Up in the Air
It seems like all God's creatures have lost their way in the Holy Land. But a few hopeful Israeli and Palestinian conservationists are tracing a new path along the flyways and wildlife corridors of the Jordan Valley—and rediscovering an ancient road map that leads from terror to peace.
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THE FIRST DETAINEE seems strangely unperturbed. His breathing is calm and his black eyes gaze unblinkingly, revealing nothing. Still, it doesn’t take long to establish his identity. At seven inches tall, with a striking black band behind his eye, a white shoulder patch, and orange tinges on his flanks, he’s unmistakably a mature male masked shrike.
“A very aggressive bird, eating eggs and small reptiles,” says Sami Backleh, gently extricating the creature from the mist net he rigged a few minutes ago. “An odd thing that I have seen is that it sometimes hangs dead lizards near its nest. Why, I don’t know.”
Backleh slips the shrike into a cotton sack and closes it with a drawstring. Removing two other birdsan olivaceous warbler and a yellow-vented bulbulfrom the 30-foot-long net, he heads for his base of operations: a folding card table in the middle of a weedy lot. There he’s joined by two colleagues, Anton Khalilieh and Sameh Darawshi, returning from other nets with a similar harvest of songbirds.
Brushing their breakfast crumbs off the table, the three jeans-clad 24-year-olds set about weighing, sexing, and aging their catch, carefully entering the results in a ledger. To test for body fat, they blow delicately on each bird’s chest feathers to expose the soft flesh underneath. This is a key measurement in the study of bird-migration patterns: A hollow at the base of the neck, where fat is stored, means the bird is in need of refueling, while a pronounced protuberance signals that it is ready to move on.
The last step is ringing (or banding, as it’s known in the United States), in which each bird is fitted with a small metal anklet. Backleh holds one up for my inspection before crimping it on the shrike’s foreleg. It’s just a little aluminum clip stamped with an identification code and the words WILDLIFE PALESTINE.
Wildlife in Palestine? To those steeped in bad news from this tiny, accursed corner of the worldwhether they know it as Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza, or the occupied territoriesit can be a shock to learn that much of anything is thriving here, wild or otherwise. But hyenas and four kinds of gazelle haunt the parched wadis of the Judean Mountains, and ibex still gambol in the Gilead Mountains of Jordan. And for a few months in the spring and fall, the valley between the two rangesthe cosmic trench drained by the River Jordanbecomes one of the birdiest places on earth. To date, Backleh’s employer, the four-year-old Palestine Wildlife Society, has set up only one ringing station on the West Bankthis one on the outskirts of the ancient city of Jericho, 850 feet below sea level and a few miles from the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth. But the operation is part of something larger and more ambitious, if not utterly improbable: an international migratory-bird project that links conservationists, researchers, students, and birdwatchers in Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank. It’s one of a very few regional programs and perhaps the only one in the environmental arena aimed at bringing Jews and Arabs together to work for a common goal.
By 8:30 a.m., the temperature has risen to about 90 degrees and the Dead Sea has disappeared behind a scrim of bluish haze, so the team decides to knock off for the day. In the last batch of captives, however, there’s one specimen that Backleh singles out for special attention. To my eye, it’s just another little brown birdmaybe a wren?
Backleh resists the urge to laugh. “A wren is an insectivore,” he says, cupping the bird in his hands. “So, a completely different beak. This one, you see, has a powerful beak for crushing seeds. It is a sparrowthe Dead Sea sparrow. In Latin, Passer moabiticus.”
I give the bird a second look. It’s tinyjust 13 grams, according to the scale, less than half an ouncebut subtly colored, with delicate gray cheeks and crown, a black throat, and a white-and-yellow streak above its eye. “In its plumage it is beautiful, no?” asks Backleh. “Also in its characteristic calls.” He whistles, inexpertly trying to mimic the bird’s song, then stops and grins.
Letters and e-mails from abroad reporting the capture of a Wildlife Palestine bird still generate a fair amount of excitement. In 2001, a distance record was set when a tagged reed warbler was retrapped in Poland. But perhaps the most significant message from a foreign land came on February 17, 2003, when a Passer moabiticus from Jericho was netted 50 miles up the Jordan Valley in the small Israeli kibbutz of Kfar Ruppin. It was a symbolic thinga sort of dove-of-peace momentand also a tangible reminder that from an ecological standpoint the two places are really one. But to the Palestinian birders, it was something more: a sign that their homeland, though not yet sovereign, was beginning to take its place among the nations of the world.
Backleh brings the sparrow up to eye level, studying it closely. “It is the smallest of the sparrows but, I think, the most beautiful,” he says. “I love the Dead Sea sparrow very much.”
He smiles and makes a quick upward motion of the hands, and the bird is gone.
IT IS ONE OF NATURE’S most astonishing spectacles: Every spring, more than half a billion birds fly north from Africa to breeding grounds in Europe and Asia, and every fall they return. A few strong fliers can cross the Mediterranean in one go. But the vast majority of the 500-odd species that make the trek are obliged to do so overlandpasserines (small perching birds) because they need to stop and eat, raptors and other big soaring birds because they depend on thermals, spiraling updrafts that don’t form over water.
The choke point for most of this traffic is the isthmus between Africa and Asia, a region currently shared (if that’s the right word) by Israel, the fledgling Palestinian political entity, and Jordan. This slender land bridge is furrowed by two parallel mountain ranges and, between them, the cavernous Jordan Valley, itself a northward continuation of Africa’s Great Rift. The valley is a perfect avian sluiceway, its high temperatures and steep walls spinning off thermals while its wetlands offer abundant cover and forage, and for millennia a feathery tide has ridden it back and forth, indifferent to the human dramas playing out below.
Lately, though, flying conditions have deteriorated. The problem is not so much the fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinians (although numerous Israeli fighter jets have wiped out, and been wiped out by, migrating birds) but unrelenting habitat destruction caused by burgeoning numbers of humans. “Ideally, both Arab and Jewish environmentalists should join together in a call for policies to promote zero population growth in all sectors of Israeli society,” writes Israeli environmental lawyer Alon Tal in his 2002 book Pollution in a Promised Land. “But this would amount to heresy. For Jews, the ingathering of the Jewish exiles remains the raison d’être of the State. For Arabs, population growth holds the key to greater political influence and autonomy.” Against this gloomy backdrop, a few remarkable characters stand out. One is Yossi Leshem, an indefatigable 55-year-old ornithology professor at the University of Tel Aviv and former president of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the country’s answer to the Sierra Club. Another is 43-year-old Imad Atrash, a former Cub Scout leader and high school environmental education teacher from the predominantly Christian Arab town of Bethlehem, who in 1999 helped found the Palestine Wildlife Society.
In 1995, with the bitterness of the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, beginning to fade, Leshem and Atrash met through the promptings of an American aid worker. Along with Jordanian partners from the conservation group BirdLife International, Atrash and one of Leshem’s protégés, Dan Alon, hatched a bold scheme, calling it For Birds and People in the Jordan Valley. The top priority was habitat preservationsecuring a pathway of green “stepping stones” where migrating birds could land and refueland there were additional plans for educational, research, and ecotourism programs. But beyond that was something much more daring: a concerted effort to move the peace process along.
“Conservation is a great common language, and that’s really what this is all aboutto keep these people talking, whether it’s about the birds or the air or the water,” says Larry Morris, president of the Quebec-Labrador Foundation, a Massachusetts-based conservation group that was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the Jordan Valley project. “It gets to your guteven if it’s just an infinitesimal step, it’s better than them blowing themselves up.”
THE PROPOSAL GATHERED steam faster than anyone had expected. In 1998, USAID kicked in an initial grant of $1.5 million, and the European Union eventually offered 2.5 million eurosafter all, it was their birds they were protecting. And then in September 2000, just days before the principals were to gather in Amman, Jordan, and officially announce the launch of the project, Ariel Sharon, then the chairman of Israel’s right-wing party, Likud, took a provocative stroll past the Al Aqsa Mosque, on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, and the second intifada broke out.
Last spring I met Atrash and Alon in New York. They were there fundraising, doing a sort of tag-team presentation for American philanthropists and foundations and, yes, sharing a hotel room. They admitted that political events had slowed their progressbut insisted the project was up and running.
I was intrigued and skeptical. Was the Jordan Valley project for real or merely a clever scam for acquiring shiny SUVs? Even if those involved were sincere, in a place where every conceivable strategy for making peace had so far reaped only mistrust, rage, and violence, was it possible that a joint conservation program could workand not only that, actually become a catalyst for political change?
With the help of Courtney Kealy, an American photographer living in Beirut, I set up an itinerary to visit the Jordan Valley. We would track the spring migration, starting in Jordan on the shores of the Dead Sea. From there we would follow the birds north into the valley, swinging up through the West Bank and into Israel before arriving at the Jordan’s source, beneath the snow-capped heights of Mount Hermon, the hulking 9,232-foot massif where Israel, Lebanon, and Syria converge. Our journey would necessarily end there, at one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world.
Though I’d traveled in the Holy Land once before, on a post-college ramble nearly two decades earlier, nothing prepared me for what I encountered once we arrived. In a taxi on the road from Damascus, Syria, to Amman, a scrupulously polite Syrian engineer assured me that the World Trade towers had been felled not by Saudi hijackers but by the CIA itselfeveryone knew that. Later, in northern Israel, a young Jewish mother with a baby in her arms told me flatly that there was no such thing as a Palestinian. “They are all from Lebanon and Jordan,” she said. “They only came here because of the prosperity that we created.”
But against that high wall of fear and prejudice stood an amazing thing that I had all but forgotten from my earlier trip: the land itself, as ancient and remarkably sculpted, and in places as wild, as the American Southwest. The Jews and the Arabs have their claims on it, and anyone who travels there must necessarily grapple with a tangled knot of colonial and even biblical history. But to visit in the spring or fall, when millions of birds are pinwheeling through the heavens, is to realize that there are other, much older claims here, too.
IF THE JORDAN VALLEY PROJECT has a “flagship” bird, it’s probably the white stork. It’s bignearly six feet, wingtip to wingtipand beautiful, with a bold black border on its snowy wings, a slender red beak, and long red legs. And it’s a great migrator. From as far south as South Africa these giant waders return each spring to the towers and steeples of Northern Europe, their arrival the very symbol of rebirth and renewal. In the animal-as-fundraiser category, the white stork is right up there with the panda.
My first sight of one comes in the Wadi Araba, the vast sandy wash south of the Dead Sea. I’m standing in the shade of a thorny jujube tree with Sharif Hussein, a research officer in BirdLife International’s Jordan office, when he points out a flock of them circling across the valley. “Watch how they ride the thermal,” he says. “When they get to the top, they’ll turn north and start gliding, losing altitude and looking around for the next lift.”
A lithe, diminutive 27-year-old, Hussein tells me that he is one of only two academically trained ornithologists in Jordan, a country of five million people. Along with a colleague, Ibrahim Al-Khader, 35, a plant taxonomist by training, Hussein’s job is to identify IBAsImportant Bird Areasand figure out ways to keep them from being paved over or plowed under. Hence our itinerary today, an IBA-hopping drive north along the eastern shore of the Dead Sea and into the Jordan Valley proper.
By the standards of the Arab world, Jordan is an environmentally progressive country. Its first conservation organization, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, was founded in 1966 by hunters who’d seen much of their country’s once-abundant game disappear. In that same year, the last Syrian desert ostrich died, steeling a Rooseveltian determination to prevent other endangered species like the oryx and the Nubian ibex from meeting the same fate.
Today there are about a dozen environmental NGOs headquartered in Amman, along with a newly established Ministry of Tourism and Environment. Which is not to say that there aren’t looming ecological problems. As we cruise north along the Dead Sea, I’m amazed to see how far the water has dropped in 20 years. In fact, there are two Dead Seas nowthe larger northern one and a smaller, shallower southern one, ringed by chemical plants. In 1900, the annual inflow to the Dead Sea from the River Jordan was 1.2 billion cubic meters; by 1985, it was down to a tenth of that. Today it’s a mere trickle, a consequence of mechanized irrigation and increasing human settlement upstream. Until recently, Al-Khader says, most of the pumping took place on the Israeli side of the river, “but the Jordanians are catching up. Agriculturally we are, if not high-tech, at least mid-tech.”
The disappearing Dead Sea is a graphic illustration of the changes humans have wrought, but it’s by no means the only one. A century ago, at least two of everything roamed here: African and Asian species of lions, ostriches, and antelopes. As recently as the 1940s, cheetahs were seen loping through the hills behind Jerusalem. They’re gone now, along with most of the rest of the historical megafauna and the great forests of oak and cedar that once covered the mountains on both sides of the valley. The birds are still here, but one wonders for how much longer.
Near the northern end of the Dead Sea is the Baptism Site, Jordan’s newest tourist attraction and, not coincidentally, a promising IBA. A trail runs down to the tamarisk forest on the floodplain of the River Jordan, which forms the border between Jordan and Israel. On an old, dry river bend stand the ruins of an ancient chapel that Jordanians say is the site of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. Following Hussein through the thickets, we arrive at the river itself, a shallow ribbon of warm, brown, nitrogen-laden soup about 50 or 60 feet across.
It’s a unique spotthe only place along the entire 200-mile Israel-Jordan border where the general public can dip its hands in the River Jordan. That lack of access might be bad news for would-be baptizers, but it’s certainly been a good thing for the birds. “It’s one of the benefits of the military occupation,” Al-Khader says, smiling wryly. “This whole corridor stayed green. Same situation in the Golan Heights and Southern Lebanon. Conservation-wise, there’s lots of potential.”
Though Israel has a well-developed system of national parks and nature preservesan impressive 20 percent of its land enjoys some form of protectionthere’s a long way to go before conservation becomes a real priority in any other Middle Eastern country, including Jordan. One of the biggest problems becomes obvious as we stand in the unfinished pavilion by the river: no tourists. In the hour or so we linger there, just one family makes the pilgrimage to the water.
At the pavilion, there’s an elaborate stone water fountain, but when I go to take a drink nothing comes out of the faucet. Al-Khader shakes his head. “That’s been broken since the intifada,” he says, glancing across the river. As an Arab of Palestinian extractionhis father emigrated from the West Bank to Kuwait in 1959he naturally sides with the Palestinian cause. But in this case I get the distinct impression that his dismay is directed at Palestinian and Israeli alike, as if to say, Can’t you two just get it together, so we can get our water fountains working again?
IF THERE’S ONE CRIPPLING OBSTACLE the Jordan Valley project faces, it’s the near impossibility of regional travel. I’d been hoping to see Jewish and Arab birders gathered in one place, banding birds side by side. That was, to put it mildly, naive. Currently, the closest place all the principals can meet is Turkey. Under certain conditions, some Israelis can travel to Jordan (the two countries established full diplomatic relations in 1994) but certainly not to any other Arab country. The Palestinians have it pretty bad, too. In Jericho, Sami Backleh tells us of his last trip to Kfar Ruppin, the birdwatching station in northern Israel. Despite having the proper travel permits and an official letter of invitation, he was pulled off two buses a total of six times for impromptu security checks. “I can’t describe what that is like, to be searched like that, again and again,” he says. “I love Kfar Ruppin, and the people there are my friends, but I don’t know if I can go back.”
We get a pretty good feel for checkpoints ourselves, first on the way to Jericho from the Allenby Bridge border crossing, a three-mile trip that takes three hours, and then, a few days later, on the 25-mile drive from Jericho to Bethlehem. That requires eight hours, four taxis, and, when the last, crucial checkpoint turns out to be closed, an illicit trek across a rocky hillside. When we finally arrive at the Palestine Wildlife Society headquarters, in Beit Sahour, just down the hill from Bethlehem, Imad Atrash throws his arms around me in a hearty embrace. “Ah, my friend,” he says, grinning broadly. “Now you see how we are suffering.” Atrash’s crow’s-feet and “classic Arabic mustache,” as he calls it, give him a warm, avuncular airso much so that I’m a bit taken aback by the fierceness of his political agenda. Bundling us into his Isuzu king cab, Atrash first drives us out to see the new fence at the edge of town, a ten-foot-high assemblage of electrified grillwork and razor wire. Part of the “security barrier” that Israel is currently constructing to encircle the West BankPalestinians call it “the apartheid wall”it effectively separates Beit Sahour from the communal pasture that once surrounded it.
Atrash points to a neighboring hilltop called Jebel Abu Ghneim, which once also belonged to his village. There, Israeli bulldozers have scraped away the trees and topsoil to make way for a complex of some 6,000 apartmentsdwellings that, needless to say, are for Israelis, despite the fact that they’re being built on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, the original 1948 demarcation between the newly independent state of Israel and the tattered remains of the British protectorate of Palestine.
“It’s unbelievable,” Atrash says, in a phrase that is to become something of a refrain.
Later, he elaborates. “First thing, they say this wall is for the terrorists, but, believe me, anyone who wants to blow himself upthis won’t stop him. Second thing, I do not defend the bombers; violence is not an answer. But if I am under this kind of pressure, I will eventually explode. Any man will.”
Our third day in Beit Sahour dawns windy, hot, and white. It’s the hamsinwhich means “fifty” in Arabicthe sand-laden sirocco that blows in from the Egyptian desert and can, legend says, last for 50 days. Atrash seems unfazed as he picks us up in the Isuzu, nattily attired in a safari vest, jeans, and Reeboks. And sure enough, as we head out of town, the sky begins to regain its blueness. Our destination is one of Atrash’s favorite spots, and one of the last nesting grounds of the endangered lesser kestrel: the great medieval monastery of Mar Saba, on the eastern slopes, the desolate badlands where the Judean Mountains begin their long march down to the Dead Sea. After the roadblocks and rubble of Bethlehem, I’m not expecting anything much. But Mar Saba is spectacular, like something out of Tibeta vast, Byzantine monastery carved into the sandstone flanks of a deep gorge, marred only slightly by the fact that the creek running in the depths below appears to consist mostly of untreated sewage. (“The settlements,” sniffs Atrash.) In its heyday, the fifth century, he tells us, 5,000 monks lived here and in the surrounding cave-pocked cliffs; now there are just ten.
“When I was in university and getting too noisy, I used to love staying with the monks,” Atrash says. “I would just sit, reading and relaxing. F5.”
“You know, on the computerthe function key number five: Refresh.”
Atrash drives with one hand, the other alternately holding his still camera or his video camera, a hunter shooting everything that moves. A crested lark, purple and lavender geraniums, a family of camels, an old man in a traditional headdress gathering sweet pea shoots for his sheepit’s all fodder for his lens. He waves to everybody, and everybody waves back. It dawns on me that perhaps his real mission isn’t simply to document what’s out there, the vanishing wildlife and the culture, but to figuratively show the flag, driving his commando truck all over the hinterland and spreading the word that “the nature,” as he calls it, belongs to the Palestinians, too. It’s all about the information. Tromp over the land and draw the maps, trap the birds and take the notes. The message is simple: Actual physical knowledge of one’s land can be a source of real power.
Atrash nods when I ask him about it, then frowns. “My people sometimes say, ‘Why are you worrying about the plants and the animals?'” he says.” ‘Who do you want to protectus or the nature?’ I admit it is a tough question. They want to survive, and they don’t see how we can protect them.”
AFTER A WEEK OF THE WEST BANK, Jerusalem seems pretty First World. There’s hot water, Starbucks lattes, and high-speed Internet. But walking the narrow passages of the Old City, there’s also a hostile vibe. Promiscuously armed Jewish settlers march in de facto militias, and the Muslim Quarter is closed off entirely. Only Arabs can go in, a policeman tells us at a checkpoint.
At the American Colony Hotel we huddle conspiratorially with journo types fresh in from a tour of duty in Iraq. No one really believes we’re doing a story about birds. We’re obviously CIA. Still, whenever the debate about the Eternal Questionhow to arrive at a just settlement between Arab and Jewreaches its inevitable dead end, it is immensely satisfying to remark, “Are you aware that tomorrow is the peak of the honey-buzzard migration in the Jordan Valley, and about 100,000 of them will be in the air?”
We rent a car and, delighted to be road-tripping American style, drop down to the Mediterranean coast on Highway 1, the main road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Israel looks and feels like California; there are housing developments and big-box megastores, and the traffic is terrible. At a place called Latrun, halfway to Tel Aviv, we turn off and pull into the parking lot of a sprawling tank museum. An Isuzu Trooper is parked nearby, its sides plastered with raptor decals. From it bounds a rangy, bespectacled figure with frazzled hair and a bulging shoulder bag: Yossi Leshem.
“This is where the Jordanian armored brigades made their stand in the 1948 war of independence,” Leshem says as he walks us into the museum grounds. “Ariel Sharon was wounded here.” He turns and points to the hills behind him. “We’re at the foot of the mountains leading to Jerusalem. This was the reason for the battle, but it’s also the reason for the birds.” As if on cue, a flock of two or three hundred white storks appears, spinning up on a thermal and then gliding off to the north.
In the early 1980s, Leshem was an unfocused grad student marking time in the biology department of Tel Aviv University. Then he made a startling discovery. During the previous decade, Israel’s storied fighter pilots had run into a lot of birds. There had been 35 “severe” bird strikescollisions, that is, that caused more than $1 million in damage. Five aircraft had been lost, and one pilot was killed. Leshem, a raptor specialist, was the first to see what the problem was: low-altitude training flights that conflicted with ages-old bird-migration routes. He was initially laughed off by the air force. “What can you do?” a colonel told him. “If you fly, you’re going to hit birds.” But in the spring of 1983 he got a frantic call after a particularly horrific collision between a buzzard and a Skyhawk in which the $8 million machine was destroyed. (The pilot ejected and, despite a broken neck, survived.) The detailed maps that Leshem developed for the air force”Bird-Plagued Zones,” he titled thembecame the basis of his doctoral thesis and resulted in a 76 percent reduction in bird strikes in their first year of use. Leshem parlayed his sudden famehe’d become something of a folk hero in Israelinto a high-profile career as an environmental crusader. Eventually he became president of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, where he enlisted celebrities and politicians like Al Gore and former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres to trumpet the cause of migratory birds. He also turned his charm on the superintendent of the Latrun Tank Museum, a general, arguing that the site would make an excellent birdwatching station.
“I said to the general, ‘You are telling the story of the past, and I am telling the story of the future,’ ” Leshem says, chuckling. “He gave me nine acres. Now almost as many students as soldiers pass through.”
A big draw for kids is the ability to follow individual storks, cranes, and raptors, more than 100 of which have now been fitted with miniature radio transmitters. “You give them a bird to follow, let them name it, and then watch them track it on the Web site,” Leshem says of the educational initiative, dubbed Migratory Birds Know No Boundaries. “Their animal lands in Syria in the morning, traverses Jordan, penetrates the Palestinian Authority, and then lands in Sinai that afternoon. Emotionally, it’s very powerful.”
In the fall of 1998, there was an unprecedented gathering of 5,000 schoolchildren at Latrunequal numbers of Jews, Palestinians, and, most crucially, Leshem says, Israeli Arabs, who functioned as translators and go-betweens. “We had more events planned, some of them on the West Bank, but after the intifada began, we had to cancel them,” Leshem adds ruefully. “Nobody wanted their children going to the West Bank.”
If reaching kids is one sagging pillar of the Jordan Valley project, another is ecotourism. Israel has long been known to serious birdwatchers; prior to the first intifada, some 30,000 foreigners a year came just to see the famous raptor migration in Eilat, on the Red Sea. (Up to 100,000 eagles, hawks, and falcons a day sometimes fly past.) The idea, Leshem tells us, is to persuade some of the same deep-pocketed visitors to return and follow the migration more closely, hopping from station to station along with the birds.
To see one such station in action, Leshem sends us north two hours to a small kibbutz in the Jordan Valley, 23 miles south of the Sea of Galilee. Like a lot of its fellow kibbutzim, Kfar Ruppin, population 400, is fighting for its survival. The problem is not security but economics. Communal goodwill, it seems, is no match for large-scale agribusiness. For the moment, only one operation on the kibbutz is making any money: high-salinity fish ponds in which carp, tilapia, and mullet thrive.
Birds were supposed to be Kfar Ruppin’s other mainstay. Hard by the River Jordan, with its fenced and mined DMZ, Kfar Ruppin is an avian Disneyland: Francolins wander through the wheat fields, pelicans and ospreys hang around the fish ponds, and bee-eaters and rollers dig nests into the soft clay banks. Two years ago, a surreal flock of 42,000 storks circled down to roost for the night. As for us, we spend a pleasant couple of days lounging in the hostel, driving the fields and border roads at dawn and dusk with Kfar Ruppin’s head ringer, Kobe Merom. The birdwatching is spectacular but a little sad at the same time. It’s the height of the migration, and we’re the only people here to see it.
AT KFAR RUPPIN, we’re about 825 feet below sea level. From here, though, the Jordan River rises quickly toward its source, on the flanks of Mount Hermon, in the hotly disputed Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria during the Six- Day War, in 1967. If we were storks heading for Europe, we’d be over Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in half a day.
Dan Alon is waiting for us in the parking lot of a supermarket on the south shore of the Sea of Galilee, the great freshwater lake that lies beneath the Golan. A bearish 36-year-old and head of the Israeli Ornithological Center, Alon is Imad Atrash’s Israeli counterpart in the Jordan Valley projecta quiet, eminently patient man who seems the perfect foil for his charismatic and sometimes impolitic partner.
Heading north in his Subaru Forester, Alon leads us to our ultimate destination, the Hula Valley, the great basin that lies at the foot of Mount Hermon. Once a malarial 10,000-acre swamp, the Hula was drained in the 1950s to create farmland and “to show that Zionism was rising up and fighting a successful battle with Mother Nature,” as Alon puts it.
The problem was that the peat soil, once dried, quickly blew away in the wind. “It was once one of the best places in the Middle East for migration, and then the whole thing became an environmental disaster,” Alon says. The ensuing uproar spurred the foundation of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Ultimately, in 1992, a part of the valley was reflooded, and the birds began to return.
As a grad student and budding environmental warrior, Alon had fought two epic battles over the Hula. The first was against the valley’s farmers, who were convinced that redeveloping bird habitat would lead to huge, crop-destroying flocks. “Already, they were losing 2.5 million shekels a year in corn and chickpeas to the cranes,” Alon says. “I really suffered. They thought I was just a green coming from Tel Aviv to tell them what to do. ‘Let us shoot them,’ they kept saying. It took a lot to build up trust.”
Alon’s idea, which became his master’s thesis, was to feed the birds directly, by scattering corn near the lake with a mechanical sower. “The farmers were skeptical, but when we started the program, it took the cranes less than three days to figure it out,” Alon recalls. “It was classic learned behavior. Is it natural? No. But it wasn’t natural beforethey were eating the same agricultural produce then, too.”
On this late April day, there are a few hundred cranes in the meadows of the Hulastragglers behind schedule or too weak or old to follow the main flock north to Siberiaalong with flocks of roseate spoonbills and pratincoles and a gorgeous pallid harrier floating over the reeds. “You should see this place during the autumn migration,” Alon says. “There will be 400 species here, and up to 60,000 cranes. People feeding them out of their hands. Last winter, we had 150,000 visitors.”
Thus began Alon’s second crusadefighting a developer who, cognizant of the birds’ appeal, had convinced the regional authorities that a 900-room hotel with a marina was just the thing the Hula preserve needed. The story raises a knotty, if hypothetical, issue: Is it possible that well-intentioned efforts like the Jordan Valley project might ultimately be self-defeating?
Over lunch in a nearby shopping mall, Alon sighs and turns up his hands. “The main aim of the Birds and People program is not to bring peace but to preserve nature,” he says. “But for sure, good relations between people is part of the package. If they can meet and do things together with no shooting and no problems, then that’s half the battle.”
“On the other hand,” he continues, “if there is peace, then development will surely follow, and that will bring its own problems.” Alon shrugs, then smiles. “I guess that will be the second half of the battle.” With that, he climbs into his Forester and starts punching numbers into the dash-mounted cell phone. By the time he leaves the parking lot, he’s working on a deal to preserve the next IBA. The image stays with me, an upbeat end to a bittersweet trip.
LOOKING BACK, we were lucky to see the Jordan Valley when we did. After the biggest winter in a decade, the sound of running water was everywhere and wildflowers dotted the hillsides. In the political arena, too, things seemed to be looking up. At the time of our visit, the Palestinian Authority had yielded to American pressure and named a pragmatist, Mahmoud Abbas, to the newly created post of prime minister. No bombs went off while we were in Israel, and the battered peace plan known as “the road map” seemed to be back on track.
Since then, however, the picture has changed. Abbas has resigned in frustration, and at press time his replacement, Ahmed Qurei, seems on the verge of doing the same. The suicide bombers have returned with a vengeance, and so has the Israeli military presence in the occupied territories. Construction of the security barrier continues, and the road map lies discarded like yesterday’s newspaper. In this tragic, all-consuming struggle over the land, there’s one question that rarely gets asked: If and when the dust settles, will there be anything left worth having? Through it all, the bird guys are sticking with it, e-mailing one another, traveling to meet up and raise money, keeping the conversation going. They’re patient people, realists who know from watching the natural world that change is a mysterious thing that comes at its own pace, if it comes at all. But they’re dreamers, too.
“No matter how many joint projects you make, that will not be enough incentive for the political decision makers to change course,” the Palestinian Authority representative, Sami F. Musallam, warned when we paid him a courtesy visit on our first day in Jericho. “I don’t say we should stop these programs. On the contrary. But it’s only when the decision makers decide to make peace that you will see a mushrooming of these programs and the layman joining in.”
“Now it is only the courageous who do this,” Musallam said. “The pioneers.”