The Migration

Edward Platt

I

Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming. Jer. 8: 7

Every spring, half a billion birds migrate through Israel and the West Bank from their wintering grounds in Africa to their breeding grounds in Europe, and every autumn they return the same way. It’s one of the busiest corridors for bird migration in the world – only the Isthmus of Panama, which links North and South America, has heavier traffic, and Panama’s airspace doesn’t support the same density of military aircraft as Israel’s. The large soaring birds that migrate by day, to exploit the thermals rising from the land, pose a particular threat to aviation: most of Europe’s white storks and white pelicans traverse the skies above Israel and Palestine twice a year and, inevitably, collisions ensue. The effects of a ten-kilo bird hitting a plane travelling at 1,000 kilometres per hour with the force of one hundred tonnes are potentially catastrophic and, in the last forty years, the Israeli Air Force has lost more aircraft to ‘bird strike’ than it has to enemy action. Not surprisingly, it has therefore begun to take an active interest in the migration, and with the help of an academic and birdwatcher named Yossi Leshem, it has built a radar system designed to detect the passage of flocks through what it calls the ‘bird plague zones’ above Israel’s narrow waist.

When I arrived in Israel earlier this year, I wanted to witness the spring migration and the military’s attempts to monitor it, and I decided to go birdwatching with a Palestinian friend of mine. I met Sami Backleh on the second day of my trip, outside my hotel on the edge of Palestinian East Jerusalem. Sami became a birdwatcher by accident. He was working in the microbiology department at Birzeit University near Ramallah in September 2000, at the beginning of the second intifada. At the time, he knew nothing about birds, but he was interested in nature. One day a colleague mentioned that his son was working with an organization called the Palestine Wildlife Society (PWLS), which had set up a bird-ringing station in Jericho. When Sami went to visit it, he was intrigued by what he saw.

He must have made a good impression on the staff of the PWLS, for they kept ‘nagging’ him to join them. It wasn’t a ‘safe position’ – he wasn’t even sure that he’d be paid – but he decided to risk it, so at the height of the intifada, when Palestinian society was barely functioning, Sami began a new career as a birder. He treated it as ‘an adventure’, which became even more challenging when his colleague’s son left after a month, leaving him to manage on his own. When Imad Atrash, the executive director of the PWLS, asked him to conduct a survey, he knew only two birds – the sparrow and the pigeon – and he was forced to teach himself by spending hours in the field with a book, identifying the different species.

In 2005, he came to England to take a degree in conservation biology. Nowadays, he is trying to raise funds for a project researching the impact of Israel’s ‘separation barrier’ on the ecology of the West Bank. When work began on the barrier in June 2002, the government of Israel said it was designed to protect citizens from terrorist attack but, like most Palestinians, Sami rejects the idea that it’s a security measure. He believes that the barrier is being used to appropriate land and natural resources.

Initially, the barrier was supposed to follow the route of the ‘Green Line’, agreed in the 1949 Armistice at the end of the war between the newly created state of Israel and its Arab neighbours, but it frequently deviates inside the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, effectively annexing parts of it. For most of its length, it consists of a fence, flanked by trenches, dirt paths and barbed-wire barriers, but in some areas it’s a concrete wall, six to eight metres high. As well as dividing Palestinian farmers from their land, and imposing additional restrictions on the movement of the population, it’s often said that the barrier is affecting animal migration and plant propagation. So far, approximately sixty per cent of the barrier has been built, and Sami is proposing to conduct a study of biodiversity in four sites in the same ecosystem, two on either side of the wall in the north, and two on either side of its proposed route in the south. It’s a dangerous scheme: ‘Imagine if you are beside a settlement, or beside the wall, doing animal trapping at night. You can easily be shot, and nobody will know. They will claim that you were a terrorist – that you were trying to climb the wall or something. So it’s not easy. It’s taking me a lot of time to select the site.’

We agreed to go birdwatching in the Wadi Qelt, near Jericho, ten days later, but as so often happens in the Middle East, events forced us to change our plans. At the end of the week, Israel launched an assault on Gaza intended to stop Palestinian firing rockets at Israeli towns in the south of the country. ‘Operation Warm Winter’, as the Israeli Defense Forces chose to call it, began with air strikes on ‘terrorist infrastructure’, but after two days, the army invaded northern Gaza and Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian National Authority, announced that he was breaking off relations with Israel in protest. When I set off for Hebron on Sunday, March 1 there were strikes and demonstrations across the West Bank. The next day, a twelve-year-old boy was killed in the village of Beit Awwa. By Wednesday, approximately 120 people had died in Gaza, many of them civilians, and at eight p.m. on Thursday, a van driver from East Jerusalem called Alaa Abu Dhein walked into the Mercaz HaRav seminary, the ideological birthplace of the Israeli settler movement, and shot eight students.

On Friday, March 6 Ehud Barak, the Minister of Defense, imposed further restrictions on travel in the West Bank, and Sami rang and cancelled our trip to the Wadi Qelt. As well as the difficulty of getting there, he was unwilling to run the risk of meeting settlers intent on exacting revenge for the terrible crime committed in an institution to which many of them look for guidance. I thought he was being overly cautious on my behalf until I heard that Imad Atrash, Sami’s former boss, had also cancelled two field trips planned for the weekend. If I wanted to witness the spring migration in the skies above the West Bank, I would have to hire an Israeli guide.

We left Jerusalem at seven in the morning in a beaten-up four- wheel drive with 350,000 kilometres on the clock and no passenger seat in the front. I was sitting in the back behind my guide and driver for the day. Eran Banker was, like Sami Backleh, a biologist and birdwatcher. He was born in Israel, but had spent most of his childhood in South Africa. As a result, he saw himself as being at one remove from his compatriots, and yet he enjoyed the luxury that all Israelis share at home – relatively unimpeded travel.

Our first stop was the settlement of Kfar Adumim – the smaller neighbour of the fortified hilltop town of Ma’ale Adumim, which stretches deep into the West Bank. Eran said Kfar Adumim was a relaxed place, home to a ‘heterogeneous population’ of religious and non-religious Jews, and the guard on the gate waved us through with a cursory glance. In the past, I’d always stopped at checkpoints and bypassed settlements on my way from one Palestinian town and city to another. Now I was bypassing checkpoints, and stopping at the settlements, and so far I’d seen no evidence of the other inhabitants of the land, apart from the Bedouin encampments at the side of the road.

At eight a.m. we drove through the winding streets of Kfar Adumim until we came to an unfenced corner, facing east. The hilltop locations that the settlers colonize, for reasons of security, also provide excellent vantage points for birdwatching, and we were looking down on a series of interlocking valleys, which ran from north to south along the fringe of the Judaean Desert. It was March 10 and the hillsides were dusted with a thin green layer of vegetation. Soon the sun would burn it off, but while it lasted, it would provide vital fodder for the Bedouin flocks of sheep and goats, and fuel for migrating birds.

Eran set up the telescope in front of a bench decorated with a metal plaque. Swifts were circling in the valley below. They arrive in Israel and the West Bank in January or February and nest in cracks between the stones in the upper half of the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem’s Old City. I’d watched the dark flickering shapes wheeling above the bobbing heads of the assembled faithful at five o’clock one Friday afternoon, at the beginning of the Sabbath, and their movements had seemed as fluent and irresistible as the thoughts and longings that inspired the prayers written on pieces of paper and crammed into the cracks in the lower half of the wall.

We spotted a dark glossy bird, with red bands on its wings, called a Tristram’s grackle, an iridescent, blue-black bird called the Palestine sunbird and a great grey shrike, or ‘butcher bird’, which kills lizards, mice and smaller birds, pinning the corpses to thorn bushes. Suddenly, the roar of engines shattered the early morning peace and a plane appeared from behind the houses of the settlement. It was a Hercules transport plane and its fuselage was painted the same dun green and brown as the landscape. It was flying so low that its bulbous belly seemed to brush the hills on the far side of the valley and its flight path and altitude told Eran one thing: the air force had received no reports of storks or cranes so far today.

Security precautions were more apparent at the next settlement. The guard on the gate at Mitzpe Jericho, which stands on one of the most easterly outcrops of the Judaean Hills, said that they had ‘intelligence’ of an impending attack in a stolen car or ambulance, though a brief conversation with Eran, in Hebrew, was enough to convince him that we were not terrorists in disguise. The settlement was enclosed within a high metal fence, and yet it was still expanding – as we left the last house behind and drove along a narrow ridge, we passed a group of caravans set up on a patch of scrubby land to the right. A young soldier was sitting on a deckchair in the shade of an army watchtower, a rifle slung across her lap.

The road ended at a fenced-in patch of semi-gravelled land with a black water tower. It was a place Eran knew well. Yossi Leshem’s network of radar stations is not infallible (as Eran put it, Israel is so small that if someone burps in the north, you’ll hear it on the border with Egypt) and sometimes southbound birds are over the centre of the country before the radar can pick them up. During the migration, human observers are required to augment the electronic surveillance and last autumn Eran spent ten hours a day, for two months, sitting on a chair by the edge of the cliff, counting the passage of raptors, cranes and storks.

The migration isn’t the only attraction that draws birders to Israel – the country is approximately one-tenth of the size of the UK, and yet because of its location at the junction of three continents, it’s home to a higher number of resident species. What’s more, any bird that migrates even short distances in Africa, Europe or Asia can end up there by mistake. ‘That’s the magic that draws birders here – the great potential for surprises,’ said Eran, as we stood by the fence sealing the sheer drop to the valley below. He pointed out a yellow-vented bulbul – one of the most common birds in Israel – and the rare long-billed pipit, and we heard a hoopoe calling for its mate.

We bypassed Jericho and headed north up the Jordan Valley, one of the northern reaches of the Syrian-African Rift which runs from Turkey to Mozambique. It’s a perfect avian flyway: its high sides and deep centre generate the thermals that are vital to soaring birds and its wetlands provide abundant food. We passed groves of date palms and fields of cabbages and on the right-hand side, beyond two parallel fences, the land fell away towards the Jordan river. The border was no more than a shell shot away, and a decommissioned tank dug in behind an earthen rampart, its barrel pointed eastwards, commemorated former battles.

At twelve o’clock, we swept through the checkpoint marking the northern limit of the West Bank and entered the Beit She’an Valley, in northern Israel. The area is full of fish farms and its flat floor has become a simulacrum of an estuary landscape. For twenty minutes, we drove between thickly stocked pools and watched shore birds – egrets, avocets, gulls and herons – stalking the fringes of the man-made mud flats. The shotgun cartridges littering the paths proved that this was yet another contested territory.

At half past twelve, Eran rang his contact in the Israeli Air Force. The news was mixed – 8,000 white storks had taken off from a field in north-west Israel an hour or so previously. They would be over Lebanon before we could catch them, but another flock of 2,000 birds had been sighted an hour to the south, near Be’er Sheva in the Negev Desert. We would have to wait to see which way they went.

Eran had left Israel when he was six, and he didn’t return until he was twenty. As a result, he had taken his degree when most of his contemporaries were serving in the army; he did his national service with people who were five or six years younger than him. Because of a series of injuries he’d picked up playing sport, he wasn’t considered for active service and he had spent three years teaching children in the West Bank about nature.

‘I want my storks!’ he said, when he rang for an update on the birds’ progress. The news was good – the flock had been sighted sixty kilometres south-west of Beit She’an, and Eran reckoned that the wind would push them eastwards as they travelled north. We set off in search of a vantage point to await their arrival.

There were mustard plants and leggy yellow flowers called bishop’s weed growing on the side of the road, and the hillsides were speckled with crown anemones and turban buttercups – bright red flowers which, to me, looked like poppies. Soon, the Haynes iris, for which Mount Gilboa is famous, would flower, turning the meadows purple. The wind was mottling the surface of the fish pools, and the haze was so thick that we could only just make out the outline of the Gilead mountains on the far side of the valley. Eran wasn’t confident that we’d be able to spot our flock. ‘Some days, you can watch thousands go past, and other days, you won’t see anything,’ he muttered as he set up our telescope by the side of the road. Earlier in the morning, he had defied a superstition by naming the bird he hoped to see, and Merops orientalis – the little green bee-eater – had rewarded him by failing to appear.

Fortunately, our white storks were less elusive. I don’t find it easy spotting birds, even when they’re pointed out to me. Often, the bird has gone before I’ve worked out where it is, but for once, I was looking in the right place. As I gazed at the crest of the hill to our right, a blizzard of dark dots appeared from behind it and swept towards us, moulding themselves to the slope stretching out into the plain. I checked my watch – it was ten past three – and when I looked up again, it took me a moment to relocate the birds. Already, they were in the middle of the valley, streaming out behind one another in a fluid formation, like a flattened speech balloon.

It was astonishing to think how far – and how fast – they had travelled. They had left southern Africa while I was still in England and, flying for an average of nine hours a day, at forty kilometres per hour, they had pushed through eastern Africa to their pre-wintering grounds in Sudan and Chad. From there, they turned north-west towards Egypt, following the Nile from Aswan to Qina, before crossing the Sinai peninsula and entering southern Israel. Only this morning, they had been in the vast expanse of the Negev Desert and now they were passing our station on the slopes of Mount Gilboa.

Eran lined up the telescope and stood back to let me use it. Its reach transformed the flock: it wasn’t a blur of black dots any more. I could see distinct shapes, trailing long, collapsible legs. Their colour had changed as well. They were no longer black; they were white, with black stains on their wings. They caught a thermal rising from the slopes of the mountain and began to wheel and climb. At least 2,000, maybe more, Eran announced, adding with a touch of pride that he was a conservative counter; others would have put the number as high as 2,500.

Most of the hundreds of thousands of white storks that pass through the Beit She’an Valley stop to drink, but these birds wouldn’t: with the wind driving them on, they would keep going until dark. They would roost in trees or on a cliff face, and feed on anything they could find – dead frogs, fish and insects. Sometimes, Eran said, they arrive in Israel with blackened legs and bodies, having scavenged through burnt undergrowth to feed on corpses barbecued in fires. By tomorrow, they would be over Lebanon and Syria, where they would turn north-west, cutting the corner of the Mediterranean and flying above the Turkish port of Iskenderum. They would cross the Bosporus at Istanbul, or the west side of the Sea of Marmara, and in Bulgaria, they would reach a turning point: some flocks would keep going into Central and Southern Europe and others would turn east, towards nesting grounds in western Russia.

I looked up again, wanting to place them in the broader context of the valley, but I couldn’t find them. This time, Eran had lost them too. He was scanning the horizon with binoculars, but already the birds had disappeared.

 

II

And the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, Get thee hence, and turn thee eastward, and hide thyself by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan. And it shall be, that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there. 1 Kings 17: 2–4

The most common migratory bird in the Middle East is a sylviid warbler called the blackcap. Like all the passerines or songbirds that pass through the region, it travels at night, when it’s cooler and there are fewer predators around, and it flies by flapping its wings as opposed to relying on updrafts. Since it winters in northern Africa and summers in Germany, it travels a shorter distance than the white stork, and yet its journey is a remarkable feat of endurance. Normally, it weighs twelve grams, the same as a two-pound coin, but it will double in weight before it embarks on its migration. When it arrives in southern Israel, at the end of its desert crossing, it will have burnt up the extra fat, and more. According to Amir Balaban, one of the directors of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory (JBO), it will be thin and exhausted, and will rest and feed at an oasis in Elat or the Arava Valley before it resumes its journey.

Since the Jerusalem region lies within the most southerly reaches of the Mediterranean habitat, many of the birds aim for it, and the JBO, in the heart of the government district to the west of the city, is a particularly important stopping-off point. On the morning I visited, they had caught four blackcaps in the nets slung between the trees and in April, when the migration is in full flood, they will catch as many as fifty a day.

Four days had passed since my trip along the Rift Valley with Eran Banker. It was the Sabbath and when the taxi dropped me opposite the Supreme Court at seven-thirty, there was no one – other than Amir Balaban – around. He was planting a shrub beside a reed-fringed pond to the side of the path that led to the carefully cultivated wilderness of the observatory. He’s a stocky man with close-cropped hair and he was dressed in the uniform of birders and outdoor-lovers throughout the Western world – pale walking trousers, a fleece and sandals. We moved to the hide and sat looking out through the narrow slit at the birds gathering on the feeding table and the fringes of the pond. Through the trees, we could see the high-rise towers of the suburb of Nahlaot, which was founded in the nineteenth century by Jews escaping the cramped confines of the Old City.

The area had once been farmland belonging to an Arab village that was destroyed in the war of 1947–8, when the fledgling Israeli state was attempting to retain, and expand, the territory it had been allotted in the UN plan to partition Palestine. According to some estimates, as many as 400 villages were decimated in the course of the war and approximately 700,000 people were forced to leave their homes. The Palestinians call the mass exodus the nakba, or ‘catastrophe’, though not surprisingly, the Israelis have a different name for the events of the year – the graveyard abutting the JBO’s borders is largely devoted to people killed in ‘the War of Independence’.

In 1966 the Knesset, the parliament of Israel, moved to its current home from temporary lodgings in King George Street and, for the next twenty years or so, the land was used as an ‘organic rubbish dump’. Amir Balaban began birdwatching as a child among its dense, untended shrubs and trees, and in 1994, the Knesset was persuaded to lease the site to the JBO. Amir believes that its location is significant, because it asserts the primacy of nature and wildlife in Israeli life. He believes it’s the organization’s job to make sure that the half a billion birds that pass through the region each spring do so safely, and yet given the proportion of bird-lovers to bird-hunters in every country in the Mediterranean region – from France, Italy, Malta, Greece and Turkey to Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco – their task is difficult.

The JBO was the first ringing station in the Middle East; the bird-ringers who established the Jericho station where Sami worked were trained here. Amir told me that a shared passion for birds and wildlife will overcome most difficulties, ‘political or ideological’, but he was realistic about the relationship between the birdwatchers on either side of the divide: ‘We do have our…disagreements with our Palestinian friends.’ He chose the word carefully.

I still wanted to witness the migration from the Palestinian perspective and when I left the JBO, I called Imad Atrash. In the next few days, we arranged to meet several times, but without success. One morning, I stood outside the police station in Bethlehem’s Manger Square for an hour and a half, waiting for his ‘driver’, who failed to appear, despite Imad’s repeated assurances that he was on his way. I found it hard to conceal my irritation, though I had to remind myself that it’s difficult to maintain normal standards of efficiency when you’re living under occupation. I was beginning to think that we were never going to meet when he rang three days before the end of my trip and invited me to Jericho.

We met outside the municipality building and drove into the hills through a small village called Jericho’s Gate. There were children playing by the side of the road, and I saw a young boy climbing past a roll of barbed wire. On the edges of the town, the road grew steeper and narrower. Soon, we were running along the edge of a deep ravine. Imad called it Palestine’s Grand Canyon, though it’s better known as the Wadi Qelt. I’d hoped to walk through it from the west, and I hadn’t expected to find myself driving in from the other direction.

The dark red cliffs were striped with horizontal fissures and beyond them the pale, mounded hills looked as if they were made of poured concrete. Jericho was spreading out beneath us, and it looked surprisingly green, like a pool of emerald water gathered in a dip in the desert.

Imad was driving and his researcher was sitting in the front seat. The car’s wheels were no more than a couple of feet from the edge of the cliff. He caught my eye in the rear-view mirror.

‘Are you afraid?’

‘A little.’

‘You needn’t be afraid with Imad Atrash.’

The road began to descend again, and we drew up in front of a roadblock made of concrete blocks driven into mounds of rubble. Sami’s fears had been justified: there had been a fight between Palestinians and settlers from Vered Jericho on the day that we had planned our walk, and the army had sealed, or resealed, the road between the settlement and the town.

We followed a path that wound through the lunar strip and emerged on an area of smooth, dark tarmac, opposite a large stone arch, surmounted by a cross. We had a choice of two paths: the first led through the arch and fell sharply downwards, but we took the other one leading upwards and came to a vantage point on the cliff top. Beneath us, tucked into a platform against the cliff face on the far side of the valley, was the monastery of St George.

The road we hadn’t taken emerged at the base of the cliff and ran through the bottom of the valley. It crossed a bridge and led to a gatehouse adorned with a red cross on a white background. Beyond it, steps led up to another wall and a steep tower, crowned with a sky-blue dome. A culvert filled with water ran beside the road at the bottom of the valley, and the lower slopes of the hills were lush and green. Some people believe that ‘the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan’ is the Wadi Qelt, and the monastery is supposed to have been founded in AD 420 by five hermits, next to the cave where Elijah was fed by ravens when he fled Israel to avoid a drought. When the Persians conquered Palestine in the seventh century, they massacred fourteen monks, whose bones are preserved in a cave near the monastery. The monastery was subsequently abandoned, but it was restored by the Crusaders in 1179, and rebuilt at the beginning of the twentieth century by the Greek Orthodox Church.

Over the years, many cave-dwelling hermits have lived in the Wadi Qelt in imitation of Elijah, and the cliff face above the monastery is pocked with caves still used by the monks as places of retreat. There were crosses on every hilltop as far as I could see and in the distance we could make out the antenna of the radar station on the summit of the Mount of Temptation.

Imad had set up his telescope on the edge of the cliff. I assumed that he was watching for birds but in fact he had spotted someone in the courtyard of the monastery. He looked up from the telescope: ‘Abu Majid!’ His booming voice echoed around the walls of the canyon. Imad’s cousin was restoring mosaics in the monastery, but the figure he had seen wasn’t Abu Majid. For the next two minutes, Imad and the man in the courtyard shouted at one another across the chasm of the Wadi Qelt. The conversation established that Abu Majid had taken the day off, and Imad packed up his telescope.

It had been a pleasant expedition, but it seemed rather pointless, and as we walked back to the jeep, I asked Imad why he had brought me to the Wadi Qelt, rather than the bird-ringing station. He told me that it was one of his favourite places – that he had often walked through it as a child. He was born in Beit Sahour in 1958, to a poor family, and as a boy he had helped his mother grow vegetables to sell to their neighbours. He was also an enthusiastic member of the Boy Scouts, and when he spent a year studying at Bristol Polytechnic in 1982, he went on a pilgrimage to Brownsea Island, the site of the first Boy Scout Jamboree. For many years he worked as a lab technician at Bethlehem University, but he wanted to translate his love of nature into action. In 1992 he set up a non-governmental organization called the Environmental Educational Centre (EEC) in the grounds of a school called Talitha Kumi, in the village of Beit Jala, on the other side of Bethlehem from Beit Sahour. In 1998, he left to establish the PWLS. As well as running the ringing station, the PWLS promotes ecotourism and animal welfare, and soon Imad hopes to establish the first environmental institute in Palestine. Praiseworthy aims, no doubt, though again I found myself wondering what to make of his puzzling arrangements – were they indicative of the way that Palestinian society functions, or merely a product of his own relaxed and haphazard style?

The next day, I visited the ringing station at Talitha Kumi. They had netted a blackcap and two common chiffchaffs before I arrived and at eight a.m. I went round the nets slung between almond trees and fig trees in the school’s terraced grounds with Riad Abu Sa’ada, the director of the station. We found a chaffinch and a robin – a bird the Palestinians regard with as much affection as the British do. They call it abu henna – ‘the father of henna’ – because its breast is the colour of the dye used in wedding ceremonies.

Riad freed the birds from the nets, placed them in cloth bags and took them to an open-air platform in the woods, where he weighed and measured them. He held their heads between his fingers as he wrote up the notes, and their beaks moved across the page as though they were taking an intense interest in the recording of their specifications. It was a pleasant morning’s work, and yet Beit Jala lies in one of the most contested areas of the West Bank. The settlement of Har Gilo occupies a hilltop three kilometres to the west, and the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo stands on the other side of the valley. During the second intifada, Palestinian militants used to shoot at Gilo from Beit Jala, and the Israeli Army responded with characteristic severity: many houses in the village were destroyed and dozens of people were killed. One morning, Riad and Simon Awad, the executive director of the EEC, were nearly shot by Israeli soldiers when they were taking down the nets by the wall that overlooked the road to Har Gilo.

Riad had finished his assessment of the robin and was holding it with its claws pinned between his fingers and its head upright.

Hunting birds is part of the culture in Palestine and Riad said that people are often surprised when they ring them and release them. ‘We just open the hand,’ he told me, ‘and let it fly away.’ It was like a magic trick in reverse – one minute the bird was there, quivering faintly, and then it was gone. Abu henna took off in a blur of flickering wings and disappeared into the trees, free to resume its northward migration.

 

III

Then spake Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Josh. 10: 12–13

I visited Yossi Leshem’s radar station at Latrun on my last day in Israel. I wanted to see it in operation, and I was pleased when Leshem himself offered to show me around. I shouldn’t have been surprised: it soon transpired that Leshem manages his PR as assiduously as every other task he undertakes. Weeks before we had met outside a hotel in Jerusalem and he had emailed me a folder of articles detailing the highlights of his career. As we drove down Highway One to Latrun, he kept grabbing a clipboard stowed behind the steering wheel and making notes of other items that he wanted to show me. By the time I left his office, I was equipped with a multimedia presentation of films, articles and photographs documenting his achievements.

Most of it has been concerned with bird migration. Leshem was born in Haifa in 1947, the eldest son of two German Jews who arrived in Palestine in the 1930s, and he was imbued with a love of nature from childhood. His mother wasn’t interested in wildlife but she liked hiking, and she used to take her sons into the mountains every week. In 1971, Leshem founded the first bird club in Jerusalem, which Amir Balaban attended as a boy, and for many years he worked for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

In 1980, he was working on a survey of raptor migration when a pilot suggested they go up in a plane to see if there were more birds aloft than they could count from the ground. Leshem thought it might make a good research project and he went to the air force to request the use of an aircraft. While he was there, they showed him unpublished data on collisions between birds and aircraft: in the previous ten years, five aircraft had been destroyed, and every year at least three planes were seriously damaged.

Soon afterwards, a honey buzzard collided with a $5 million Skyhawk near Hebron and destroyed the plane. The pilot survived only because the because the bird came through the canopy and hit the ejector handle. The air force agreed to sponsor Leshem’s PhD and he started work at Tel Aviv University, where he now teaches a course on bird migration. At first, he hired teams of birdwatchers and used the radar at Ben-Gurion Airport to plot the birds’ paths, but he soon realized that there was one crucial detail neither could ascertain – the only way to gauge the height at which the birds were flying was by going up in a plane and flying with them.

Most of the planes he tried were too loud and disruptive, but eventually he settled on a motorized glider that allowed him to fly ‘wing tip to wing tip’ with the birds. In the next five years, he recorded a total 1,400 hours of flying time as he tracked the main paths of the migration. He established that the birds follow three routes through Israel and the West Bank – if they don’t go along the Rift Valley, they cut across the south-west corner through the Elat mountains, or fly parallel to the coast, exploiting the currents created by the offshore winds that are displaced upwards when they hit the slopes of the Judaean Hills.

In 1984, Leshem began producing the maps of the ‘bird plague zones’ that now hang in the briefing rooms of every squadron during the migration, and once the pilots knew the main routes the birds tend to follow, the collision rates fell dramatically. But the birds didn’t always behave as predicted. When Leshem finished his PhD in 1991, the air force asked him to build a radar system designed to supply additional ‘real-time information’ about their movements.

Leshem’s first and most important step was to enlist the help of a former Soviet general, who had emigrated to Israel in 1991 at the height of the mass exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union. Dr Leonid Dinevitch is an expert in weather forecasting, and he used to run a joint civilian–military project employing forty-seven radars and three aircraft that generated artificial rain. Leshem – the inveterate fixer and facilitator – found him a place at Tel Aviv University, and Dinevitch found him a cheap decommissioned radar in Moldova.

‘At that time,’ Leshem told me, ‘if you were connected, you could get anything you wanted.’

When the radar arrived in Israel, Leshem began looking for a place to put it. It didn’t take him long to settle on Latrun. It lies in the heart of Israel, halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, on one of the main routes of the migration. It also occupies a footnote in biblical history and a significant place in the history of modern Israel. The Ayalon Valley witnessed a legendary battle during the conquest of Canaan, when God prolonged the day to allow Joshua time to defeat the five Amorite kings, and it was also the site of several important battles during the War of Independence. When British rule in Palestine ended on May 15, 1948, the police fortress they had built at Latrun was left in the control of the Transjordanian Arab Legion.

David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister of the state of Israel, which had come into existence the day before, believed it was essential to control the road to Jerusalem, and during the next two months, he ordered repeated attempts to capture Latrun. Ariel Sheinerman – later Ariel Sharon – was injured in the first assault, and the second and third were among the first occasions that the Israeli Army deployed tanks and armour. None of them succeeded – Latrun remained under Arab control until the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan and pushed back its de facto borders by occupying the West Bank and Gaza. For fifteen years, the strategic fortress at Latrun was no more than a stopping-off point on Highway One, but in 1982 the Armored Corps recognized its place in its importance by converting it into a ‘memorial museum’, Yad La’Shiryon, which now attracts 400,000 visitors a year.

Leshem had decided that he wanted to combine his radar with a ‘living museum’ documenting the coexistence of birds and aircraft, but he knew the migration alone wouldn’t generate the kind of audiences he wanted and so he approached the general of the Armored Corps. ‘You are telling the story of the bloodshed, the heritage, the conflict,’ he said. He is a big man with a mop of curley, grey hair, and he talks in a deep, hoarse voice, constantly discarding and revising his words as he searches for the right one. ‘This is the story of the past. And I am coming with the story of the future: bird migration, environment, high-tech, radar, Internet, satellites. Give me a piece of land, about eight acres, on your site, and I will build a museum, an auditorium and a scientific centre.’

We arrived at Latrun at eight in the morning, and as we drove round the edge of the museum grounds, we could see the radar, framed between the jutting gun barrel of the tanks that surround the fortress. It stands on the lip of the amphitheatre that the Armored Corps uses for presentations, and from a distance, the dark green metal ball looked like a giant fungus that had flowered unexpectedly overnight. The soldier at the gate waved us through, and as we drew up beneath the radar, Dinevitch appeared, apparently from nowhere, holding a metal board.

Exhibit one, in Leshem’s whistle-stop guide to Latrun, was an image of the radar at the height of the migration. The screen’s concentric rings were overlaid by a livid green splash running across the centre of the country, parallel to the coast. It marked the presence of a flock – 120 kilometres long – of migrating storks. Exhibit two demonstrated the threat they posed – Leshem had collected fragments of an F-15 Falcon destroyed over the Negev Desert in 1995 in a collision with three storks, and mounted them on the side of the radar itself.

Dinevitch had gone inside the hut attached to the radar and we followed him up. It was like stepping into the interior of a submarine: it was very dark and the walls were obscured with grey metal consoles and banks of dials and switches. A generator hummed in the background. Dinevitch was sitting silently in front of a monitor that translates the machine’s analogue signal into digital form.

For the time being, the screen was showing dark blue dots, indicating local birds, but Dinevitch called up a screen with a picture of the autumn migration – flocks of birds moving south on a bearing of 176 degrees, at an average velocity of 56.9 kilometres per hour. While another screen displayed the vertical distribution – most of the birds were below 1,000 metres, and only one or two were above 2,000 – Leshem stood behind me, reciting the radar’s triumphs. It has been so successful that the air force bought another for the Negev and another for the north and estimates that the system has saved $660 million worth of equipment, as well as the lives of several pilots.

Leshem adds that it has also saved thousands of birds, and made a minor contribution to regional cooperation: the information is relayed to the Royal Jordanian Air Force, and when it went into operation in 1997, Leshem and Imad Atrash developed schemes encouraging Palestinian and Israeli children to track the migration together.

The project was abandoned during the second intifada, but Leshem’s plans for Latrun have continued to develop. He has already built an educational centre with classrooms and dormitories for 244 people on the far side of the museum and he is building a $3 million visitor centre on the empty land beyond the radar. Visitors to Yad La’Shiryon will be able to watch the migration via satellite and, for seven months of the year, to look out for the birds passing overhead. Leshem also plans to turn the woods on the edge of the museum grounds into a bird sanctuary. It will be similar to the JBO, though like everything in Yossi Leshem’s world, it will be much bigger and better. ‘The site of Amir is one acre. This will be sixty acres. So it will be sixty times bigger.’

Amir Balaban wouldn’t have been surprised to have heard Leshem celebrating his defeat with such conspicuous glee. Leshem’s unselfconscious egotism makes him seem ridiculous at times, and yet it’s part of his undeniable charm and vigour. It was ten to nine and he had to get to Tel Aviv to start work – the two hours he had devoted to showing me Latrun were a prelude to his normal day. We had ten minutes to look round Yad La’Shiryon, and as I trailed around in Leshem’s wake, attempting to keep up with his rapid commentary, I found myself wondering about its real purpose. A wall listing the names of the 4,855 soldiers of the Armored Corps who have died in Israel’s many wars flanks the courtyard outside the bullet-scarred fortress, and yet the tone of dignified mourning seemed at odds with the presence of the great metal war machines drawn up around the building. Leshem informed me, with his characteristic emphasis on scale, that only Fort Knox has a bigger collection of tanks, and I couldn’t decide whether Yad La’Shiryon was a shrine to the dead, or a place devoted to the worship of the martial spirit.

The significance of Leshem’s Cold War radar and museum is even harder to understand.

‘It’s a strange combination, tanks and birds,’ he acknowledged as we got back into the car. ‘But believe me, it’s a big story for the Middle East.’

In his company, it’s almost possible to believe that nothing else matters and yet I wasn’t sure what to make of Latrun. Leshem has found a way of asserting the importance of the migratory birds that travel over Israel and the West Bank twice a year, and done valuable work to protect them. Does it matter that he had to harness the power of the Israeli Air Force and exploit the centrality of the army in the public’s affections in order to do so? Maybe not. Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about Sami’s project. The separation barrier is the product of Israel’s determination to subdue every aspect of its environment in the name of security, and so is Leshem’s radar. Nothing, it seems, escapes the militarized nature of life in Israel – even the birds who traverse its skies fall within the invisible net of its security’s apparatus.

Netherley
Land’s End