I. History of the Hula valley

Human presence and activities began in the Hula Valley tens of thousands years ago. A site at Gesher Bínot Ya'aqov (Jisr Banat Ya'qub), south of Lake Hula, contained a wealth of stone tools of basalt, such as scrapers and mortars, which have been dated to 73,000 years BC or earlier Among the contemporary fauna, elephant, rhinoceros and hippopotamus have been identified. Bone implements (arrowheads and hooks) were found in younger sites around the lake. At 'Enan (Uyun Malaha), in a Neolithic settlement, microlithic tools were found and the shape and the size of the huts indicate the existence of a large and complex village. The people of 'Enan harvested wild emmer and barley and hunted mainly gazelles. Fishing was an important activity in all these settlements.

Lake Hula is also one of the oldest documented lakes in history: under the name "Samchuna", it was mentioned in the Tel el Amarna letters of Pharaoh Amenhothep IV in the 14th Century B.C. (Smith, 1973). The area name is related to a Second Temple Period locality called in Aramaic, Hulata or Ulata. This name survived in Arabic as "Buheirat el Hule" and with different transliterations it is used today as Lake Hula. The Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius (lst Century AD), mentions the lake.

Agricultural and pastoral development led to intensive deforestation and overgrazing on the slopes of the Hula Valley. The runoff and the amount of sediment brought to the valley increased, probably to a considerable extent. As a model we can use the studies by Shalit (1973), that reports that after 1948, when reforestation started on the western slopes and grazing became limited, the general runoff decreased and the flow of the springs increased.

The rich pasturelands, which existed especially north of the Hula swamps, where the water table was high, served for intensive cattle raising. Besides local breeds of cattle, the water buffalo (Bubalus bubalus) was introduced at an early date. The oldest record of the buffalo herds in the Hula valley comes from St. Willibaldus, in the 8th Century (Karmon, 1960). In modern times, Bodenheimer (1935) reported that in 1930 more than 5,000 head of buffalo were to be found in Palestine, the majority of them around the lake.

The lake and the swamp

bedouin Before the Hula Valley was drained and the swamp dried out, they were populated by a rich variety of flora and fauna. A traveler in the 19th Century reported: "The Hula Plain, marsh, lake and surrounding mountains are among the finest hunting grounds in Syria" (Thompson,1882). He lists from the area: "panthers, leopards, bears, wild boars, wolves, foxes, jackals, hyenas, gazelles and otters" (Lutra lutra seistanica). British Army personnel wrote of hunting birds there, during the Second World War. The adventures of John MacGregor, who was captured with his boat, the "Rob Roy", by the black-skinned Bedouin of the Hula marshes certainly contributed to the wide publicity of the lake. He also carried out the first modern mapping of the Hula Lake and marshes. Commercial and subsistence fishing was practiced by the local villagers in the lake, swamps and in-flowing streams.

In addition to cattle raising, the traditional crops grown in the Hula Valley were rice, cotton, sugar cane, sorghum and corn. Rice growing probably started already in the 1st Century A. D, whereas the cultivation of cotton and sugar cane started only after the Arab conquest in the 7th Century. The size of the areas under irrigated cultivation tended to increase during stable and centralized political circumstances. During the American Civil War, a series of events led to considerable expansion of cotton growing in the Hula Valley. Before drainage, the Hula Valley comprised the lake at the southern end and the swamp in the north. The swamp consisted for the most part of an impenetrable tangle of papyrus, interspersed with channels of running water and pools.

The drainage of the 6,000 ha Hula Lake and swamps during the late 1950s resulted in the loss of a very diverse and rare ecosystem. It was one of the very few large habitats for freshwater flora in the Near East, as well an important phytogeographic meeting zone for holoartic and paleotropic species (Zohary and Orshansky, 1947). It was an important feeding station for migrating birds, such as Pelecanus onocrotalus, a wintering area for Porphyrio porphyrio, Phalacrocorax carbo, Phalacrocorax pygmeus, Anhinga melanogaster, Ardea goliath, Anser albifrons, Grus grus, the last three of which were known to winter in the region only in the Hula. It was also a breeding ground for Ardea cinerea, Platalea leucorodia, Haliaeetus albicilla, Aquila clanga, Circus aeruginosus, and also a habitat for sixteen fish species and some hundreds of invertebrate species (Paz, 1975; Dimentman et al., 1992).

The rich flora described by Zohary and Orshansky (1947), Jones (1940) and others consisted of nine vascular plants associations: 1. Myriophyllum spictum, 2. Myriophyllum spictum and Potamogeton lucens, 3. Nuphar lutea, 4. Ranunculus aquatilis, 5. Vallisneria spiralis and Najas marina, 6. Potamogeton pectinatus, 7. Potamogeton nodosus, 8. Ceratophyllum demersum, 9. Potamogeton crispus and Potamogeton perfoliatus.

There are few previous studies of the flora in Hula before the 1950s, mainly as a result of the complicated political situation there that made working unsafe, the restricted access to the area caused by the dense vegetation of the swamp and the predominance of malaria in the area. Nevertheless, studies of the vegetation before the drainage were conducted by Jones (1940), Zohary and Orshansky, (1947) and Oppenheimer (1938).

Before drainage, the Hula was divided into two, the lake at the southern end and the swamp in the north (Washbourn and Jones, 1936). The swamp consisted, for the most part, of an impenetrable tangle of papyrus, interspersed with channels of running water and pools.