‘They reflect Palestinian character’: Arabian horse breeding in the West Bank | Palestinian territories

As Abdel Naser Musleh gently approaches the stall gate of his purebred Egyptian Arabian stallion, the soft sound of hooves on the golden sand is interrupted only by the noise of pneumatic hammers on asphalt.

Musleh’s stud is tucked away in a corner of the Kafr Aqab neighbourhood, which Israel considers part of the Jerusalem municipality, though it also lies on the West Bank side of the separation wall.

Kafr Aqab, a heavily populated Jerusalem neighbourhood, remains isolated from the rest of the city due to the Israeli separation wall

  • Kafr Aqab, a heavily populated Jerusalem neighbourhood, remains isolated from the rest of the city due to the Israeli separation wall. Though under Israeli governance, the neighbourhood is located on the West Bank side of the wall, which the international court of justice deemed illegal. Among these buildings lies Abdel Naser Musleh’s stable

Abdel Nasser Musleh lovingly tends to his straight Egyptian Arabian stallion named Kamel El Awsaf, quenching his thirst with fresh water after an afternoon of training. Arabian horses are a breed known for their beauty, intelligence, and endurance. They have been prized by horse lovers for centuries and are often used in competitive riding events.

  • Musleh lovingly tends to his straight Egyptian Arabian stallion, Kamel el Awsaf, quenching his thirst with fresh water after an afternoon of training. Arabian horses are known for their beauty, intelligence and endurance. They have been prized by horse lovers for centuries and are often used in competitive riding events

In this grey area resulting from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the separation wall, the population is rapidly increasing while a lack of land results in the construction of taller buildings. The sound of the hammers is a constant presence in the air. Yet, Musleh remains focused on his stallion and finds peace in this moment with his horse.

Horse trainer Abu Al Saeed takes the first ride on Abdel Naser Musleh’s stallion in Kufr Aqab

  • The horse trainer Abu al Saeed takes the first ride on Musleh’s stallion in Kafr Aqab. This is a crucial moment in the training process of purebred Arabian horses, which are known for their strong-willed nature that breeders seek to maintain. The first ride sets the foundation for the horse’s future, building trust and establishing a strong bond between horse and rider

The straight Egyptian Arabian stallion named Kamel El Awsaf in his stall after a day of training. “Arabian horses have a strong character and are full of energy. It’s important to tire both their body and mind with daily training and keep their muscles constantly exercised,” Musleh explains. He knows that a well-rested horse is a happier and more willing partner in the arena.

Despite the challenges posed by conflict, Musleh’s breeding programme aims to contribute to the revitalisation of the Arabian horse legacy, which is closely linked to Palestinian cultural identity. “Arabian horses are a source of pride. They reflect the Palestinian people’s character and represent a tangible connection to our Arab identity,” says the 28-year-old, who is the first in his family to take up the challenge of becoming an Arabian horse breeder.

Abdel Naser Musleh nervously awaits the veterinarian’s diagnosis on his straight Egyptian Arabian mare

  • Musleh nervously awaits the vet’s diagnosis on the potential pregnancy of his straight Egyptian Arabian mare Haga Ghareeba at his stable in Kafr Aqab. Musleh is not focused on beauty contests, but rather on breeding and training purebred Arabian horses, with a business model based on the sale of foals and trained horses

“Arabian horses have a strong character and are full of energy. It’s important to tire both their body and mind with daily training and keep their muscles constantly exercised,” says Musleh. Breeders like him overcome limited resources, infrastructure and a shortage of local skilled professionals, using culture, art and genetics to shape their Arabian horses, which were once the pride of Arab Bedouin tribes, relied upon for their speed and endurance to survive in the harsh desert environment. Today, owning an Arabian horse in Palestine is seen as a continuation of that tradition, reflecting the importance of the culture and heritage of the Ottoman empire.

Majd Jabeer old horse rolls around in the sand of a stable in Wadi Qaddum

  • Majd Jabeer watches an old horse roll around in the sand of a stable in Wadi Qaddum, East Jerusalem. ‘When I’m here with the horses, the problems of my life fade away. I lose myself in the beauty of these moments,’ he says.

The Arabian horse breeding industry is dominated by Israeli breeders who have invested significant amounts of money in their breeding programmes and possess most of the resources in this field, including frozen semen for inseminating mares. “Some Palestinian breeders buy horse semen from award-winning Israeli horse farms because they have an established reputation. They win beauty shows. They’re a recognisable brand. We’ve got to change this and take pride in our work and use it to affirm our identity. We are Palestinian stallion breeders,” says Musleh.

Over the last two decades, the Arabian horse breeding industry in the West Bank has rapidly grown and developed, challenging the longstanding monopoly held by Israeli breeding programmes. About 15,000 purebred Arabian horses are registered in Israel according to data by the World Arabian Horse Organization, compared with approximately 2,000 in the West Bank. Some Palestinian industry insiders claim that the number of Arabian horses in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is likely to be much higher than official estimates, with many of these horses being undocumented.

A Palestinian child leans on a partbred Arabian after a horseback riding lesson in Qalandiya village, West Bank. Horseback riding has become a popular hobby in Palestine over the past two decades, providing children and adults alike with an opportunity to connect with these majestic animals and escape from the challenges of daily life in a conflict zone.

  • A Palestinian child leans on a part-bred Arabian after a riding lesson in Qalandiya village, West Bank. Horseback riding has become a popular hobby in Palestine over the last 20 years, providing children and adults with an opportunity to connect with the majestic animals and escape from the challenges of daily life in a conflict zone

Two Palestinian girls are pictured during a horseback riding lesson in the village of Qalandiya in the West Bank

  • The lessons take place just a few hundred meters from the checkpoint that separates Jerusalem from Ramallah, and 200 metres from the separation wall. For a brief moment, these girls are able to forget about the realities of their daily lives and enjoy the freedom of horse riding

Horse riding is becoming a less elitist sport in the West Bank as riding clubs gain popularity, offering a chance for more people to experience the freedom and escape from daily life that comes with it, regardless of their socioeconomic background.

Arabian horses are renowned for their spirited and wild nature, making it vital to preserve their character during training. A bond of trust and respect with the horse is developed by working with its instincts and natural behaviour rather than using fear or pain to force obedience. This approach is crucial for Arabian horses since their character is highly prized in beauty contests where they are evaluated not just for their appearance, but also for their behaviour and personality.

A white, straight Egyptian purebred Arabian mare named Hamdiyah is unleashing her energy in the arena of Abdel Naser Musleh, a 27-year-old Arabian horse breeder, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kufr Aqab. “Her tail is up, her nostrils are flared, and her ears are pricked. That’s how the ideal Arabian horse should look,” he explains.

  • A white straight Egyptian purebred Arabian mare named Hamdiyah unleashes her energy in Kafr Aqab. ‘Her tail is up, her nostrils are flared, and her ears are pricked,’ says Musleh. ‘That’s how the ideal Arabian horse should look’

Arabian horse breeder Raed Abu Al Rub pets a straight Egyptian purebre Arabian mare named Hamdiyah in Abdel Naser Musleh’s stable located in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kufr Aqab.

The value of an Arabian horse is determined by several factors, including its bloodline, age, gender, performance record and level of training. Breeders invest a considerable amount of time, effort and resources into selecting the best breeding pairs, aiming to produce the ultimate champion that can fetch high prices at auction or in competitions.

A group of passionate Palestinian horse breeders gather in the Wadi Qaddum area

  • In the tough neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem, a group of passionate Palestinian horse breeders gather to admire a magnificent purebred Arabian horse. During their free afternoons, they spend hourssharing their love for horses

For seasoned and established breeders, the Arabian horse breeding industry is a source of profit, aiming to produce the ultimate champion for top beauty contests or to sell at a premium price, which can reach up to 250,000 shekels (£54,000). “I began breeding horses as a hobby 30 years ago,” says Sami Salem, a 63-year-old Jerusalem horse trader, “and it eventually turned into my profession. Now, I breed, train, and sell foals and Egyptian Arabian horses to Gulf countries.” He specialises in breeding straight Egyptian Arabians, which have the purest bloodline from the Bedouin tribes in the Arabian desert.

Horse trader Mohammad Shwekiya (30) is attempting to bring his seven-year-old purebred Arabian Egyptian horse named Lahibe back into the stable after letting her run around to release some energy.

  • The horse trader Mohammad Shwekiya, 30, is attempting to bring his seven-year-old purebred Arabian Egyptian horse, Lahibe, back into the stable after letting her run around to release some energy

For the less fortunate, owning and raising these magnificent animals is a matter of social status and pride. They often raise them in small stables, fighting against the risk of demolition by Israeli authorities in East Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighbourhoods, under what may be considered prohibitive conditions in which =to raise horses.

Majd Jabeer, a resident of the Wadi Qaddum area of the Silwan neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, finds solace and grace in observing his horses after a long day of work as a cleaner at a police station. “Animals don’t ask themselves philosophical questions or have existential doubts. They just live their lives, despite the circumstances. Somehow, they set the example,” he says. On occasion, he uses one of his seven horses to earn some additional income for his family, allowing others to ride his animal in exchange for a small fee.

Majd Jabeer and his cousin Fadi Jabeer break their fast during Ramadan after a horseback ride in a park in East Jerusalem