December 16, 2004
Unwelcome Visitors Plaguing Israel
Letter From Tel Aviv
In strong language a week ago, the United States renewed its security warning against travel to Israel. Nevertheless, millions of visitors are certain to ignore it -- including both the most welcome tourists and the least desirable arrivals of all.
Five hundred million visitors return to Israel in good years and bad, either wintering here or dropping in en route to other destinations. I was part of a group of Israelis who gathered last week to welcome them in the marshy rain-soaked countryside. In order to greet them up close, we were cautioned not to talk loudly nor make sharp movements. Wrapped in ponchos and wearing old sneakers, we all carried one indispensable apparatus -- binoculars.
We were rewarded with the sight of multitudes of flamingos and kingfishers, warblers and spoonbills, mallards and herons, gulls and cormorants. Flocks of majestic pelicans rose to circle and fly in perfect formation in search of further meals and further vistas. We saw egrets nobly nodding, ducks gliding upon ponds, stilts treading nimbly upon muddy flats and storks perching upon one leg or two. I was surrounded in that short morning with the symmetry and grace of more birds than I had ever seen trekking elsewhere.
Israel is the beneficiary of this gorgeous spectacle because it fortuitously lies on the aviary migration routes from Europe to Africa, offering among the best bird sighting opportunities in the world.
But other, much-less welcome airborne visitors are descending these days upon this part of the world. Duplicating the biblical plague upon Egypt, millions of locusts are zooming in upon the towns and fields of Israel. These winged grasshopper-like creatures, colored a garish pink and measuring up to three inches long, blanket their destination in dense swarms.
The locusts originate in West Africa, to which they are endemic. Inadequate control measures have ballooned their numbers to epidemic proportions, creating the world's worst locust outbreak in 15 years. They are now invading as far west as the Canary Islands and to the east in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel. Two people who witnessed the last locust attacks in Israel almost half a century ago during the 1950s vividly described to me their repulsion at being caught in a living cloud of insects. One had his car enveloped in a swarm; the other recalled her body covered with crawling creatures, the feeling of them moving through hair and over cheeks, and the sound of them crunching underfoot. It was a loathsome sensation whose memory never faded.
The swarms upon Israel are at their inception; at present the country is escaping maximum damage to greenery and crops. Although locusts are notoriously ravenous and can daily consume more than their own weight, the appetites of these young locusts are immature and they have not reached the egg-laying stage. Swarms have thus far landed in the south of the country where most of the agriculture is in covered hothouses and hence inaccessible. The trick will be to eradicate the pests before they breed and before they reach farther north where crops grow in the open air.
During the promise of Mideast peace prior to the intifada, Israeli ornithologists established contact with their Jordanian and Palestinian counterparts to foster bird tracking and research. Although the birds continue to arrive heedless of political strife, the cooperation of the scientists has per force been greatly reduced. For example, gatherings among Israeli, Arab and Palestinian children to learn about the birds that crisscross their common skies have been suspended.
However, the prospect of a locust disaster has begun to galvanize Israelis and Arabs to join hands in at least some way. Israel has been sending plane after plane into the sky to spray against locusts. With the full cooperation and approval of the Jordanian Ministry of Agriculture in Amman, Israeli planes sprayed along a region of the Negev on both sides of the border between Israel and Jordan, thus protecting both countries. Israel is awaiting response from Egypt on its offer to spray the locust breeding grounds in the Egyptian Sinai Desert.
The Mideast contains extremes of beauty and ugliness, of blessings and curses, of hope and despair. Bringing exquisite birds and loathsome pests, the heavens, too, bear this out.
The threatening cloud from the sky might succeed in uniting human beings on the ground. Perhaps they will perceive their common interest to be continued cooperation even after the marauding insect invaders have been banished.