Summer 2010

Society and Culture

Wings of Peace

Edwin Stepp

Yossi Leshem and Imad Atrash aren’t exactly birds of a feather. And that makes what they are accomplishing together particularly remarkable. 

At an international bird fair in England, Yossi Leshem and Imad Atrash hurry along between meetings. Totally consumed in an intense discussion, they take note of little else.

What those around them don’t realize is that a most unlikely friendship is being nurtured.

At this annual international conference of bird watchers and ornithologists, the largest of its kind in the world, the inseparable pair speeds from meeting to meeting seemingly unaware of and certainly undeterred by the thick, sloppy mud that defines the paths between tents and other temporary structures set up on this farm near Leicester. They think only of their common goal: to protect the environment along the Jordan River, and more specifically the region’s bird migratory habitats. They know that the time they have together here is precious, for when Leshem returns to Israel and Atrash to Palestine after these four short days in rain-soaked Britain, a politically imposed gulf will divide them. Arranging to meet again to share information will be a time-consuming and exhausting challenge.

It is ironic that these two men live and work only a few miles from one another. In nearly any other region of the world, getting them together would be routine and therefore unremarkable; but here, with one in Israel and the other in the West Bank, it is as if they lived half a world apart. Indeed it would be easier if they did, and that’s one of the main reasons they have traveled to the United Kingdom.

At the bird fair their discussions are intense and their schedule frantic. The anxiety they feel is reflected in their faces as they hurry to meetings with heads of foundations and corporations as well as with private philanthropists, all of whom they are petitioning for help with their work. Will they be able to convince these potential benefactors of the importance of what they are doing in the midst of one of the oldest and most dangerous political stalemates in history? The task would be daunting enough if these two men were on the same side of the centuries-old conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. The fact that they are not heightens both their anxiety and the enormity of their task.

These two men, who were once enemies by virtue of regional politics, have become fast friends because of their common love and their desire to protect something older than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

He is my enemy in the day, but in the night he is my friend. Or the opposite,” Atrash jokes during a rare quiet moment as he and Leshem tell a fellow bird-fair delegate about their unusual relationship and work.

But Leshem, who is a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Zoology, fires back quickly, “He is my friend all the time.” The two men laugh loudly and then enthusiastically slap hands together in an energetic handshake.

The bird enthusiast they are talking to is moved by the display and declares, “It’s wonderful how you forget politics completely when it comes to conservation!”

For the Birds

Atrash and Leshem’s story began two decades ago in Israel and Palestine, an area that holds many surprises for any visitor who knows it solely through the images of television news and Hollywood movies. Many think only of endless violence and parched landscapes, exploding rockets and deadly bus bombs, or youths hurtling rocks and bottles at indifferent tanks. But while it is a land of foreboding desert and the constant threat of violence, it is not completely so. Areas still exist where the sounds of conflict haven’t penetrated, where the water springs forth and creates lush and beautiful—even peaceful—oases.

The fertile Jordan Valley, the cradle of agriculture in the Middle East, is home to a unique wildlife and ecosystem which is currently under severe threat.”

Imad Atrash, “Promoting Ecotourism in Palestine,” in This Week in Palestine (November 2006)

These thriving places, teeming with life, reveal one of the region’s greatest surprises: it is a habitat for hundreds of millions of birds of seemingly every species. In the spring and autumn of every year, eagles, cranes, storks and even bright pink flamingos descend on the Jordan River to take rest as they migrate from Europe and Asia to Africa and back again. Half a billion birds make this a stopover on their semiannual journey across the globe.

The greatest concentrations can be found in the Huleh Valley, situated on Israel’s northern border near the Jordan River’s source. To be in the Huleh Valley during the migration period is an overwhelming and life-changing experience. One is simultaneously convinced of the planet’s majesty and of its fragile interdependence.

It was here 20 years ago that the nation of Israel confronted a growing problem. Israeli military jets and even commercial aircraft were encountering these birds, and fatal crashes increasingly headlined the local news. Not only were human lives being lost, but bird species that had traveled this aerial superhighway for countless centuries were also seriously threatened. So the Israeli military contacted Leshem, a dedicated ornithologist, to help solve the problem. He immediately began collecting data, conducting the first census of the birds and tracking their flight paths. With this information he was soon able to predict with amazing accuracy the times and position of flocks during the peak migratory periods. The incidence of bird strikes by aircraft was not only dramatically reduced but almost eliminated. Leshem became a national hero.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Israeli Air Force was losing more planes to birds than to hostile fire.” 

Carole Garbuny Vogel and Yossi Leshem, The Man Who Flies With Birds (2009)

He decided to capitalize on his success and newfound fame in order to draw attention to the task of protecting these millions of birds. So grateful was the Israeli military that they gave him unparalleled access to the skies over Israel to conduct his research.

Leshem soon realized, however, that it could not be done with the cooperation of only his nation. These birds are dependent on a flyway much longer than the Jordan River. In their journeys between Eurasia and Africa, they fly the length of one of the world’s largest geological features, the Great Rift Valley, stretching from Turkey and Syria through Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, along the Red Sea, then south to Mozambique. Leshem knew that his efforts to protect the Jordan River would be in vain if the international community could not be brought to understand this massive ecosystem and to commit to ensuring its health and survival.

If you don’t work on a regional level, you lose. We can do an excellent work in Israel, but if the Palestinians and Jordanians are destroying their habitat, we’ve accomplished nothing, or vice versa,” Leshem told Vision.

This became a primary goal for him, even though he knew there would be tremendous obstacles, not least of which was the fact that most nations along this great flyway are Muslim and share no diplomatic ties with Israel. How would Leshem gain access to those who could help him with his cause? Politics would not even allow him to travel to those nations.

Undaunted, he was content to start small. He turned his attention first to the Palestinian territories and found a man of insubstantial means but with a similar passion and love for protecting nature and the environment. He found Imad Atrash.

Atrash’s father was the founder of an unlikely organization in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. The Palestine Wildlife Society began at a point where every minute of every day was devoted mostly to human survival. The time and means to contemplate nature were scarce indeed. But Atrash’s father realized the importance of the environment even in those difficult days.

Conditions have not improved much for Atrash, but he continues his father’s work in the face of intense political and economic pressure. In him Leshem found a man who shared his vision in Palestine, and to his delight, Atrash agreed to help. Thus began their unusual friendship.

They set about planning how to extend their vision to other nations along the Great Rift Valley. Prior attempts to organize a conference with attendees from all the nations along the valley had ended in failure because so many of the Muslim representatives had refused to meet with Leshem. But Atrash was an acceptable ambassador for the plight of the Rift Valley, and he now takes their story to the Arab nations without hindrance.

The long-term goal is to develop the same regional system along the Rift Valley and get another 20 countries connected to this goal,” Leshem explained. “Imad is now a messenger of the environment and peace in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. He is going all over” the region.

One of the most successful joint projects between Yossi and Imad also involved Jordanians. For many centuries, Jordanians have viewed owls as a harbinger of bad fortune. So it was common practice there to kill owls in an attempt to ward off potential bad luck. Because of this, farmers on both sides of the Israeli-Jordanian border have been plagued with an overpopulation of rodents. In cooperation with the Jordanian government and retired general Mansour Abu-Rashed, Yossi and Imad were able to show these farmers that owls were actually a useful and necessary predator in the region. Now, instead of shooting them from the skies, Jordanians and Israelis are installing nesting boxes for them all along the border. The owls are flourishing, and the rodent population is well under control again. In a symbolic gesture, the Israeli and Jordanian armies provided containers, previously used to transport and store ammunition, for many of these nesting boxes.

Birds Without Borders

As Leshem and Atrash began their work together, they chose to allow their passion for nature and these birds to trump their ingrained suspicions toward one another. It was not easy, but they have become close friends. Naturally their political differences have not disappeared, and in their conversations these debates often emerge. One doesn’t have to be with them long to witness the emotional tension created by their cultural and religious identities. With their voices raised, the two men argue about the political path to peace as they share a beer in a pub near the farm where the bird fair is held. Listening in during this long conversation, one’s anxiety resolves into exuberance as the two switch back to their work and the problems they believe are greater than their ethnic or political concerns. When the meeting concludes they quickly embrace to show there are no hard feelings between them.

Atrash and Leshem, they are like twins,” explains Haya Helal, chuckling. The communications and marketing director for the Palestine Wildlife Society adds, “They talk and talk and talk, and whenever it’s something about the environment, they never stop. It’s like their mother is the environment and their father is nature. In terms of the environment, they are the backbone of the whole relationship between Palestinians and Israelis.”

Atrash often says, in the midst of promoting his work with the birds, that there will be no political solution to the conflict in Palestine. Yet he is not a man without hope, because he has seen from personal experience that Palestinians and Israelis can work together. Leshem, too, understands that the centuries-old Mideast conflict can be resolved only when people on both sides come together on a personal level in shared values and goals. That is why both men are working to get young people in Israel and Palestine together to work side by side, learning about the birds and gathering data that will fuel the drive to protect them.

The people here, they suffer too much from the war on both sides of the river. We need to show people the benefit of a peace treaty between Jordan and Israel. This is the idea behind our project.”

General Mansour Abu-Rashed

We don’t believe in the politicians,” Leshem declares. “If you look at the peace process, they are failing. The power of nature is bringing people together.”

The work that he and Atrash have done together so far has defied the odds, which are heavily stacked against such a joint venture between enemies. Like the delicate ecosystem they are trying to preserve, it is fragile and its survival is threatened.

The symbolism of the magnificent birds that cover the skies over the Jordan Valley is not lost on anyone who knows their story. “There are no boundaries between the birds.” Atrash smiles, adding, “They can eat in the morning in Bet Shan, and in the afternoon they come to Jericho.” From that picture, Leshem and Atrash adopted their slogan—“Migrating birds know no boundaries”—and set up a project by the same name. It focuses on bringing Arab and Israeli schoolchildren together to learn more about these migrating birds and to assist with collecting data and doing field work. The program was created in 1996 with the cooperation of the Israeli Ministry of Education. It is now operational in 60 Israeli, 30 Jordanian and 30 Palestinian high schools and has even been extended to schools in the United States, Russia and Europe. Tiny satellite transmitters mounted on some of the birds relay their location to an Internet Web site, so the students are able to follow the birds’ long flight path from Europe and Asia through the Middle East to Africa and back again in almost real time.

Against the Odds

For hundreds of years the human conflict in the Middle East has been a significant feature of the global political landscape. But the birds have been coming here for much longer. Ultimately the work these two men are doing is not just “for the birds” but may prove even more important for humanity. The lesson they and their young students teach is that focusing on something greater than ourselves, changing our thinking about deep-seated prejudices and reaching out to our enemies, can transcend centuries of human experience.

Against all odds, and in the face of political peril, these two men with a passion to protect their environment are risking their reputations and their lives to accomplish a seemingly impossible task. It is a difficult struggle, but in the process they are teaching others a lesson that is crucial to humanity’s ultimate peace: the key to solving many problems facing the world today lies in reforming relationships, not only between peoples across ethnic, cultural and national borders but between humanity and the earth and its fragile ecosystems.

Leshem and Atrash are finding a way to transcend deep-seated political and ethnic hatred by seizing a larger vision of the earth—not as a divided planet with man-made boundaries but as an organism desperately needing international cooperation to overcome both ecological and political crises.