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The story behind Tel Aviv University’s terrorist spy eagle, shot down yesterday in Lebanon

by Simone Wilson

October 17, 2013 | 8:30 am

The perp. Photo by Al Manar via Jerusalem Online

A Hezbollah-run news network called Al Manar reportedly ran photos yesterday of a hawk that had been circling over Lebanon. The bird was outfitted with apparent spy equipment, claimed Hezbollah, and an ankle bracelet linking it to Tel Aviv University.

But who is the bird behind the armor?

Prof. Yossi Leshem, a top bird scientist (ornithologist) at Tel Aviv University who sounded a bit flustered today, explained that the extremely rare Bonelli's Eagle shot down in Lebanon yesterday and dragged back to Hezbollah headquarters was an innocent victim of wrong-place-wrong-time.

"Unfortunately, this bird made the stupid mistake of moving to Lebanon, where it was shot down by one of Lebanon's 400,000 hunters," he said.

As we can see in the body shots from Al Manar, the bird was implanted with a radio antenna that can be detected by satellite, which — according to Leshem — Israeli researchers were using to track its hunting and breeding activity. The eagle is one of about 10 of its kind in Israel — "a young one from this year," said Leshem. He was hatched and spent an idyllic youth at the Carmel Hai-Bar Nature Reserve, a 1,500-acre breeding and reacclimation center in the Carmel mountains of northern Israel, before venturing off on his own into the cruel skies of the Middle East.

Before Israel was established, said Leshem, there were about 65 pairs of Bonelli's Eagles living in the country. But in the process of building up Israel's agricultural sector, pioneering Zionist farmers poisoned the birds in an effort to preserve their crops. (So I guess we can't just blame Lebanon for everything.) 

The Tel Aviv University professor added that he is currently leading a project in collaboration with researchers from Jordan and Palestine, and has enlisted some of the Palestinians on the team to reach out to the Lebanese Society for the Protection of Nature to tell them what's up.

But this is no isolated incident. Turns out the latest casualty of Israel paranoia in the Middle East is just one in a long line of unfortunate souls. There's a robust Wikipedia entry called "Israel-related animal conspiracy theories." Steven Colbert ran a giddy segment on the trend in 2011. And in a July 2013 press release prepared by Prof. Leshem himself (I'm pretty sure he gets an annoying flood of interview requests every time one of these "spies" is shot down), he wrote in frustration:

The same story repeats its self time and time again for the past decade!

Every time a migrating bird from Israel, carrying a satellite transmitter or a ring, is captured by one of the neighboring countries, it is immediately thought to be the instrument of a sophisticated spy work by the Israeli Mossad.

Other suspected Israeli spies have included: A Common Kestrel and a European Bee-Eater in Turkey, two Egyptian Vultures and a pelican in Sudan, a Griffon Vulture in Saudi Arabia, a Common Kestrel and a wolf in Jordan, a school of sharks and a stork in Egypt and a Barn Owl in Syria. Of these, a few were stripped of their spy gear and released after X-ray inspection proved they could do no more harm.

The young Bonelli's Eagle who recently strayed to Lebanon, however, may not be so lucky. Guess that's just the price you pay for trying to uphold the legacy of your near-extinct species in a land where human tribalism trumps all, and anklets with Israeli brand names are the ultimate mark of death.

In conclusion: Unless you still believe the Israeli Mossad is on a "so stupid its smart" mission to spy on Hezbollah via inconspicuous feathered bird-drone, and enlisted scientists at Tel Aviv University to play along, let's agree to consider the theory debunked, yes?

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