Pork Politics

Originally appeared in The National.

The roads of Mi’ilya, an Arab town in the Western Galilee, snake their way up a steady incline, and the houses all have at least one window that looks out onto another village nearby. Most of those villages are hostile, in one way or another. The 2,800 residents of Mi’ilya are almost all Roman Catholic Arabs, though in the last few years a small number of Muslims have taken up residence, arousing some suspicion among Catholics who fear for the ethno-religious character of the town. The village’s closest neighbours are Jewish settlers. Just a few kilometres to the north, across the Lebanese border, Hizbollah reigns in a series of old and tightly clustered hill villages, the sites of rocket attacks against Israeli communities, including Mi’ilya, for the past five years. From the village’s highest vantage point, near the local church, one gets a showstopping panorama of enmity: Jews who hate Catholics, who dodge Shiite rockets that land near Sunnis.

If this combination were not nasty enough, Mi’ilya’s staple industry is the smelliest, most universally reviled in the Middle East. Since the mid-1960s, the village has been the capital of Israeli pork production. Although most of the country’s 135,000 pigs reside elsewhere, Hatem Arraf, the Swine King of Israel, still lives here and maintains a herd of several thousand animals that live alongside the smaller herds of other Catholic farmers. The densely packed lots of Mi’ilya send a reeking miasma wafting in every direction, and nearly everyone wants the farms closed – everyone but the local Catholics, whose best restaurant serves pork shawarma as its signature dish.

So when someone threw firebombs at the Mi’ilya herd last April, there was no shortage of suspects. In the attack, a small farm set was ablaze and a farmer’s house was strafed with gunfire, though no one was hurt. Still, the screams of the animals filled the night air and, in the morning, the total damage was reckoned to amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. In a part of the world where neighbours mistrust neighbours and sworn enemies live back to back, the relatively minor incident of one burnt farm is cause enough for rampant paranoia. Even other pig farmers are prime suspects: many people whispered that the bombings could have been the result of internecine conflicts between competing producers.

To get to the bottom of this unfortunate event, I start by visiting the village’s mayor. Elias Arraf had been in office for a year and a half when the attacks occurred. Almost every room in Mi’ilya seems to be adorned with icons of the Virgin Mary, and Arraf’s parlour is no exception. His family exemplifies the fraught relationship between Mi’ilya’s people and their Jewish neighbours. Huwaida Arraf, his niece, is an American doctor who led the doomed flotilla to Gaza. His son Ayman, a medical student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says he celebrates Hizbollah’s rocket attacks – some of which hit Mi’ilya. “We’re living in Israel, but we’re happy when we see the rockets,” he says. He does wish Hizbollah had sharper aim, though, and could hit the nearby village of Ma’alot instead.

Mayor Arraf says that Mi’ilya has changed over the years, starting with the slow erosion of the village’s Catholic identity. “Before, everybody was together, and everyone took care of everyone else,” he explains. “Now everybody just cares for himself, about how to get money and get a new car.” One way to profit is to assist the forces that are trying to chip away at the village’s singularly unpopular way of life by selling land to outsiders unsympathetic to the pork industry, including Muslims and observant Jews.

Kassis Shukri, a plastic surgeon, says that Arab villagers who had sold their land to outsiders are shunned as traitors. “I would never sell my land, because it is the only place in all of Israel that belongs to me,” he says. “I heard about one family that rents out a house to Muslims,” the mayor explains, hinting at an unknown conspiracy. “We don’t know why they come here. If they were normal people they wouldn’t.”

Mayor Arraf won’t say who he thinks set the fires. “The police never said why it happened,” he offers, cryptically. The neighbouring Israeli villages include Mizpe Hila – best known as the home of the captured soldier Gilad Shalit – and Ma’alot. Residents of both places have complained about the farms’ stench and attempted to have them shut down. Arraf says Muslims, unlike Jews, who not only operate pig farms but account for over half the eaters of pork in Israel, would probably gag at the very idea of a pig farm.

On a visit to the farm of Israel’s largest pork producer, Hatim Arraf, I can understand why. On the dirt road to the farm, the stench creeps into my car’s air-conditioning system, and by the time I reach the front gate the air stings my eyes. Arraf, who is not a close relative of the mayor, keeps 35,000 pigs, but only about 5,500 of them are in Mi’ilya. Although a couple of dozen are present when I arrive. An amiable caretaker shows me around and leads me to view a row of enormous sows and their piglets.

The tour follows a morning of angry accusations from Hatim Arraf and Hadid, in which they detail the ways in which the Jewish authorities have tried to limit their ability to make their traditional living. Rural farmers and livestock managers already engage in tough tactics in northern Israel – particularly in the Galilee, where Jewish Israelis have set up Old West-style militias such as Shomer, or “The Guardian”, to prevent cattle rustling, well-poisoning, and other underhanded practices they accuse Palestinians of. Palestinians, of course, return the accusations.

In Mi’ilya, the strategies are sneakier, say Arraf and Hadid. The authorities simply refuse permits to dig wells, build new structures, or improve facilities. “It’s not safe like it used to be,” says Hadid, referring to the burning of his farm. “But the biggest problem is the government. It doesn’t give us licences, it doesn’t help us.” He says that if he were a Jew who wanted to build a chicken farm, the permissions would proceed rapidly. Instead, as a Palestinian who wants to raise pigs, he is forced to make do with old facilities and hope that he never needs to build beyond his current farm.

“We are frozen,” says Arraf, pointing to Ma’alot’s leadership as his biggest opposition. “The mayor there does not like pigs. He is fighting against us.” Arraf believes that local opposition to the main industry of Mi’ilya is an attempt to grind the town, its existing residents and their unclean animals into the dust. In Ma’alot, just a few hundred metres from the farm, I meet Dimitri Glazerman, a friendly Russian Jew enjoying a hot and sunny sabbath. He brings me a glass of water and uses his hands to mimic the wafting of pig fumes toward his nose. Glazerman has lived here for 13 years and insists that the cold war between the Catholic swineherds of Mi’ilya and the Jews of Ma’alot has nothing to do with faith and everything to do with hygiene.

“It’s not a religious thing,” he says. “It’s simply the stench.” He then pinches his nose and reels back dramatically, saying that the smell penetrates into his area at least a couple times a week. Today the air is crisp and clean, and there is no way to tell whether the horrific aromas to which Glazerman refers are real or imagined. The farmers, for their part, assure me that they have taken all possible measures to reduce the environmental impact of their businesses, not to mention the smell. All agree that good ventilation makes for good neighbours. But Hadid adds that he has been raising pigs since long before the Jewish neighbourhood started encroaching on Mi’ilya, and that the expectations of his neighbours are unreasonable.

“If they pay me two or three million shekels, I will leave. But instead they just come and tell me to go,” Hadid says. He adds that the Ma’alot residents are asking him to dial down his pig business. But, he explains, animal husbandry is not that simple, so the angry disagreement is a more or less permanent feature of life here – and, nowadays, with these frustrations comes the risk of the occasional fire bombing.

Hadid, the farmer who suffered most from the recent attack suspects just about everyone, including members of his own community. The bombers, he believes, were aiming for the Arraf farm and accidentally hit his much smaller property instead. “The police will find out [who did this] if they want to,” he says. “But they are scared of the mafia, and the mafia are not scared of them.” He narrows his eyes and looked out over the landscape, seeing conspiracies, enemies and land-grabbers in every direction.

Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic


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