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Hula Valley farmers are stepping up their protest against migrating cranes. Kiryat Shmona police detained four farmers for questioning earleir this week, on suspicion of endangering visitors to the Agmon wetlands. The four allegedly drove erratically at the site and blocked the entrance with a tractor. A police spokesman said their investigation involves additional farmers.

The farmers are protesting their high expenses for the cranes project, launched eight years ago in order to safeguard agricultural crops from migrating cranes while also protecting the cranes. The project, undertaken jointly by the Jewish National Fund and local farmers, was halted this year by the farmers on the grounds of insufficient financial backing.

"We are talking about a minimal sum that does not cover the actual expenses of the project," says Zamir Carmi, field crops coordinator for the Hula Valley. "We regret that the cranes and the farmers are the ones paying the price for the inaction of the authorities involved."

Dan Alon, director of the Israel Ornithology Center of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), called the farmers' behavior "terror against animals and against Hula Valley tourists."

What the farmers did, said Alon, was in "direct contravention of the law and the permits they received. This was a serious disruption for the birds, some of which are endangered species. It is unacceptable for farmers to harm birds that are not even in their fields, due to a situation the farmers themselves created in halting the cranes project."

"In recent weeks Hula Valley farmers have announced that the cranes project has been halted," said a SPNI source, "but the project is stuck because they are not willing to contribute their share of the financing, after all the other bodies involved have already provided funding. The farmers' share is only NIS 200,000 - about 20 percent of the total cost."

The need for the project became evident with the sharp rise in the number of cranes in the Hula Valley since 1992. According to the SPNI, the direct damage to the farmers' fields in 1999 was about NIS 1.2 million. The farmers invested some NIS 600,000 of their own money in a failed attempt to chase away the birds.

The cranes project was initiated in 2000, with the declared goals of preventing the damage caused by the cranes and protecting them. "Since the beginning of this project," claims the SPNI source, "the damage to agriculture has been reduced to zero, and during that time the Hula Valley and the Agmon wetlands, where the project is implemented, have attracted 200,000-300,000 visitors a year. The tourists contribute tens of millions of shekels to this region annually."

Local farmers, however, claim otherwise. "In previous years we have funded the deficit generated by the cranes project," says one farmer. "In practice, the project was not fully implemented due to budgetary problems and the number of cranes, which increases every year."

Upper Galilee Regional Council head Aharon Valenci has been trying to mediate between the sides. "Unfortunately," says Valenci, "the farmers have run out of patience and are doing anything they can to attract the attention of the public and politicians. The farmers have chosen exceptional ways to do this. I hope we can find the way to bridge the gap between the farmers' demands for financing the project and the JNF's and Agmon wetland administration's plans to maintain a calm tourism environment."