June 20, 2024

Sitting in the shade of an olive tree in the valley of Ein Qiniya, north-west of Ramallah, the wildlife photographer and birdwatcher Mohamad Shuaibi starts to enumerate the birds he can spot. Swifts and swallows flit and swoop, a short-toed eagle hovers in the distance, a jay perches on an olive branch and a kestrel returns to its nest in the limestone cliffs.

He also starts counting the times he has been stopped by Israeli soldiers or police out in the field with his camera. “I was detained four times already since October, and each time was worse,” he says. He now avoids going out at certain times: “To watch birds we need to go out very early in the morning. But most of the military operations are in the early hours, so you can be shot if you’re out around this time.”

Spring sees millions of birds fly over the occupied territories of Palestine, part of the world’s second-busiest corridor for bird migration.

“The migration hasn’t stopped,” says Shuaibi. “These birds, despite the war, they are still coming. And it gives us hope.”

A kestrel in the West Bank. Photograph: Mohamad Shuaibi

Shuaibi, who works as a shop assistant in Ramallah, took up birdwatching about a decade ago. Over the years he has struggled with the lack of funds, the difficulty of getting equipment, and restrictions of movement imposed on Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank. But recent months have been the most difficult and dangerous he can remember.

On the same April day that Shuaibi sat under the olive tree listening to birdsong, about 12 miles away, hundreds of Israeli settlers descended the hills surrounding Palestinian villages east of Ramallah after a 14-year-old boy went missing. They shot residents, torched houses and cars, and slaughtered animals. The two-day rampage left two Palestinians dead, dozens injured and widespread destruction.

Since 7 October, when Hamas fighters from Gaza killed 1,139 civilians and Israeli soldiers and took approximately 250 hostages, Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank have faced escalating settler violence. At least 502 Palestinians have been killed in the territory by Israeli soldiers or settlers since 7 October, according to the UN. Entire villages have been displaced.

A chiffchaff. Photograph: Mohamad Shuaibi

Restrictions imposed on movement have become increasingly suffocating. Israeli forces and settlers have put up 114 new checkpoints, roadblocks and gates in the West Bank, taking the total to 759, according to the UN. The heightened settler violence and restrictions have kept many Palestinians in the West Bank indoors and in fear.

Birding – an outdoor pursuit involving a camera or binoculars would seem a high-risk activity in the West Bank. Yet enthusiasm for the hobby has been growing in the occupied territories in recent years.

For Shuaibi, it offers solace amid the violence. His ambition, he says, is to organise an exhibition to show the biodiversity of Palestine.

“I want to show the world this is not just a country of war. It’s not just death, bombings and killings. There are people who are interested in wildlife, even when nothing is available to them,” he says. “There is life here. And we love life.”

Positioned between Africa, Europe and Asia, this region is a bottleneck and an important stopover for hundreds of migratory species travelling between their wintering grounds and breeding sites.

Birds continue soaring over Gaza, even as Israeli bombardment of the strip continues. The bombing and military ground incursions have resulted in catastrophic destruction of the natural environment, ecosystems and neighbourhoods of Gaza, with at least 36,000 Palestinians killed and 81,000 wounded, according to the Gaza health ministry in May.

“Watching birds and wildlife gave us much comfort from the terror of war, displacement, and the tragedies in Gaza,” say birdwatchers Lara and Mandy Sirdah in audio messages sent from Deir al-Balah, in the centre of the strip.

Forced to leave their home in the north after Israeli evacuation orders, the twin sisters were not allowed to take their equipment with them, but are still birdwatching and publishing photos of bee-eaters and bulbuls. So far, they have listed 39 migrating and resident species they spotted over the last months of displacement.

The Palestinian sunbird is a ‘symbol of Palestine’. Photograph: Mohamad Shuaibi

For the twins, the large flocks of birds flying over Gaza in their northward migration have been a source of solace. “When we saw the birds flying over us from the south, we hoped that, like the birds, we can also return north to our homes when the war ends,” they say.

A heritage worth preserving

Interest in birding has been growing in Palestine for several years, says Saed Shomaly, the founder of the Palestine Society for Environment and Sustainable Development, who worked on conservation projects for Bethlehem’s swifts and the Jordan Valley’s barn owls. “We have four biogeographical regions, which makes this area very rich in biodiversity,” says Shomaly, who has counted 375 bird species in the West Bank’s habitats, ranging from wooded mountains to the cliffs and plateaux of the Dead Sea.

Saed Shomaly, the founder of the Palestine Society for Environment and Sustainable Development. Photograph: Samar Hazboun/The Guardian

“Last spring I organised a race for birdwatchers in Jenin, and we had 21 Palestinians participating. They came from as far as the Naqab desert and the Galilee,” says Shomaly. “But this year it was impossible to gather.”

Shomaly says he has always had to tread carefully while hiking with binoculars and avoid venturing out too close to Israeli settlements or military declared “firing zones”. “Sometimes I go out wondering whether I will get back or not,” says Shomaly. “But if I die, I worked for Palestine – and I worked for the birds.”

He says the outdoors can offer crucial respite, and worked on a website about nature reserves and bird habitats in the West Bank and Gaza, access to many of which is now limited by the hundreds of Israeli military checkpoints installed across the West Bank.

Shomaly has counted 375 bird species in the West Bank’s habitats. Photograph: Samar Hazboun/The Guardian

Since October, Shomaly has been unable to access one of his favourite hikes in the Jordan Valley’s al-Auja reserve.

In a statement sent by email, the Israeli military’s media desk said the restrictions are part of “security operations in the area”.

Still, he says, he continues “to go out to watch birds, to study them, to publish information about them. We have to preserve this heritage for future generations.”

The chance to breathe clean air

Gathering on a wooded hilltop overlooking terraces of olive trees and vineyards, a group of ninth-grade girls from the Aida refugee camp watch as Michael Farhoud, a researcher at the Environmental Education Centre (EEC) in Beit Jala, attaches a ring to the leg of a chiffchaff.

The tiny olive-brown warbler was caught in nets that morning. Farhoud explains to the schoolgirls how ringing tracks birds’ movements.

Established in 1986, the centre features a garden, a bird recovery centre and a museum of natural history. It has opened bird monitoring and ringing stations across the West Bank and publishes studies on local biodiversity. “We want to encourage people to care for life and for biodiversity, and to defend climate and environmental justice,” says Simon Awad, the EEC’s director.

For months, access to the centre was restricted by Israeli closures. Awad picks up his phone to show footage of a young Palestinian being shot dead by an Israeli soldier when trying to remove a roadblock to let a car drive through. It was filmed by security cameras outside the botanical garden in December.

Shomaly inspects a baby bird as part of his mission to document the natural habitat at the Makhrour Valley in Beit Jala. Photograph: Samar Hazboun/The Guardian

Lamis al-Harithi, 15, says she loves watching birds. Her favourite is the bright-coloured Palestine sunbird. “I love it because it’s a symbol of Palestine.

“The sunbird doesn’t migrate. It stays here all year,” she says as her classmates nod.

Their Unrwa school is cut off by the separation wall, subject to frequent military incursions, and surrounded by Israeli settlements illegal under international law. A study by the University of California in 2018 found residents of Aida refugee camp were among the most exposed to teargas in the world.

The field trip allows children to breathe clean air under oak and pine trees. When it is time to release the chiffchaff to resume its journey north, the girls shriek with joy. “Birds can travel wherever they want,” says Malak, one of the schoolgirls, and the chiffchaff flies away.

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