Can a new hunting law protect Israel's endangered animal species?
Critics warn legislation might increase poaching, while alienating Druze and Arabs who consider hunting a cultural legacy
“Ninety-five percent of the hunters who come to me in the wild are terrific hunters, really great guys. They come for the fantasy, for the nostalgia, to sit around a barbecue, to feel they are still preserving the embers.” The speaker is Yehuda Marmur, a cattle breeder from Moshav Yavniel, a cooperative village in Lower Galilee, who is available to assist the Nature and Parks Authority as a reinforcement inspector when needed. “But there is also a problem,” he continues. One rotten tomato spoils the whole crate, and that’s why the whole crate is treated like that.”
We are sitting at the kitchen table in the Marmur family home. The large TV set that dominates the table shows Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz in an animated conversation on a current events program. Marmur tells me about being a reinforcement inspector.
“I come with another vehicle to act as another pair of eyes,” he says. “If there are, say, three hunters and the inspector is alone, then he won’t be by himself; or if there are five hunters and we are eight or ten inspectors, then naturally it becomes more businesslike, not a provocation of a few against many.” And provocations do occur. Marmur says that poachers who are caught sometimes fabricate stories about inspectors and falsely accuse them of inappropriate behavior.
It’s getting late. Marmur’s wife offers me tea. I thank her. “I already offered her,” Marmur says. “It looks like you don’t know how to offer,” she teases him, gently. She pours the tea and listens to the conversation. Despite his great empathy for the inspectors, whom he views as high-class and sincere, Marmur is also aware of their weaknesses.
“One of the inspectors’ main problems involves the hunters’ sense of honor. The hunters are fathers with children. So, when a young inspector comes along, searches the father’s car and examines his rifle, the father feels a little humiliated. That can sometimes slide into an unpleasant situation. Yet the inspector didn’t say the man had stolen or poached, he only wanted to see a valid hunting license, and so on.”
Despite his work as a cattle breeder, there is something gentle about Marmur. Take his use of the word “slide.” Because the “slide” he is talking about is not a soft slide, but a deterioration. He explains what he means. “In most cases, if a team of Jewish policemen arrive, they will back up the inspectors,” he says. “But if other groups arrive − they might be from the hunters’ family; maybe from their village, or, if not from their village, then from the next village, and in any event they know them − the police find themselves in a tricky spot that soon develops into an unpleasant situation.”
Marmur’s “unpleasant situation” was depicted by Said Haddad – the legal adviser to the Israel Hunters Association, whom we reported on last week – as a “system of give and take.” Haddad explained, albeit with obvious discomfort, “It’s when you ask them to let someone off, let’s say because he is your relative, and you promise that in exchange he will get something. Do you see? It’s a give-and-take system. It is very well known in Eastern culture and called mahsubiya in Arabic. The word means ‘said to belong to.’ For example, if I see a policeman attacking someone from our village I say to him, ‘Khalas, leave him be.’ The same thing if a policeman sees another policeman arresting someone from his village – he will tell the other policeman, ‘Leave him be.’”
The Jaffa-based hunter Hamdi Abu Kaaud also talked about this. “That’s how it works up north, when it comes to the porcupines,” he said. “For example, I am a hunter whose uncle is a Border Policeman who works in an area where there are porcupines, and also likes porcupines. So I call him: ‘Are you on patrol tonight?’ If he says yes, I go into the field and I tell him, ‘Listen on your radio if they report something.’ That’s how I know that nothing will happen to me, because with his radio he knows who is coming from the Nature and Parks Authority and what’s going on with the routine-security coordinator and also with the police. If he hears that they’re onto something, he immediately calls his uncle, who is also out hunting, and says, ‘Listen up, they are coming to you.’
“There are also other reasons for the lax enforcement in the north,” he continues. “Let’s say an inspector catches a Druze poacher and tells him, ‘You have broken the law.’ In a jiff, the Druze whips out a police badge. Then you get a power war between them. The inspector has to call in the Border Police, and that places the Border Police in a situation where one policeman checks out another, only he is on duty and the poacher-policeman is not. But the policeman who is not on duty, namely the hunter, might have connections with the commander-in-chief of the Border Police or with the chief of the local police station. So he talks to the local chief and says they should use their connections to make the inspector back off and get off his case, and then all hell breaks loose.”
I drive in the dark toward Highway 65. “All hell,” “mahsubiya,” “slide” − is there a more serious problem about law enforcement in the Druze community?
“The Druze get no special favors. Okay? We’ll start with that: no special favors,” says Samir Knaan, a Druze from Yarka and a retired Israeli army officer, when I ask him about this subject. “It could be that there are a few specific cases, such as maybe it’s my son, or maybe someone from a bereaved family, or a disabled army veteran. But that’s a specific case, not set [policy]. This is our country, we live in this country and we will continue to serve the country and serve in the army. But we do in fact allow ourselves to break the law,” he says irately, talking about the proportion of Druze among poachers in Israel.
Our meeting takes place in the office of his family’s electrical goods store at the western entrance to Yarka, a northern Druze town. The large display space is brightly lit and has the heady feel of a duty-free shop. Knaan has close ties with both inspectors and hunters − legal ones and poachers − and has invited one of each to the meeting. The authorized hunter, Nuriel Abu Adalah, is tall and thin. He is a recognized disabled veteran and wears dark glasses to conceal the wound he sustained during his army service. We’ll call the other man Hassan.
Surprisingly, what underlies the heated debate is, according to my interlocutors, the Druze obsession for kubbeh, specifically a variation of this Arabic dish that is made with raw meat and bulgar wheat. “Even some Jews come to Yarka for this dish,” Knaan says proudly. “We have many friends from kibbutzim who like kubbeh, but the kubbeh in Yarka is something else. No other village knows how to make kubbeh like you get in Yarka.”
I ask for the recipe, and Knaan obliges. “It’s made of ground partridge meat and another kind of flour,” he says, to which Hassan adds, “With bulgar and all kinds of spices, and also a special spice.” But when I ask what the special spice is, the explanation comes to an end. Abu Adalah chortles and Knaan sums up, “It’s women’s work, but the truth is – and I say this to you as a human being – it’s an unbeatable dish. That’s why everyone talks about Yarka’s kubbeh, and that’s why you will find the most hunters in Yarka.”
But even though they maintain that there are far fewer poachers in Yarka than people think, the men admit there is a shortage of game in the community. They believe there to be no comparison between buying meat from the hunt − a small sin in their view − and hunting to sell in commercial quantities. “Two days ago, we heard that 400 porcupines were killed in one of the villages around the Carmel. They sell the porcupine for NIS 600 for commerce,” Knaan says. “There are also hunters in Arabeh, Sakhnin; there are hunters in all those places.”
Abu Adalah sets the record straight. “People in Yarka buy, they don’t sell. People from Arabeh come to Yarka to sell. Two years ago, someone from Yarka went to the territories and bought 120 partridges. He was caught on the way back. Why did he go there to buy them? Because there are no partridges here; there are no partridges and there is no hunting. If I find someone who is selling partridges, I will buy partridges from him. I want to eat them once in a while. Not every day.”
Knaan, a domineering type − like most of the men I encountered on this journey − almost always has to add something: “Amalia, I could take you tomorrow morning. We could go to Bartaa and I could point out 120 partridges. The seller slaughters them, puts them in a crate and I bring them to Yarka. I share them with my friends. The NPA knows who sells game, they have been tracking them for years. I very much regret that they can’t catch them. So it bugs me that someone comes to Yarka with 10 does in the trunk of his car, sells them for NIS 800 each, and then along comes the NPA and says Yarka is doing business, namely that we are the sellers.”
So far, Knaan has tried to explain that no law enforcement problem exists in Yarka. The truth is, he says, that the NPA doesn’t come to Yarka because it will find nothing there. In other words, according to Knaan, these are slanders against the local Druze. But at this stage, Hassan, the poacher – or “hunting offender,” as the legal hunters will insist on calling him – gets worked up and joins the conversation.
“I tell you, if an inspector says to the police, ‘Come with me to Yarka, let me enter a house and look in the freezer to see if you have illegal meat − meaning meat from hunting − the police will not come. There will be a real story. There will be blows, chaos. It’s not worthwhile for policemen and inspectors to come, to enter a house and look in the freezer.”
I try to understand why, and Hassan replies, “First of all, we are talking about meat, not drugs; it’s not weapons, it’s not something that can undermine state security. It means going into the freezer. I personally will not let them go into my freezer to look for meat.”
“Why?” I persist. “Explain it to me.”
Hassan: “It’s not such a big deal. It’s not the end of the world, even if the meat is illegal.”
I try to follow his logic. “After all,” I tell him, “if you take my car, I will eventually get it back from the insurance, my salary or whatever. But if you take from the planet an animal that cannot be brought back, it will never return. It’s more serious than drugs.”
Hassan insists: “I tell you, the country is full of porcupines. It is not an animal that is about to disappear. If I knew that porcupines were about to disappear from Israel, I would...”
So you don’t buy the numbers argument?
Hassan: “I don’t buy it. I am a hunter, I know the quantities, and I am ready to go with an inspector and show him how many there are. Or, he can come with me and see that in every grove there are 20 and 30 porcupines wandering around.”
Hassan, 38, has been a poacher since the age of 16. “The guys I hung out with, my friends, every one of their dads was a hunter. I really love hunting and I really wanted to be a legal hunter. But they didn’t let me. They wouldn’t let me do hunter tests. In fact, they stopped giving them. There aren’t any more tests, and there is a certain number of hunters and the NPA says this is the number we want, we don’t want more.”
Hassan rails against the fact that since 1996, one of the NPA’s methods for reducing the scale of hunting in Israel was to give a temporary order to block the issue of new hunting licenses. The NPA admits that the new legal amendment is intended, in part, to put an end to this anomaly. But that is no consolation to those who have been unable to obtain a hunting license.
The amendment, if passed, will eliminate the institution of hunting for sport altogether. The licenses of authorized hunters will be revoked and those who meet the new criteria will be recognized as “qualified to hunt.” A lottery will be held to enable 200 to 300 new people to be recognized as such. They will be able to hunt within the framework of specific aims set forth in the new legislation.
Hassan: “How could something like that happen? Imagine if the state said it was ready to have 1,000 drivers and no more. Either they ban it altogether, or they allow it to everyone. Why should someone who is four years older than me be a hunter, but I can’t be one? That is the reason I now hunt illegally. I hunt porcupines, I hunt partridges. I hunt for personal use, not for commerce. It’s a hobby for me.
“I also generally do not go hunting with a rifle. For porcupines you usually use dogs and a club. The dogs spot the porcupine and I kill it with a club. But I don’t hunt a lot. I go once a month, let’s say, or two months, to get one porcupine and I go back home. Mostly I succeed. There are large quantities of porcupines, especially in the north. And especially in the Golan Heights. But I personally do not hunt quantities, and I don’t sell it − I eat it.”
I tell him I’ve heard that porcupine meat is excellent. Hassan confirms this. “It is very, very special. And it is rare meat, which you can’t go to the store and buy. If it was in the store, I would prefer to go and buy it in the store and not go out all night – because it is also very dangerous, you know, to go into the wild and run after them. And it’s a whole story to catch them. But listen, it is very tasty meat, a treat; incredible.”
How do you prepare porcupine meat?
“On the grill. You only eat it grilled. Like steak.”
I ask Hassan if the fines deter him. He laughs. “I know a porcupine hunter who only sees the $100 bill as he goes after the porcupine with a club. The fine does not deter. No. Last year I caught maybe only three porcupines. But I know someone who sells porcupines who took down more than 30 in two-three months. More than 30,” he says, and leaves it to his friends to calculate how quickly he recoups the money from selling porcupines.
Fines are not the only professional hazard faced by hunters of the Indian crested porcupine, Israel’s largest rodent. There is also the danger that the hunting dogs they have trained will be impounded. According to Hassan, all porcupine hunters work with dogs. He tells me about the training process. “You catch a porcupine in a cage, you bring him in alive, and you start to teach the dog how to catch it. These days, a dog for hunting porcupines − a good dog, well trained − is worth more than NIS 5,000. Because training takes a long time. The dog has to encounter a porcupine a few times in order to learn. It’s a process of at least seven-eight months. Some dogs catch on, others don’t. There are also certain types of dogs. I had a film clip in my mobile phone,” he apologizes, “but I erased it. I would have shown you how a dog, how a group of dogs, stalk at night, quietly; very quiet, no noise, only trying to sniff out the porcupine. And they don’t bark, they don’t open their mouths. They don’t open their mouths until they see the porcupine.”
Of his dog he says, “I wouldn’t sell even if I was offered NIS 10,000. Because it took a lot of time until I taught him. It’s not easy. A very long process. He is also taught how to hold up the porcupine carefully in his mouth. Because it can screw the dog, kill it. You need smart dogs that know how to protect themselves. Some people’s dogs died. Because, if the porcupine puts pressure on the dog, it kills him with the quills. And it’s hard to lose a dog.”
I try to join the conversation. I mention what an old Bedouin hunter, who was interviewed on condition of anonymity, told me about how saluki dogs are trained to hunt hares. He said that the eyes of the dead hare are opened and meat is placed in them, and then the hare is tied with a string and is rolled around in front of a starved dog, until it learns to identify the hare with the meat.
In the meantime, Hassan has moved on to partridges. “I have a method for hunting a large number of partridges at once and without a rifle,” he says. “You go with a backpack and a large battery and a flashlight, and I can nab the whole covey of partridges that I want. I shine a strong light on the covey and all the partridges stop where they are, they don’t move. I start to grab them and put them in an animal bag. That is what they do in the territories. It blinds the partridge. There are a lot of hunting methods besides rifles. If they think that by taking the rifles from the hunters they will uproot the hunting and be done with it, they are very much mistaken. You can also hunt gazelles without a rifle. Do you know how they are hunted today? With all-terrain vehicles. They are just run ragged.”
Hassan and Knaan launch into a short discussion about the subtleties of gazelle hunting with the use of ATVs. Knaan says you need space for that, so it’s not feasible in the north. “You can’t move around with ATVs in the north. Maybe in the center and the south.”
Hassan: “You can’t do it in Beit She’an and here and there? There are open areas there and plenty of [gazelles].”
Knaan: “Yes, but in those areas, which are closed off by construction on all sides, the gazelles are really in a kind of trap. So you just wear them out, take them down.”
With flashlight, with dogs or with an ATV − one way or the other, the message is clear.
As Knaan puts it: “I think that because the nature reserves are closing the ring on the hunters, they are making these people anti-nature reserve. You would think that the legal hunters are doing it as a principle for the nature reserves. It’s like revenge is at work – instead of letting these people vent their feelings by shooting a weapon, because it’s a hobby, it’s a sport. If they don’t let them do it, these hunters will turn to other places, to the environment of the village, and hunt there, only to vent the nerves and the frustration they have from all this.”
Abu Adalah, who for now is a legal hunter, agrees. “If they come now and take my two rifles, I have no problem with that, I will not resist. I will give them the rifles. But then, automatically, I become an illegal hunter. And I will do things that I would not do as someone who has a rifle.”
Knaan: “The question is, why would you do that?”
Abu Adalah: “Principle.”
Knaan, turning to me: “You hear?”
“What the hunters don’t understand is that they are breaking the hunting laws and the laws of animal conservation; that in fact they are hurting themselves. They and their children and their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren will have nothing left to hunt in this country,” says Amitzur Boldo, who is known to all the inspectors and hunters I met by his first name only. “Nothing will be left here but predators,” he continues, during a long meeting we had at his Kibbutz Beit Zera home in the Jordan Valley. “I am referring to foxes, jackals, wolves, wild boars, cattle egrets [a species of heron], crows and sparrows, and another few invasive species. They can’t get that through their head.”
Amitzur, who was with the NPA for more than 30 years, is one of the last of a vanishing breed. He says of himself, “Everyone knows that I, Amitzur, was born to bring color to the world.” A walking encyclopedia of nature in Israel, he combines a fanatic passion about protecting animals with a democratic arrogance that has contempt for hunters and inspectors, who are not perceived as his equals. Neither Druze, inspectors or the courts are spared from his sharp tongue. And he pulls no punches about the enforcement problem in the Druze communities. “This is where the dirty politics starts,” he says, “because they are Druze and we are blood brothers and brothers in arms and brothers and brothers, and they are a minority, and the state needs the Druze and the Druze need the state, so it’s ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,’ and the result is loopholes in the law to close cases against high-status people in the police or the Military Police or the Prisons Authority or in the army, or lawyers, and whatnot.
“Just now,” he continues, “we have a story with a lawyer who has a master’s degree and is a candidate to be a judge in Israel. He was caught hunting with someone else’s rifle and he does not have a hunting license or anything, but the NPA is letting him off. He happens not to be a Druze, but is from a minority group, and if the NPA were to take him to trial like they would an ordinary citizen – like me or you – he would not be a judge in Israel. They are afraid even to approach the Bar Association.”
Amitzur’s criticism of the system does not stop here. He has nine fingers, a fistful of stories and is not afraid of anyone. He agrees with the hunters’ contention that they are not to blame for the state of animal life in Israel. “The gazelle population decreased because of the NPA and the Agriculture Ministry,” he says. “The NPA took the advice of some professor, who in my opinion was wrong when he said that in the U.S. and Europe they have such-and-such a number of deer, which are quite similar to gazelles, and the optimum is 18 – or something like that – per square kilometer, and we have to achieve that number in Israel, too. So they taught all the licensed hunters to hunt gazelles – the NPA taught all the hunters who had been afraid even to look in the direction of a gazelle − because they were afraid for their weapons − to hunt gazelles, and taught them to hunt during the day.”
According to Amitzur, the NPA acted with poor judgment which caused a decline in the population of the wild animals, but that does not mean the system should be allowed to continue. Indeed, the protected wild animals are in acute danger. Amitzur’s frustration with the hunters is plain to see. “These days the hunters drive 4x4 vehicles among hikers, travel to the Golan Heights and the eastern Hula Valley, crossing [army] shooting ranges, see gazelles and stop by the roadside, have something to drink ... And when there is a break in the groups of hikers they shoot the gazelle and remain where they are ... And when they see another break in the groups of hikers, they pull the animal close to the vehicle, and check again that they are unseen from both the east and the west. Then they load the gazelle on the vehicle and drive off.
“We are also in the era of mobile phones, and the hunters tell me, ‘Amitzur, you people don’t stand a chance against us. We come with the family, in two cars, sit by Lake Kinneret, take down two gazelles up on the hill, and we know that everyone who passes informs on us to you. Then we go down in the field.’ Most of them, or a good many of them, were in the army and know how to go down on the spot. They bring down a gazelle and sit quietly and clean it, and they have the whole day until the evening. They clean out the innards, so the meat does not spoil – anyway, they smoke the meat. Gradually they draw closer to the road. ‘We change clothes and a car checks to see that there are no checkpoints of yours, of the NPA or the police or the Border Police, and we see that there are no checkpoints, so we put the game in the car – with the people and the children – in respectable clothes, our traditional garb.’ That is what they say. ‘And who stops us when they see us with the whole family? Who checks us? Even if there are police, they don’t check us, because what do they have to check us for? Do they only stop Druze? Don’t they stop Jews?’”
Four hours later, we are still in the same living room, in which are jumbled – like the exterior representation of Amitzur’s consciousness – thousands of items related to the flora and fauna of the Land of Israel. Some of them are undoubtedly rare; others useless, such as VHS cassettes that threaten to topple over if you shift even one of the somewhat hostile-looking owl statuettes that stare at you with extra-large eyes from all kinds of corners in the house.
Amitzur is done settling accounts with the judiciary, Druze hunters and the NPA. He now turns his sights on the young inspectors: “The inspectors are not taught enough. You can’t have a diver who hasn’t been taught how to dive. He’s thrown into the water, this guy, and told, ‘From now on, start being an inspector.’ He can’t be a platoon commander without going through a platoon commanders course, and he can’t be a sergeant without going through a course for sergeants. But in the NPA, some who were taught nothing rose up the ladder of promotions, even though they can’t tell the difference between a mule and a giraffe − not their fault, because no one taught them.”
It’s Shabbat eve. A lazy quiet hangs over the kibbutz. But it’s hard to stop Amitzur. He keeps calling me and updating me about new details for weeks after our meeting. The last point that aggravates him is the hunting by Thai farmhands. He was in charge of this problem in his last years at the NPA. Many in the NPA call it the greatest threat to wild animals in Israel. Amitzur, it turns out, is in contact with the Thais. “I spoke with Thais, and they say, ‘Listen, do you, the Jews – meaning the Israelis – fancy a steak? You go to Tzel Tamar [a meat restaurant in the Jezreel Valley], you go to Ein Gev. When you want hummus you go to Tiberias or to Beit She’an. When you want ice cream you go to parlors at Tzemach. Amitzur, we have none of that. We decide that on Friday we will eat frogs, as a break from routine.’ These are their words, not mine. ‘So we know that this week we will collect frogs in a [drainage] channel or in the Jordan, and on Friday we will eat frogs. When we decide that next week we will have crabs, we go to the pools of [Kibbutz] Mesilot, in the Beit She’an Valley, and collect freshwater crabs.’
“These days, in a large number of the drainage channels, which are among the most massive in Israel, where there used to be stinking swamp turtles and crabs and frogs, there are next to none left. They go from one drainage channel to the next, in the Jenin Rift, along the ‘ruler road,’ and clean them out. It’s the same in the Sharon region and all over the country. They get to every channel, every stream and collect and hunt to their heart’s pleasure, and to catch them is backbreaking work.”
Dr. Noam Lider, the chief ecologist at NPA, agrees with Amitzur. “These guys grew up in nature,” he says, “mainly in villages in eastern Thailand, and they obtained their food by hunting, mainly animals living in their close surroundings. They are champion hunters: they can make a trap out of dental floss.” Lider riffles through a scientific presentation in which he illustrates the scale of the damage inflicted by this type of hunting. “Most of the damage is caused by these slipknot traps. They make them out of every available material on farms, such as the twine used for bales of hay. The trap is not selective. Unlike a rifle barrel, which brings down only gazelles, this brings down everything. In all kinds of moshavim I see small notices: ‘Our dog Putzi is lost.’ Okay? And I say to myself, don’t bother looking for Putzi at the SPCA...”
Lider is an inspector of a different breed. He doesn’t possess the tough energy of other inspectors I’ve met, and he knows it. “The ecologist’s work is not as sexy as coming to the NPA’s offices after a night of stakeouts with the confiscated weapons.” Still, when he goes through the presentation with me comprehensively − it tries to gauge the scale of the hunting done by foreign workers in Israel, and its damage − it’s clear that his job is critical. Lider explains how the Thais’ traps work. “Either it strangles the animal or causes death with torment. It’s a simple slipknot. Wind it around your hand, and the harder you pull, the tighter it gets. Now the animal is struggling. It is walking on some trail, doesn’t see the trap, sticks in its head and the moment it starts to exert pressure the trap shuts.”
I check to see if I’ve understood. “Is it like suicide?”
Lider: “Exactly. And then, either it dies of suffocation, or this thing − let’s say, very sharp twine − in the end, the animal goes wild. We have a video of a trapped boar, it’s terrible. There are also arcs, of the kind on which plastic is spread for growing strawberries. They take an arc, which is already stuck in the ground, and place a thin wire in the middle. Then they put some seed or something there, and a partridge comes to peck. It sticks in its head and is caught. They do all kinds of things; they are masters. I have to give them credit. If there is anyone who will survive a nuclear holocaust, it’s them.”
Even though Lider says he is not involved in enforcement, he is very knowledgeable about the NPA’s methods in that regard, including its information campaigns. This is related in part to his efforts in the field to estimate the true scale of this form of hunting. The interrogation methods, he explains, require the use of an interpreter. “We cannot use the methods they know from home, in which the police beat you: ‘Admit that you are a chicken.’ Here we have to go by all the rules.”
We check out two methods of calculation together. One is based on the assumption that the 2,600 traps discovered every year constitute 10 percent of all the traps; the other rests on the assumption that “about 10 percent of the people in the world are bad, which would mean that about 10 percent of the 25,000 Thais who work on farms in Israel are hunters. In both cases, the estimate is that there are between 6,000 and 8,000 hunting events a year.” That’s the same figure I was given in regard to poaching in the Arab community.
Lider describes some of the motivations of the Thai hunters. “I can tell you when they catch the animals. Is it the king’s birthday? They have a party in their quarters − they are very loyal to the monarchy. One of them brings a small partridge. The queen has a birthday, and one of them brings a small boar. The model according to which they [are estimated to] hunt down 2,000 porcupines, 1,300 boars, 400 badgers and foxes and gazelles a year is very conservative. But even if it’s less, can I live with 100 gazelles gone? I cannot. We have no spare gazelles.”
Do the farmers know?
“Look,” Lider laughs, “there are some who don’t know. At an exhibition a year ago, I received a report about hunting events in a few communities. Everyone there was a farmer and they were walking around with name tags, like, you know, ‘Yossi − Givat Brenner.’ And they say: ‘Thais? Not in our kibbutz. Ours are all vegetarians.’ I found exactly 82 traps there. Well, some of them don’t know, but others grasp the problem and make a true effort. Some of the farmers also turn a blind eye, and in my opinion some of them encourage [hunting] in order to solve some of their problems.”
Noy Nevo, a farmer herself and a Thai by origin, has been in Israel for 17 years and is married to an Israeli. She has worked with the NPA for about 10 years, often as an interpreter. Noy agrees with Lider’s estimation that 10 percent of the Thai workers in the country hunt game. Nor does this surprise her. “Let’s start with education,” she says. “In Thailand the majority of the workers are villagers who engage in farming. In Thailand you can take whatever animal is close to your rice field. It’s allowed there. In Israel, the farming areas are in nature, so the workers see these animals and automatically feel it’s allowed.”
“The second thing,” she explains, “is that in Thailand, ‘wild animals’ means large animals in a reserve − elephants, tigers and all that. They don’t know that a cricket is also a wild animal. In Thailand, when they say it is prohibited to hunt wild animals they mean large animals, but what’s close to home is allowed.”
“When it comes to questioning them,” Noy says, “the fact is that most of the workers start to quake the moment they see someone in uniform approaching them – no matter who, or in what uniform. That comes from an education that teaches you to respect people who confront you and are of a higher status. When they are asked about traps, obviously none of them admits at first to knowing anything about them. Many times I myself didn’t believe that they know how to lie, because I believe Thais so much. But maybe out of fear, because they know the law can extend to fines and deportation, they say, ‘We don’t know.’”
Nevo accompanies the suspects and the NPA inspectors until the first interrogation. Her experience is that “in the end those who did it − the Thais − take responsibility. Those who are involved in hunting admit to it. They give explanations. For example, there was a case in which a young Thai who was still new in the country was told by the veterans to check the trap, check here, check there. He knows it’s forbidden, but because he respects the veteran, he will not press his view. When caught, he confesses.”
Later, Eldad Peled, director of the NPA’s inspection and enforcement unit, will tell me, “I have often spoken to workers just before their expulsion. It’s a very serious crisis for them. They pay a lot of money to come here, to ensure the future of their family, their children, the extended family. There is great competition to come here. I see them just before they board the plane, crying, mourning, mortified – because on top of the fact that they are losing money and paying fines, they are punished by not being allowed to reenter the country for three years. How do they go back to their family? There is an element of embarrassment. ‘Why did you come back? You went for five years, what happened?’ It’s not easy.”
“Maybe they really do have too much spare time, I don’t know what to say anymore,” says Roni Malka, director of the department for inspection and law enforcement, security and safety, as we hold a formal meeting with the new director general, Shaul Goldstein, and with the NPA’s legal adviser, attorney Sara Shalom. “We went all the way to Thailand,” Malka says. “I met with the director of the Ministry of Labor there. They have training centers. We gave them material and short video films we made, stickers. We do a lot of information work among the manpower companies and among the Thais. But it won’t be easy, because culture is stronger than everything. They are isolated, they sleep in farming areas. They also rotate every few years. You have to have your finger on the pulse at all times.”
We are meeting in a simple, kosher pastry shop in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Hahayal neighborhood. The venue was chosen because it suited everyone’s schedule and also met the participants’ culinary and religious requirements. Goldstein, who is religiously observant, looks alternately like a good kid from the Bnei Akiva youth movement and a sheriff. Malka and Shalom, who flank him, don’t let him make any mistakes. Shalom combines a legal lexicon with the assertiveness of a school principal. Malka is sun-and experience-burnt − his name appears in almost every combat arena in which the NPA is involved.
I start with the tough questions.
Is there a law enforcement problem in the Druze communities?
Malka: “The problem lies primarily in entering the Druze areas, getting search warrants − because the police don’t issue them. The police have their own political reasons. We are subordinate to the police in regard to search warrants. They check our legal foundation. If there is a case, it happens. It’s not easy.”
Do similar political considerations hamper the NPA in other areas?
Malka and Goldstein want to say no, but when we discuss the failed effort a few years ago to collect hunting weapons from hunters who no longer have a license, they admit the picture is complex. Goldstein: “We are not aware of this in Israel, but you have to understand that a powerful lobby exists. You want to please the Druze, everyone wants to achieve something politically, and this is one of the tools. ‘Take a few rifles, what happened?’ ‘Take a few more weapons − that will benefit us in other places.’ For us in the NPA the weapons are the main problem, so the situation is difficult for us, but it is really not in our hands.”
It’s a short meeting; Goldstein doesn’t have much time, and I feel I have to bring in the hunters’ voice, too. In our meeting in the glittering electrical appliances store in Yarka, Samir Knaan told me, “They can say, ‘Okay, we will put a stop to hunting for 10 years, permit it for a year and then stop it for another 20 years. They could balance things. But they don’t want to. Deep down, they don’t want to. They want to uproot the phenomenon. They don’t want to see people walking around with hunting rifles.” I ask Goldstein if this is true.
Goldstein does not contradict Knaan’s feeling. “I personally am completely against hunting,” the NPA director general says. “I see it as belonging to a different era. I understand there are pressures of one kind or another in the Knesset; there is a lobby, some people don’t find hunting so awful. But my ambition will be to reduce it as much as possible, and even then [to allow it] only for purposes of nature conservation. We are engaged in a tough war against the hunters. You know, the world is changing. There was a time when people used to be killed, just like that, without any problem. Today, though, even killing an animal is harder, and gradually the world is becoming more refined. It’s a very long process. At present, whether I understand it or not, the phenomenon exists. You ask if I accept it, if I go along with it? To see an animal and shoot it? Absolutely not.”
Before parting, I try to take a step back and look at the big picture. The hunters, I tell them, feel that the amendment to the Wild Animal Protection Act is aimed at the country’s Arab population. And from their point of view, it’s not only a cultural affront. They view efforts to collect the hunting weapons as part of a general attempt to remove arms from the Arab community. Malka starts to reply, but Goldstein feels a need to intervene: “We are not dealing with any particular community.”
“But in practice you are dealing with a particular community,” I persist. “More than 80 percent of the hunters are Druze or Arabs.” Goldstein is surprised. “You know what, until this conversation, it wasn’t clear to me statistically that the majority of the hunters are Arabs or Druze. I didn’t know. So, when I talk to you about legislative orientations” – he throws Malka a look – “you never told me that statistic.” Malka nods in assent.
Yossi Ben Ari, an inspector in the Pleshet region in the south, has greater empathy for the hunters than the new director general. “In Israel many of the hunters are nature lovers, and there is no contradiction between the two. They love to see the badger and they love to see the hyena, and also the fox and the hare, even though they know they may not be hunted, and it’s clear to them that for hunting to continue, there will have to be some sort of nature conservation.”
It’s the first day of spring and we are in the NPA offices at Mekorot Hayarkon Park. I’ve arranged to meet Onn Valensi and Gal Arieli, director of the investigations and intelligence department – who have accompanied me throughout – to get their take on the things I discovered on my trek along the poaching trails. For example, the fact that the people on the other side of the law, or almost on the other side, also believe they are in the right. Just before their tradition − and for some of the people I met it is definitely a tradition − is outlawed, I want to present my interim conclusions and explain that they have to consider how this measure looks to people who have learned not to trust the system, which in any case almost always disdains their cultural values. It’s important for me to say to the goodfellas that even when the “bad hunters” take from nature, this is not entirely unrelated to the fact that one of the lessons they have gleaned from life in Israel is to take what they can when they can.
Also taking part in the meeting are Ben Ari and Eldad Peled, the director of supervision and enforcement. I share my thoughts. There is general opposition in the room, but Ben Ari tries to demonstrate an ability to identify with the hunters. “The hunter’s experience is like doing reserve duty in the army,” he says. “Do Israeli Jewish men like to go out and kill Arabs? No! But many of them tell me, ‘Hey, a month of reserve duty will do me good. I get away from work and spend time with buddies, all of them more or less my age, with shared areas of interest, whom I’ve known for many years, and it’s great to be with them.’ Those same thoughts play a part when a hunter goes into the field. He goes with his pals, he leaves the house in the evening, clears his mind, goes into nature, sees landscapes, sees animals.”
It’s a tempestuous conversation. The four are wearing NPA shirts, whose light khaki color flatters no one. Nevertheless, they look good, impressive, like people who love what they do. I ask if they are capable of understanding why hunters have the mistaken feeling that there are enough animals and that hunting can be permitted again.
Arieli explains: “They just look at partridges through gun sights, but we know that partridges are also food for all the special birds of prey that pass through Israel. So when I, as a hunter, take away partridges I take them out of nature, out of the whole food chain that must continue to exist. It’s possible that in certain regions, such as the southern coastal plain or in the Judean lowlands, there actually is a rise in the number of partridges, and I tell you that the monitoring stations of the central region say that. It’s true, but so what? We still say that the population increase there is due to the stoppage of hunting. If we now permit hunting again, we will very quickly return to that low point which, fortunately, we were able to contain in time.
“One of the main problems is that back then − I am talking about 10 to 15 years ago − not even the NPA was able to assess the situation of nature in the way we can today. If we had not put a stop to hunting then − and in my opinion it was stopped five years too late − the population could well have dwindled to a certain size from which rehabilitation would not have been possible.”
But what about the argument that the decline of the gazelles in the Golan Heights has nothing to with hunting, but is due to incorrect calculations about wolves?
Arieli: “The NPA says that it’s both. We do not deny it, we put it on the table.”
Peled interjects: “Let’s say that’s the situation − so what? Does that mean that because some mistakes were made we can’t correct them? On the contrary.”
I mention the criticism by Amitzur, who also thinks the inspectors are contributing to the problem. Arieli smiles: “He thinks we are bad at what we do because we can’t tell a turtle from a giraffe.”
Ben Ari again stands out in his ability to evoke the complexity of the issue and articulate it diplomatically: “Amitzur is from a generation of inspectors who in large part were hunters themselves. In other words, they come from home with a hunter’s instincts. Today’s inspectors need a BA. They need to be able to correspond by e-mail every day. They need to be able to read a statutory plan, be capable of being on a committee and expressing themselves in a manner that shows respect for those present.” Valensi, no longer able to contain himself in the face of Amitzur’s accusations, bursts out: “Look, with all due respect for Amitzur, when he completed 30-something years of service, the amount of written and documented material he left behind for us to learn from was next to nothing. But because Yossi [Ben Ari] knows how to operate a palm computer this big, he has already left behind 4,000 reports of sightings in the field. He has left a whole record of monitoring.
“The reality is that these days, when a family comes with the kids to look at the flowers, an inspector has to be able to provide some sort of explanation about the flowers. Or, if there is a fire and someone needs to be rescued, he needs to be able to rush at two in the morning to pull a hiker out of a valley, because he is there without a flashlight, apparently thinking there are streetlights, like in Tel Aviv. And he has to be able to collect a hoopoe with a broken wing and also cope with poaching.”
This explanation is meant to show why 2012-model inspectors cannot devote as much time to stakeouts as Amitzur did. It is perhaps also the explanation for the inspectors’ impatience at accusations of racism; or, in Valensi’s words, “Is a Druze who is sitting with his girlfriend and with a penknife for a tangerine automatically suspected of hunting? No. But the answer to the question of whether a Druze with a porcupine in the front seat, who says he ran it over accidentally on the road, is suspected of hunting, is yes.”
I am still troubled by the question of whether the amendment to the law is liable to increase poaching.
Ben Ari hopes there will be “reverse leakage” − that is, a decrease in poaching. “Everyone is doing a lottery, meaning that those who until now were outside the circle of legitimate hunters will now have the possibility of entering it.” Peled adds, “So maybe he will say to himself, ‘Just a minute, maybe I have a chance, if not this year then maybe next year, or the year after. But if I show up with a case file after having been caught, I will have fewer prospects.”
Arieli hints that the hunters should maintain cautious optimism. “I still say that if the new amendment is passed and we see that it’s possible to ‘depressurize’ the hunting community, then maybe a decision will be made that some species − which are of course protected, because all of them will be protected − can be hunted for purposes that the law will permit.”
In any event, Peled explains, the amendment will not pass without a stiffening of the fines. Passions in the room rise again over the question of the level of punishment. Valensi is worked up: “Here’s a sentence from three or four days ago, in an appeal to District Court by hunters. Hunters with a past of bringing down gazelles and porcupines, and each hunter with three or four suspended sentences. They were convicted and fined NIS 8,000. What’s that out of NIS 150,000 [the maximum fine under the law]? Five percent. They appealed to District Court, which said, ‘Hey, the NPA worked hard here. The case is beautifully built, from all aspects. They were able to prove the accusations ‘and the inspectors’ credibility is not in doubt,’ and blah-blah-blah. They threw in a few small comments, really minor stuff, and then lowered the fine from NIS 8,000 to NIS 5,000. In other words, they reduced the fine from 5 percent to 3 percent. So, District-schmistrict ... “ He sighs and sinks back into his chair, on the brink of desperation. His fear is that excessively small fines will undermine the inspectors’ motivation.
Peled tries to calm the atmosphere. “It’s a fantasy to expect poachers to be given a life sentence. People don’t get sent to prison even for more serious offenses. But we are suddenly seeing offenders sentenced to perform community service. Another thing that I always tell our people is that in my view it’s far more important for the offender to get a suspended sentence than to actually serve time, because the suspended sentence removes him from the frame for a few years. It is extremely important for me that he knows he has a sword of NIS 40,000, 50,000 or 60,000 hanging over his head [the fine he will pay if he repeats the offense within the time frame of the suspended sentence].
“That is very significant. And one of the things that perhaps is not financially meaningful but is culturally meaningful is the confiscation of the weapons. We want to seize a weapon that was used for hunting, with which an animal was killed. It’s all the same whether it was a net to snare birds or a rifle. And for a hunter to return home without his rifle is a problem.” He suddenly looks drained. “I talked too much,” he says.
After a three-hour conversation, the room empties out. Each of the inspectors vanishes on a different mission. I don’t even manage to part with some of them. Such a long talk in the middle of the day is probably a luxury for them. I drive back to Tel Aviv. On the way I pass the flowering Yarkon River Sources Park. Buses packed with schoolchildren are parked at the entrance.
Still in the stakeout. Ling and Miller aren’t here. Suddenly I hear loud shouts. Liad shows up and gets into the jeep. We drive toward the event. Yes, the hunter appeared at the place where he was expected. Yes, he had five trained dogs with him. At first he was followed on foot, but then he heard a suspicious noise and turned around. One of the guys, a reinforcement inspector, made a mistake and told him to stop. The hunter responded by taking the projector he uses for hunting and shining it in the inspectors’ eyes. It took them about half a minute to recover from the blinding light. That was enough for the man to escape into the groves with his five dogs.
For 45 minutes we drive around in the vehicles, flashlights in hand, trying to find him. And if not him, then at least one of the dogs. In vain. Every tree looks momentarily like a dog, but under the shaft of light reverts to its original form. At 3 A.M. Miller announces that we are leaving. Just before he gets into the vehicle, I hear him mutter, “Yarka 1, NPA 0.”