By Jeremy Salt
The good news from Palestine is that the ‘painted frog’ of the Huleh valley is not extinct after all. Recently it turned up again after not having been seen for the past half century. Behind the disappearance of the painted frog stands a much bigger story, the fate of the Huleh valley after the conquest of Palestine by the Zionists and behind that story is the reality behind one of the foundation myths of the Zionists, that of a barren, stagnant and empty land awaiting redemption in the hands of the Jewish people.
In the 19th century the Huleh wetlands were one of Palestine’s prize natural assets. They were formed over millennia by three rivers flowing south into the Huleh valley from their headwaters in Syria, the Hasbani, the Banias and the Liddan. The valley stretched for a distance of about 25 kilometers in length and six in width. Its centerpiece was Lake Huleh and its adjoining wetlands, covering an area of about 60 square kilometers, expanding and contracting in tune with the seasons. The lake itself was more than five kilometers long and more than four wide at its broadest point. The river flow continued southwards into Lake Tiberias and then the Jordan River. The fertile land around the lake provided the surrounding villages and beduin cultivators with a good living from cereal crops, maize, rice and honey. The lake and wetlands were a nesting and feeding spot for masses of migratory birds. The life beneath the water was just as rich as on the outside.
Here are descriptions of the Huleh wetlands by the Rev. W.M. Thomson, an American missionary who visited Palestine in the 1850s to follow in the footsteps of the master but still took detailed notes of everything he saw, the food people ate, the clothes they wore, the crops they cultivated, the glassware and soap they produced in their worships as well as the flora, the fauna, the valleys, hills, plains and rivers. (1):
“There lies the Huleh like a vast carpet with patterns of every shade and shape and size, thrown down In Nature’s most bewitching negligence and laced all over with countless streams of liquid light …. The plain is clothed with flocks and herds of black buffalo bathe in the pools. The lake is alive with fowls, the trees with birds and the air with bees.” (‘Unrivalled beauty of the Huleh’, p. 225)
“The soil of this plain is a water deposit like that of the Mississipi Valley about New Orleans and extremely fertile. The whole country around it depends mainly upon the harvests of the Huleh for wheat and barley. Large crops of Indian corn, rice and sesamun (simsum) are also grown by the Arabs of the Huleh, who are all of the Ghawareneh tribe. They are permanent residents although dwelling in tents. All the cultivation is done by them. They also make large quantities of butter from their herds of buffalo and gather honey in abundance from their bees. The Huleh is, in fact, a perpetual pasture field for cattle and flowery paradise for bees. At Mansura and Sheikh Hazeib I saw hundreds of cylindrical hives of basket work, pitched, inside and outside, with a composition of mud and cow dung. They are piled tier above tier, pyramid fashion, and roofed over with thatch or covered with a mat. The bees were very busy and the whole region rang as though a score of hives were swarming at once. Thus this plain still flows with milk and honey and well deserves the report which the Danite spies carried back to their brethren: ‘A place where there is no lack of anything that is in the earth.” (‘Produce of the land of Huleh’, p. 253).
“This Huleh – plain, marsh, lake and surrounding mountains – is the finest hunting ground in Syria and mainly so because it is very rarely visited. Panthers and leopards, bears and wolves, jackals and hyenas and foxes and many other animals are found, great and small, while it is the very paradise of the wild boar and the fleet gazelle. As to waterfowl, it is scarcely an exaggeration to affirm that the lower end of the lake is absolutely covered with them in the winter and spring.” (‘Wild animals of the Huleh’, p. 260).
Dr. Thomson does not mention the painted frogs of Huleh but they must have been there in abundance, breeding in the protection of the rushes, hunted by the pelicans and storks that stopped at the lake on their flights from the north. He noted the presence of the ‘lilies of the valley’ growing amongst the rushes, which in places were so densely entangled with bamboo as to make approaches to the water impenetrable. The Huleh valley was one part of a rich environmental and agricultural mosaic stretching across Palestine. Of course part of it was barren. It still is but one would not say Australia is a barren land because of the Simpson desert or the United States because of the Mojave desert in California. It was not just the fertility of the Huleh valley that took Dr. Thomson’s attention. He was equally fulsome in his praise of the groves of citrus fruits, the extensive fields of wheat and barley grown along the seaboard right down to Gaza and the grapes and olives of the interior. His descriptions are corroborated in numerous other contemporary accounts, which stand as the most effective rebuttal of the central myth of the barren land.
Indeed, the central problem for the Zionists was that all the fertile land was already being cultivated, by people who were not prepared to part with it. Like all native peoples the land for them was an integral part of the cycle of life. That was the way it had always been and not until the Zionists arrived had they had to face life without it. It was the latifundistas living outside Palestine and the middlemen who negotiated the deals who gave the Zionists their foothold. Once the contracts were signed they drove the tenant cultivators away. There was no remorse: where these uprooted people went was none of their business. The British, in charge of this supposedly ‘sacred trust of civilisation’, as the mandate was described in article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, were complicit in this ruthless process, providing an umbrella of armed and pseudo-legal protection.
Through legal purchase the Zionists were never going to get what they wanted. By 1945 they had acquired less than six per cent of Palestine and remained a one-third minority of the population despite the massive immigration of the 1930s. David Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders knew that only war would give them what they wanted. They played a crafty game, dumping the British when they were no longer of any use and turning to the United States. Partition was a complete violation of the natural rights of the indigenous people but was welcomed by the Zionists, naturally, as they were being given what they did not possess and had no right to possess. At the same time as pretending to be satisfied with partition, they regarded it only as the first step. It was not just that the Americans had concluded by early 1948 that Palestine could not be partitioned peacefully. The Zionists would never allow it to be partitioned peacefully as this would leave the Palestinians on their land. There could be no Jewish state as long as they stayed, and if there is a regret in the Benny Morris school of historical reflection it is only that the opportunity was lost to get rid of them all.
In the meantime land hunger focused settler eyes on possibilities in the rich, fertile and well watered Huleh valley. Draining what were called the swamps of Huleh would create more room for colonization but for the time being remained beyond their technical and financial means. When it happened it was inscribed as one of the founding myths of Zionists: the redemption of the land, making the desert bloom, and all the rest of it, when in fact the settlers ruined in the Huleh valley what was an ecologically rich wetland with few parallels in the Middle East.
From the beginning control of water was essential to the Zionist project. Weizmann fought hard at the Paris peace conference in 1919 for the Syrian headlands of Palestine’s water to be included in the British mandate and therefore within the borders of the Zionist state Lloyd-George, Balfour and Churchill wanted to establish in the heart of the Middle East while talking endlessly about nothing more than a ‘national homeland’ for the Jewish people. Weizmann’s scheming and lobbying broke against the rock of French strategic interest but seizing and controlling water resources in and around Palestine remained a prime target of the Zionist leadership, with their diversion of these waters creating one of the many crises that preceded the 1967 war.
The Huleh valley stood out from the beginning of Zionist settlement. The first colony in the valley was established in the 1880s but because of the ravages of malaria no further settlements were established for half a century. In the 1930s Steinmatsky’s Palestine Guide (2) noted the drainage of ‘swamps and marshes’ since the First World War, ending the scourge of malaria and restoring ‘fertile tracts of land to cultivation thus increasing the tillable area of Palestine’. Unique amongst Palestine’s network of rivers, lakes and subterranean aquifers, the Huleh wetlands ‘which are now marshy tracts offer untold opportunities for agricultural development. Thorough drainage is the first need to be followed by systematic irrigation. This land has been granted for use under a concession to a group which did not avail itself of the concession. The concession has now passed to a Jewish group which will soon start on the preliminary work.’ (p. xii).
In his collection of essays on land acquisition and development in Palestine, Arthur Ruppin, a German lawyer who settled in Jaffa as the chief land purchasing and development officer for the Palestine Office of the World Zionist Organization, lists the Huleh wetlands as land which might be uncultivable for the Palestinian settled and nomad population but would be cultivable for incoming Jewish colons, given their access to credit and use of modern farm machinery. (3) The fertile land around the lake was either state land from Ottoman times or already owned and cultivated, with only one Zionist settlement having been established up to the outbreak of the Second World War. Ruppin wanted to open up land for settlement by draining the wetlands, which for him were no more than marsh and swamp waiting to be reclaimed.
In a memorandum handed to Sir John Hope Simpson, sent to Palestine in 1930 to investigate immigration, land development and settlement, the three major causes of rising distress amongst the Palestinians, Ruppin attempted to show that ‘if the farming of the fellaheen were to be a little bit intensified – in the coastal zone, Beisan, Huleh and the lower Jordan Valley – the Jews would be able to buy 1,300,000 dunums without displacing the people who have so far [sic.] worked the land. Fifty-five thousand [Jewish] families could be settled on this land.’(4) Hope-Simpson demurred on various grounds, one of them being that the Jewish National Fund (JNF) would not let ‘Arabs’ work on its land and that ‘increasing land purchase will displace the Arabs from many parts of Palestine’. This in fact is what happened as part of a process Hope-Simpson described as the ‘extra territorialisation’ of land once purchased by the JNF and put beyond the purchase or rental by non-Jews forever. Zionist colonists who still used the Palestinians on the land or in workshops and factories were violating the Jewish-only labor ‘principles’ that were the corollary of the ‘principles’ governing land purchase.
At the age of 50 Ruppin and others founded the Brit Shalom movement. It was committed to ‘Jewish-Arab’ friendship but the refusal of the Palestinians to give up their rights and their land eventually forced him to conclude that negotiations would achieve nothing and that if the Zionist project was to succeed, ‘we must increase our strength and our numbers until we reach parity with the Arabs. The life or death of the Zionist movement will depend on this …. Perhaps a bitter truth but it is the truth with a capital T’. Writing in 1936 he expected this point to be reached in five to ten years. (5) Ruppin died in 1943 so was not around when not just parity but numerical superiority was achieved by expelling the bulk of the indigenous Palestinian population in 1948. In the language of the occupier, there were 12 ‘Jewish’ and 23 ‘Arab’ ‘settlements’ in the Huleh valley by 1948. ‘Following the establishment of the State of Israel and during the 1948 War of Independence the Arab inhabitants left the valley, moving to neighboring Arab countries’. (6)
Meron Benvenisti has put the number of villages in the region at 60 but this includes semi-permanent beduin encampments built from rushes or mud bricks. (7) Walid Khalidi has documented how they ‘left’ and what happened to their ‘settlements’. Village after village was depopulated and destroyed before being built over by Zionist settlements. (8) All that remained after the Zionist assault through the Huleh valley was one Beduin settlement,(9) with the Zionist settlers now free to take the land left behind and harvest the crops planted by those they had expelled.
With the Palestinians gone and the state of Israel established over their heads and on their land there were no barriers to the exploitation of the Huleh valley. Beginning in 1951 it was subjected to ‘redevelopment’ that amounted to ecological vandalism on a grand scale by blundering land-hungry settler administrators. The wetlands were drained and turned into arable land, shrinking the lake to perhaps one tenth of its original size. At the time the drainage and irrigation works were seen as a brilliant engineering achievement, of which the most significant benefits were regarded as the creation of thousands of dunums of cultivable land and the eradication of malaria. Yet it was not long before disappointment and an understanding of the damage that had been done set in. As summarized by Zohary and Hambright, while the drained peat soil proved suitable for agriculture, ‘the anticipated exceptional yields were never obtained’. (10)
Furthermore, ‘as the level of groundwater fell, air penetrated into the dried peat, enhancing microbial decomposition of organic matter. Often these processes led to uncontrollable underground fires and the formation of dangerous caverns within the peat. The weathered peat soils turned into infertile black dust. Strong winds sweeping the valley produced dust storms that caused major damage to agricultural crops. Consequently, the ground surface subsided by up to three meters in some regions and inundation of these areas during winter rains restricted cultivation in many areas. An indirect problem associated with the drying of the soils was the proliferation of field mice populations which soared and wreaked havoc on agricultural crops in the valley. Over time, farmers abandoned more and more of the valley where cultivation was no longer profitable, thereby further enhancing the rate at which these soils deteriorated’.
By 1958 this was the state of the valley described in such glowing terms by Dr. Thomson only a century before. A unique wetlands region which had been part of the landscape for thousands of years had been mostly destroyed within the space of nine. Elsewhere in Palestine olive groves, pomegranates and citrus orchards were uprooted as part of a dual process of settlement building and the removal from the land of all traces and symbols of the Palestinian presence. The olive and pomegranate were preeminent symbols of the ‘primitive’ Palestinian village and so had to go along with the houses. (11) Through the vindictive destruction of olive trees by settlers on the West Bank this process continues to the present day.
Along with the shrinking of Lake Huleh and the drying of the land came the destruction of flora and fauna. The lake had been a rich source of aquatic life, with researchers listing ‘260 species of insects, 95 crustaceans, 30 snails and claims, 21 fishes, seven amphibians and reptiles, 131 birds and three mammals’. (12) After the drainage ‘119 animal species were lost to the region of which 37 were totally lost from Israel [sic]. Similarly, many freshwater plant species became extinct and many of the massive flocks of migratory birds that used to land in the valley found alternative feeding sites on their routes between Europe and Asia.’ Only in the 1980s was it decided to take steps to repair the damage, by flooding part of the valley in the hope of renewing something of the original bio-diversity but only a ‘small fragment of an extinct eco-system’ has been revived.’ The painted frog with its mottled back and belly speckled with white spots belongs to an amphibian family thought to have died out 10,000 years ago until spotted in the Huleh wetlands in the 1940s. This ‘living fossil’ was believed to have been one of the species that were ‘lost’ when the wetlands were drained in the 1950s but two years ago a ranger saw one and now it is thought that there is a colony of hundreds.
The Huleh eco-system did not die of natural causes. It did not become ‘extinct’ because of sudden climate change or any of the other natural catastrophes that have killed off species and reshaped the surface of the planet for millennia. It was another casualty of the nakba. The Zionist colons had none of the skills that come with husbanding the land generation after generation over countless centuries. They had to learn and their vandalism in the Huleh valley was born of their ignorance and their haste to settle and cover all traces of where the people they drove out had lived, prayed, studied and farmed and where their ancestors were buried.
Where the painted frog went as the Huleh wetlands were drained only the frog knows. Most probably, it burrowed deeper into what remained of the mud and rushes until it was safe to come out, a period of time that spanned more than 50 years. The parallel with the people is unmistakable: driven towards extinction as a people, they have survived and are waiting for the time when they also will be able to return.
– Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.
(1) Rev. W. M. Thomson, The Land and the Book (Nelson and Sons: London, 1879).
(2) Steimatsky’s Palestine Guide (Jerusalem: Steinmatsky Publishing Company, n.d. , 1930s?).
(3) Arthur Ruppin, Three Decades of Palestine (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1936), pp. 207-8
(4) Alex Bein., ed., Arthur Ruppin: Memoirs, Diaries, Letters (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971)
(5) Ibid., p.320
(6) Tamar Zohary and K.David Hambright, ‘Lake Hula-Lake Agmon’, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org
(7) Meron Benvenisti, Sacred Landscapes. The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), p.127.
(8) Walid Khalidi ed., All That Remains. The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (Washington: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992), pp. 428-509 passim for the fate of Palestinian villages on the Huleh plain.
(9) Ibid, p. 131
(10) Zohary and Hambright, op. cit.
(11) Benvenisti, p.216.