Herping in a war zone: searching for the Palestine Viper

The West Bank doesn’t rank high on most people’s lists of wildlife destinations but if you can get in (more on that later), it’s certainly an interesting place and home to one of my favourite snakes, the Palestine viper (Daboia palaestinae). This beautiful, heavy-bodied snake is responsible for a large proportion of snake bites in the Middle East and it had been on my ‘lifer’ list of species to see in the wild for far too long. It really is a stunning snake, with a striking brown zig-zag pattern it looks like a cross between our native adder (Vipera berus) and the Russell’s viper (Daboia russelli).

Juvenile Palestine Viper (Daboia palaestinae). Photo credit: Guy Haimovitch

There was never actually an intention to visit Israel, let alone the West Bank but a group of American aid workers that we met in Egypt had said that it was relatively safe and worth a trip whilst we were in the region. The aid workers had been based in the ancient Palestinian city of Nablus and said that there were lots of snakes in the surrounding countryside. They suggested that if we head there then we should take some much needed school supplies to the organisation they had been working for. The prospect of finding a Palestinian viper in actual Palestine and doing some charity work on the side was too much to resist.

From Jerusalem we took a taxi to Huwara checkpoint and on arriving I started to wonder if we had made the wrong decision. There was a watch tower manned by an armed Israeli soldier and razor wire and chain link fencing funnelled a large group of people through a roofed pen, towards more soldiers who were checking paperwork. All of the people were Palestinian and all of them were being turned away. We were no exception and were curtly told that we couldn’t pass. We could try to contact the district commissioner for permission but that would also likely result in refusal.

Huwara checkpoint

I approached a Palestinian man and asked him why they weren’t letting people through and he told me that it happens often. He lives the other side of the checkpoint and they won’t let him return home. He also said that he knew a way in, if we wanted to join him.So, we got into a taxi with him and a couple of other Palestinians and drove away from the checkpoint. After a short drive the taxi stopped at the side of the road and the man pointed up a hill to a yellow van that was parked on a road high above us.

The taxi sped off without asking for payment and we began to make our way up the steep, scrubby ground; ground which looked like prime habitat for the Palestine viper, but the man insisted that we picked up the pace, shouting “quickly, soldiers, quickly.” Nothing and I mean nothing makes you move up a hill quicker than the prospect of being shot at by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), so we ran as fast as we could to the yellow van, which I could now see had had its side windows replaced with plastic sheeting. Suppressing the thought that they had been shot out, I jumped in.

As we drove along the winding dirt road a boy on a donkey-drawn cart came around the corner waving his arms wildly. The driver obviously knew what this meant and told us that soldiers were coming and that we should keep quiet and don’t move. A few seconds later an open topped IDF vehicle came along the road towards us. As it crept past in what seemed like slow motion, I held my breath and hoped that his Jurassic Park logic – of not moving – meant that they wouldn’t be able to see us. The soldiers cruised past us and once out of sight, the van occupants let out collective sigh of relief. I asked the man we were with what would have happened if we had been caught. He said that the driver would have “been taken.” I decided not to ask where.

A few minutes later the road ended at a pile of rubble and we had seemingly reached our destination. It looked as though we were still in the middle of nowhere and I was worried that we were going to be left up here, or maybe even something worse. Perhaps sensing my concern, the man smiled and beckoned us to follow him over the pile of rubble and down a track. I needn’t have worried, because after a short walk we suddenly ended up in the outskirts of Nablus and as if to further alleviate my worries, people began to emerge from buildings and shout “welcome!”, “welcome to Palestine!” I couldn’t quite believe how friendly they were.

After saying our thanks and goodbyes to the man that had helped us reach the city, we made our way to the Al Yasmeen Hotel. It had been recommended by the Americans as it was not only the best hotel in the city but it also acted as something of a hub for western journalists and aid workers. After weeks of grotty Middle Eastern hotels, I never thought that the best hotel we would stay in would be in the West Bank.

Once we had satisfied ourselves with flush toilets and hot showers we headed off to downtown Nablus to explore and to drop off the school supplies. The taxi dropped us off in a considerably rougher looking part of town than where we were staying and for all intents and purposes it looked like a typical Middle Eastern street, except that nearly all the buildings were heavily pockmarked with bullet holes.

Again we were given a warm welcome by many of the people on the street, who waved and asked where we were from. We asked one man if he knew where the office we were looking for was. Unsure, he stopped a young man, who said that he knew the place and asked us to follow him down a particularly crumbling side street that led to a dead end. He pulled open a metal hatch in the wall and we dubiously ducked inside.

We were in a seemingly abandoned, concrete building and we followed him up stairs. We passed empty rooms littered with bits of broken furniture and rubbish, towards a door that looked as though it belonged in a 1950’s detective’s office. Through the frosted glass I could hear American voices and see the blurry shapes of people inside.

To say that we had a less than friendly welcome is an understatement. We stood there, thinking what to say whilst a man at a desk and a cocky looking woman with a shaved head and a patched up leather jacket eyeballed us.

I tried to explain that we were in Palestine looking for snakes and some Americans who had been working here said that their organisation would appreciate some school supplies. The man at the desk continued to look at me blankly. I tried mentioning the names of the Americans and he just shrugged indifferently. After a few awkward conversations it was clear they’d had enough and they rudely rejected our offer of supplies, indicating that we should leave. I didn’t understand; the Americans we had met said they were a friendly bunch and would appreciate all the support they could get. I wondered whether we had walked into the offices of the Judean People’s Front, when we should have been at the People’s Front of Judaea instead.

Glad to be back on the bullet-ridden street we started to formulate a plan as to where we might be able to go to look for snakes, when suddenly there was a huge commotion. Half the street started to run one way and the other half in the opposite direction. A man pointing to the far end of the street told us that soldiers were coming and promptly ran towards them. Curious and naïve we also headed that way. At the end of the street we came to a huge crossroads that was completely blocked off at three of the junctions by mountains of rubble. I later found out that the blockades had been put there by the Israelis in order to disrupt movement within the city.

There was a lot of shouting and people kept yelling that soldiers were coming, but I couldn’t see anything. One man pushed us to the front of the crowd and pleaded with me to take photos to show the world what is happening here. As if on cue, a deep rumbling sound reverberated over the horizon, followed by a tank and two armoured jeeps. They drove down through the only unblocked route into the city and stopped in the middle of the intersection. The turret on the tank swung back and forth, before pointing right in our direction. At this point we decided that we needed to get out of there.

“The soldiers are coming”

As we ran away from the tank we heard several explosions and I managed to get a quick photo of them firing at the crowd of civilians. When we considered it safe to stop running, I had the bright idea of making our way around to the side of the tank where maybe, at a distance we could get a better look at what was happening.

I was right about the better look and thankfully the tank still had its sights on where we had been standing five minutes previously. From our new vantage point I had a clear view of the intersection and could see groups of children throwing rocks off the top of buildings onto the tank and jeeps. Against our better judgement we moved closer to try and get some better photos. Children standing on our side of the intersection also started throwing rocks at the tank and the turret swung round in my direction. I quickly ducked behind a bin and peeked out to see one of the armoured jeeps open its door and a soldier chuck a flash grenade at the children. I covered my ears and there was a flash of light and a terrific bang. My ears rang for hours afterwards, so I can only imagine what it must have been like for the children who were only feet away from it when it detonated. Grabbing a few last minute photos we decided we had seen enough and retreated. As we did, the crackle of gunfire started. Turning the corner onto a quieter side street I looked back and caught a glimpse of the shaven-headed girl in the leather jacket striding towards the tank.

No snakes here

In the evening we headed to the outskirts of the city, with a plan to search for snakes in the surrounding countryside. You don’t have to travel far to find evidence of the sustained conflict that blights this place. Whilst photographing a large, collapsed building, a man with a baseball bat approached us; not usually a welcome sight, but it turned out that he was guarding the building and wanted to show us around. He said that it had been shelled by the military and he took us to see the remains of a gigantic missile.

Remains of a missile

We had a poke around inside and amongst the rubble was a Hamas flag. I desperately wanted to take it for a souvenir but the prospect of it being found at the airport and me subsequently being cavity searched meant that it stayed where it was.

The rest of the street was a repetition of the same sights: rubble, bombed buildings and blown up cars until the city eventually petered out into rocky countryside peppered with scrub and trees. Nablus sits in a valley and the surrounding hills looked like excellent reptile habitat, but the same hills were also dotted with soldiers and watch towers. It became clear that there was no way we would be able to go looking for the Palestine viper here. People that wander around looking for snakes look suspicious at the best of times and in the West Bank, approaching Israeli military structures with cameras and snake hooks is a surefire way to get arrested or shot.

Feeling dejected we heading back to the hotel and were passed by a 4×4 crammed with Palestinian freedom fighters armed with automatic weapons. I had clearly underestimated just how bad the situation in the West Bank was and I was stupid to think that Palestine was the best place to see its venomous namesake.

The one that got away. Palestine viper (Daboia palaestinae). Photo credit: Eran Finkle

Having ditched the whole snake plan we stayed in Nablus for a few days, exploring and helping a foreign journalist transcribe her interviews with senior Palestinian figures. As English wasn’t her first language she struggled with listening to their guttural Middle Eastern accents. On heading back to Jerusalem we worried that we might run into the same soldiers who had turned us away at the checkpoint a few days previously, so we shaved off our beards, I wore my friend’s glasses and he donned contact lenses. It seems that nothing beats a good old fashioned disguise, because they were the same soldiers and after a cursory look at our passports, they allowed us to pass.

Jumping into a share taxi we started to drive off and were glad to be on the home run. That was until a soldier stepped in front of the car with his hand raised. The taxi driver was worried. I was worried. The crying woman on the back seat was worried. Her screaming baby was definitely worried. The driver asked if I would speak to the soldier because I was British and they would let us pass. I wound down the window and poked my head out, only to see a soldier in the watch tower aim his rifle at me. Slowly raising both hands and looking as coy as humanly possible I asked what the problem was.

“English?” he asked. I nodded. He mulled it over for an incredibly tense moment and then waved us on. Sighing with relief from every orifice, we were free to go.

The next stop was Southern Africa, which thankfully provided much better wildlife watching opportunities than the West Bank – what had I been thinking?! To this day the Palestine viper has still eluded me and I’m yet to see it in its natural habitat.

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