian produce?
I expanded my investigation and spoke with farmers, journalists, agricultural workers, and researchers, and everybody confirmed that wild pigs are a serious and growing problem. In some villages there are only occasional sightings of small numbers of animals, but in others, wild pigs are a major threat to the safety, well-being and livelihoods of thousands of people. Over and over people implored me to understand the urgency of the problem: “They move in packs of 50-60 pigs. “They live between the houses. We are scared to go out to visit neighbors at night.” “Many farmers have been forced to abandon their fields because the pigs eat their wheat, watermelons, guavas, and even the roots of olive trees.”
But how can we be sure that the wild pigs are being released by Israeli settlers? Nearly everyone I spoke with argued that wild pigs aren’t native to Palestine and the only people with the ability to import them are the Israelis; that the problem started during the first Intifada when settler violence began and when, they claim, settlers began to cultivate wild pigs; that the problem is worst in villages adjacent to settlements.
But I wasn’t convinced! I was losing sleep. I had to find the source of the wild pig problem. Yet I couldn’t find anyone who had seen settlers release pigs into villages with his/her own eyes. One farmer said his wife’s relatives reported seeing a helicopter deliver a male and female to Kursa village; and an agricultural expert had been told by a farmer from Jalameh village said that a civilian truck accompanied by a military jeep opened the gate that controls the entry and exit of laborers and released several wild pigs into Jalameh. Surely, if thousands of pigs were being transported into Palestinian villages, there would be more evidence.
Moreover, according to Birzeit professor of political science and naturist, Saleh Abdel Jawad, wild pigs ARE indigenous to Palestine. Most Palestinians don’t realize they are indigenous because the population was smaller and lived only in the wild until the last 8-10 years. It turns out that the hyena, the only other indigenous predator of the wild pig has been hunted to near extinction. This has led to a dramatic and unchecked increase in the population of wild pigs. In fact, there is apparently a dramatic increase of wild pigs in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria too.
But does not mean that the infestation of wild pigs in Palestinian villages is merely a fluke of nature? No, because if the problem were merely natural, there would be a problem in the Galilee, a similar environment adjacent to the West Bank but inside Israel. There isn’t. If the problem were natural, the Israeli settlements would also be suffering. But they aren’t.
What do I believe?
1- Wild pigs, indigenous to Palestine, are increasing naturally. Their numbers have become a problem because its only animal predator, the hyena, is no longer keeping the population in balance.
2- Although there isn’t a large domestic market for wild pig meat, people have in the past been able to trap, poison or shoot wild pigs when they threaten farmland or populated areas. However, harming or trapping wild pigs is now forbidden and Israelis frequently catch and prosecute people who seek to limit the population of wild pigs. Also, carrying firearms that would be needed to kill these large and dangerous animals is forbidden to Palestinians.
3- Israel erected a 708km “barrier” (aka Annexation Wall) comprised of sections of concrete wall and fence, totally enclosing the West Bank and encircling many villages. Since we know that pigs can’t fly, the population of wild pigs will inevitably increase within the West Bank without any opportunity to disperse naturally throughout the region or even to escape from populated areas.
4- Israeli settlers live in fenced-in settlements and are protected. Only Israelis control the gates in the Annexation Wall through which wild pigs could pass. Only Israelis have the ability to move pigs within the region.
I realize that settlers often actively organize attacks of all kinds against Palestinian children, farmers and property, with near-total impunity for harm they cause to Palestinians (even when their actions are illegal), but in this case, I think the fault lies squarely with the Israeli government. The Israeli Nature and Parks Authority of Judea and Samaria told me definitively that settlers do not cultivate or move wild pigs. They admitted that they are the only ones who move wild pigs and they do so to spread the population. They agreed that the population is growing too big, and that more are entering populated areas, but said the animals are still protected because they are part of nature. When I said that Palestinians complain about the danger of wild pigs in villages they told me that wild pigs don’t threaten people unless people threaten their offspring. “A pig might run at you and you might think he’s going to attack you, but he won’t,” they told me. “If you step aside, he’ll run right past you.”
Incredible! Wild pigs in Palestine are protected, but no one is protecting the Palestinians!
This is not a “normal” situation in which a national animal protection policy needs to be modified. Israel is an occupying power, with obligations under international humanitarian law, that intentionally acts to multiply the number of wild pigs that live in areas in which Palestinians are surrounded and enclosed. It’s a matter of human security, livelihoods, sanitation, and well-being. It’s a matter of human rights.
So here’s a call to action to the Israeli and international human rights organizations:
1-Study the problem of wild pigs in Palestinian villages, immediately;
2-Hold Israel accountable for its obligations to protect and promote the wellbeing of the people under its control;
3-Find ways to remove wild pigs from Palestinian farmland and populated areas;
4-Tell the world: Israel has locked Palestinians in villages with wild pigs!