Whips, Drones, Donkeys and the Future of Resistance: a Lesson from Saeed Al-Err

Photograph Source: Saleh Najm and Anas Sharif – CC BY 4.0

“….a world which is sure of itself, which crushes with its stones the backs flayed by whips: this is the colonial world.”

– Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

“This whip. In the garbage! We’ll untie him and destroy the cart!”

– Saeed Al-Err

Amidst carnage, rubble, detonations and the sonic torture of incessantly buzzing drones, Palestinians have been live-broadcasting their genocide via social media since the beginning of the Israeli-U.S. bombardment of Gaza on October 8, 2023. One such video records Saeed Al-Err intervening on behalf of a bloodied donkey

Purchasing the donkey to relieve his agony, Al-Err removes his metal collar and unties the maze of heavy straps and chains encircling his face and diminutive frame. He invites the camera to focus on the donkey’s mange-covered coat and two large gaping wounds on his neck and rump where he has been repeatedly struck.

A hand holding a whip fills the screen. “This whip. In the garbage!” shouts Al-Err, “We’ll untie him and destroy the cart!” Casting down the whip, two men take up sledgehammers and proceed to smash the cart to shreds.

The ethos of Al-Err’s organization, Sulala Society for Animal Care, dismantles the logic of incarceration and use of force. Not only checkpoints, surveillance, jails, artillery and bombs, but also whips, bits, blinders and cages. Sulala’s solidarity subverts the entangled hostile structures of white supremacism and anthropogenic, or human-caused, violence.

Frantz Fanon’s discussion of colonialism’s “zoological terms” elucidates the 2023 Israeli-U.S. siege of Gaza. Israeli and U.S. political leaders justify Palestinians’ extermination on the grounds that they are “animals.”

Solidarity between mainstream animal advocates and decolonialists is scarce. Despite the interdependence of racism with speciesism, the anti-Zionist movement fails to center animal suffering while prominent animal rights platforms remain silent about Gaza.

To question human violence against animals transporting cartloads of murdered and wounded Palestinian refugees, themselves treated like “animals,” is to approach what Claire Jean Kim calls a “dangerous crossing”. Kim advocates an ethics of mutual avowal, whereby we simultaneously see and respond to multiple forms of oppression. Applied to the current catastrophe, mutual avowal means challenging both white supremacy as well as ever-present human-on-animal “warfare”.

Al-Err has been modeling this for a long time, aiding abandoned and abused animals since the early 2000s amidst brutal apartheid and occupation and establishing Sulala Animal Rescue near the northern Gaza city, Al Zahra, in 2006. Prior to Nakba 2023, Sulala housed more than 400 dogs and 120 cats, divided between two shelters and Al-Err’s home.

It also provided educational resources to improve humans’ treatment of animals, including donkeys and horses used for transportation. With the help of his brother, a structural engineer, Al-Err repurposed children’s toys as wheelchairs for several disabled dogs.

Since October 8, Al-Err and his family have been displaced twice. When Israel first ordered northern Gazans to evacuate to the south, Al-Err was forced to leave the 400 dogs with open bags of food and the sanctuary gates open. He and his family moved with 120 cats into one of the cat shelters, located just south of the evacuation line.

On Christmas day, after flyers were dropped ordering another evacuation, Al-Err’s family relocated a second time to central Gaza. Shortly before this article’s publication, Al-Err’s son, Sa`ed, reported that they may need to evacuate at any moment yet again, this time to Rafah.

Al-Err and his family currently have more than 150 animals in their care, including 120 cats and two donkeys (Al-Err rescued a second donkey subjected to violent beatings, with oozing sores and a nail in her leg.) While most of the dogs in the northern shelter are presumed killed, remarkably seven of them found their way to Al-Err after walking six or seven kilometers.

Of the more than 30 dogs that remain in a temporary shelter, 20 are amputees or paralyzed dogs Al-Err picked up at the beginning of the war. The remainder includes four puppies found wandering alone, one dog hit by an ambulance, one with a shrapnel injury and another paralyzed dog brought to Al-Err by photojournalist Motaz Azaiza.

Before the war, ten veterinary student volunteers assisted Sulala. When Israel-U.S. bombed the shelter in the north, one of them transformed a room of his house into a clinic for Sulala. But then the house was bombarded, killing the volunteer’s parents. The last time Al-Err heard from him, he himself was hospitalized.

In addition to calling for an immediate and lasting ceasefire, Al-Err began asking supporters to pressure animal aid organizations to obtain animal food and medical supplies for Gaza, but the organizations’ hands are tied because Israel won’t allow them. Sulala subsequently shifted to encouraging direct pressure on Israel to allow animal supplies into Gaza.

Amidst infrastructural decimation, targeted assassinations, imposed starvation and potable water deprivation, imagine the utter precarity of providing for and repeatedly relocating one’s family along with 120 cats and two donkeys, while temporarily sheltering more than 30 disabled dogs at another location. Jeremy Scahill’s observation that Israel-U.S. has reduced Gaza from open-air prison to “ever-shrinking killing cage” drives home the shared fragility of non-white and animal life in colonial, carceral reality.

Al-Err and his family acknowledge their psychological and moral exhaustion even as they act unwaveringly to generate spheres of sanctuary for the most wretched in their midst. Sulala’s social media documentation guarantees the endurance of their loving, care-centered practices in collective memory across the globe.

Edward Smith observes on Facebook that “Palestinian culture is the future of culture.” “What,” he asks, “can cultural expression offer up to us as we face a horizon of total catastrophe? This is the question Palestinian culture has been answering for decades and it’s the question all of human culture will soon be grappling with on a global scale.”

To Smith’s observation, I would add that Sulala’s transspecies solidarity is the future of care and resistance, a manual of perseverance in the face of annihilation. Sulala’s interventions point the way to a world wherein no creature is “animalized” nor subjected to the use of force.

Netanyahu defines “Operation Swords of Iron” as a “struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle”. White supremacy and an always exclusionary “humanism” stand on one side, with racialized and sub-humanized “animals,” on the other.

While Zionists exult “swords of iron” – deceptive code for Israel’s futuristic, multibillion-dollar weaponry – Al-Err repudiates a primeval instrument of cruel force. Al-Err’s order to “Throw down the whip!” demolishes Netanyahu’s war cry.

Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond is Associate Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature and Luso-Brazilian Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her publications on Critical Animal Studies and the legacies of African enslavement include “Haunting Pigs, Swimming Jaguars: Mourning, Animals and Ayahuasca”(2019), “Akbar Stole My Heart: Coming Out as an Animalist” (2013), and White Negritude: Race, Writing and Brazilian Cultural Identity (2008). Her current book project, “Home Sick,” blends theory with creative nonfiction to meditate on grief, end of life, the medical-industrial complex, Islamophobia and the commodification of (human and nonhuman) animals.