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Bird watchers of the West Bank navigate a fraught political climate

Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus). Photo courtesy Anton Khalilieh.

Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus). Photo courtesy Anton Khalilieh.

  • In the challenging climate of the West Bank, one regionally prominent conservationist named Anton Khalilieh says there is a general lack of conservation knowledge among residents about birds in the area.
  • In an effort to change that, in 2017 Khalilieh founded a non-profit conservation organization called Nature Palestine.
  • Khalilieh is also working to build a comprehensive database of the birds who specifically live in the West Bank.

RAMALLAH — Anton Khalilieh is the premier Palestinian birdwatcher in the West Bank. The 37-year-old from Bethlehem has all the traits of a great birder: an encyclopedic knowledge of bird qualities and calls, insight into the ins-and-outs of the best birding sites — and the reflex to suddenly stop in his tracks and identify a speck flying in the sky.

Khalilieh is well-schooled in the splendors of the birds found in the West Bank’s four distinct bio-geographical regions, which range from leafy mountains and coastal plains, to the rocky slopes of the Jordan Rift Valley, to the dry Dead Sea, and cultivated fields along the way.

Arabian babbler (Turdoides squamiceps). Photo courtesy Anton Khalilieh.
Arabian babbler (Turdoides squamiceps). Photo courtesy Anton Khalilieh.

There are at least 370 bird species to see in the West Bank, a wide array despite the small space, ranging from the eagle owl, among the largest owls in the world, to the Palestine sunbird, a nectar-eating songbird whose males have glossy blue and green feathers that shimmer in the sun.

But amid a fraught political climate, Khalilieh says opportunities for Palestinian birders are fewer than those for Israelis.

“Bird watching is a luxurious hobby,” Khalilieh said. “But because of the political situation and the lack of funds and money and experience, we don’t [bird watch].”

The West Bank is sandwiched between Jordan and Israel. Israel captured the West Bank in the Six-Day War of June 1967; Palestinians claim the land is theirs, and the U.N. International Court of Justice maintains that the area is an occupied territory. Peace agreements in the 1990s slated the West Bank as a part of a future Palestinian state and created an interim, semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority in part of the territory. But in the conflict-ridden years since, a final-status peace agreement hasn’t happened. Israeli settlements in the West Bank, considered illegal under international law, have in the meantime continued to grow. Today, the Israeli military guards these Jewish communities where many nature reserves and the best birding sites are located.

Woodchat shrike (Lanius senator). Photo courtesy Anton Khalilieh.
Woodchat shrike (Lanius senator). Photo courtesy Anton Khalilieh.

Khalilieh says there’s a general lack of conservation knowledge among Palestinians about the birds in the area. He says more people should be trained as birdwatchers to systematically track things like nesting habits. It’s something he says Palestinians can and should be leading in, and he’s trying to change that, one bird at a time.

Since founding his own non-profit in 2017, Nature Palestine, Khalilieh has worked as a consultant for the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Nature Museum on bird and conservation issues. He’s also working to build a comprehensive database of the distribution of birds specifically in the West Bank. To do so, he’s drawing on Israeli data and research on birds throughout the region, as well as other resources like “The Birds of Israel,” the most comprehensive book on the subject to date. And, most importantly, he’s going out into the field to bird and document as much as he can.

“Birds of the Middle East,” another bible of birders here, recently came out with a mobile app for Android that includes Arabic content. “So Arabs will be more interested in bird watching, hopefully,” Khalilieh said.

Desert finch (Rhodospiza obsoleta). Photo courtesy Anton Khalilieh.
Desert finch (Rhodospiza obsoleta). Photo courtesy Anton Khalilieh.

In the last 15 years, he’s learned about the migratory and resident birds to look for, and where and when. His favorite periods are the twice-yearly migrations in the spring and autumn, when 500 million birds pass through from Europe to Africa and back again. It is the world’s second-most important flyway.

Birdwatchers here can stay busy all year long. One of the West Bank’s iconic landscapes is classified as Mediterranean mountain region, exemplified by hills covered in vegetation or rocky slopes and cliffs. These areas are a haven for songbirds. Then there are the deep valleys famed for being where some desert species breed.

Khalilieh says protecting birds is a hard sell for Palestinians struggling and working hard just to make ends meet. About one-third of Palestinians in the West Bank are unemployed, according to the World Bank. Many more are underemployed and just getting by, so have little time or money for a hobby like birding.

Palestine sunbird (Cinnyris osea). Photo courtesy Anton Khalilieh.
Palestine sunbird (Cinnyris osea). Photo courtesy Anton Khalilieh.

For Khalilieh and other Palestinians, access to the nearest post-secondary ornithology education requires a special permit to enter Israel. After earning his bachelor’s degree at Bethlehem University, in the West Bank, Khalilieh went on to get a doctorate in ornithology and ecological physiology from Ben Gurion University in southern Israel. He also studied at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel, which brings together Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to work on shared conservation issues.

Scientific studies on birds of the West Bank are included in Israeli bird databases, says Jonathan Meriav at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI). Meirav is director of birding tours for the SPNI’s International Ornithological Center.

The SPNI is the largest environmental non-profit in Israel, but the center doesn’t organize birding events in the West Bank. That’s in part because of complicated logistics, given the territory’s disputed status, Meirav said. Overall, the center facilitates birding tourism and birding fund-raisers and festivals, including a yearly international race in the south, called Champions of the Flyway.

Through several birding and conservation projects, though, Meirav has connected with Palestinian colleagues like Ikram Quttainh, 31, an ecotourism expert from Jerusalem. Quttainh became interested in learning about ecotourism and then birding in the West Bank as part of her master’s degree studies. She’s now participated twice in a joint Israeli-Palestinian team at the Champions of the Flyway race.

“As a Jerusalemite, I didn’t know anything about what was happening [elsewhere] in the West Bank,” Quttainh said. “We would always go to shopping areas, but never to the nature areas.”

Now Quttainh is a project coordinator at the Hanns Seidel Foundation, a German outfit, where she helps to organize West Bank ecotourism trips, including for birding. The foundation, in coordination with the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, has put together the first online database of Palestinian nature reserves. In addition to ecotourism and education, the foundation has funded signs for nature reserves under Palestinian control that urge people not to shoot the wildlife and explain what birds they can see.

In places like the Wadi Qana Nature Reserve, a beautiful expanse of natural caves and springs in the West Bank, both Khalilieh and Quttainh said they love to bird watch but feel they have to tread carefully as Palestinians so as not to raise suspicions about what they are doing or veer into the settlements by accident.

White-throated kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis). Photo courtesy Anton Khalilieh.
White-throated kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis). Photo courtesy Anton Khalilieh.

A spokesperson for the Israeli Civil Administration, the governing body for the West Bank, said Israelis and Palestinians have the same right to access nature reserves and national parks, which they said were open to all people. They also denied that military zones or nature reserves were in any way connected to political plans to expand and sustain Israeli settlements.

But nature reserves in the West Bank’s Area C, which constitutes 61 percent of the region’s territory, are “part of a patchwork of corridors of controlled areas that Palestinians can’t use,” according to Adam Aloni, a researcher with B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization.

Khalilieh, meanwhile, is still working to map out how all of the politics impacts his birding and conservation efforts. As part of his research, he’s tracking what’s happening with birds in the West Bank that are on Israel’s “red list” of conservation concern. He also has dreams of one day organizing birding festivals and institutions in the West Bank, like the ones already happening in Israel.

In the meantime, he can be found forging ahead in his jeep down the bumpy roads of nature reserves, stopping suddenly to raise his binoculars and record the lives and ecosystems that most others overlook.

Banner image: Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus). Photo courtesy Anton Khalilieh.

Miriam Berger is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. You can find her on Twitter at @MiriamABerger.

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