My Word: Curious headlines for curious minds

Yulia the Mediterranean monk seal provides a welcome distraction

 YULIA, AN endangered female Mediterranean monk seal, takes a nap on the shore in Jaffa on May 15 (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
YULIA, AN endangered female Mediterranean monk seal, takes a nap on the shore in Jaffa on May 15
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

I wish I could write a column about the weather. It seems such a normal thing to do. Something in my distant British upbringing makes it a perennially appropriate topic of conversation.

Mind you, this week we were more under the weather than on top of it. It went from one extreme to another – from hail storm to heat wave. It’s typical for the region and season – just more so. When it rains, it pours and when the heat is on, it’s scorching. As one broadcaster put it: “It’s called May because it may be hot or it may be cold.” Nonetheless, the heavy rains – not to mention hail in the Jordan Valley – were unusual for the end of the month.

As a former environment reporter, I take meteorological mood swings seriously. Both the extreme heat and the flash floods can be deadly. And on top of the usual threat of wildfires – which are harder to combat with a hot, dry wind whipping them up – Israel has to deal with nationalistically-motivated arson, a form of environmental terrorism. As if we didn’t have enough to contend with.

Climate change disappeared as tragic stories grabbed headlines

The news features on the effects of climate change disappeared as other tragic stories grabbed headlines. I’m writing these lines on Wednesday, as terror victim Meir Tamari is being buried. The father of two – a baby and a toddler – was lethally wounded in a terrorist drive-by shooting attack near his home in Hermesh in northern Samaria. I’m not sure what age to give him. He was 31 when he was murdered; he was buried the next day – eulogized by his widow, Tali – instead of celebrating his 32nd birthday with his family.

A wintery storm of rain and hail hits Jerusalem, Israel (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A wintery storm of rain and hail hits Jerusalem, Israel (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Some terrorists set fires, others open fire, and others carry out ramming attacks, stabbing sprees and do whatever else they can to take lives and cause harm.

ONE OF THE strangest stories to hit the local news was the curious case of Shimon Rotban. He had been missing for two years when he was identified in Jordan last week before being reunited with his family in Israel. Rotban, 26, was found wandering around the Jordanian capital, uncommunicative and without any identification, and brought to a psychiatric hospital.

An Israeli Bedouin nursing student, Kamal Deeb al-Talkat, who is studying in Amman, was able to make the connection, talking to Rotban in Hebrew and asking him to write down a phone number he remembered. Rotban wrote his mother’s number and Talkat made the extraordinary, emotional call to let her know her son was alive and safe. Mohammed Nassasra, another Arab-Israeli student at the mental health center who helped, described the situation as being “like a scene in a movie.”


I would like to say the story has a happy ending, but it’s not entirely true. Thanks to those two Arab-Israeli students and others, Rotban was reunited with his family in time to celebrate Shavuot, but his story neither begins nor ends there.

Rotban has suffered from severe PTSD since rockets rained down on Israel from the Gaza Strip in Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. One rocket exploded near his home in Kiryat Malachi, killing three neighbors he knew. The terrible scene he saw as a teenager never left him. Rotban, suffering from ongoing trauma, ran away from home on many occasions but was always found and brought back after short absences – until two years ago, that is. The massive rocket barrages during Operation Guardian of the Walls in May 2021 were literally unbearable for the young man and he disappeared until the two dedicated students were able to make the connection.

It’s not yet clear how he crossed into Jordan, but his family, grateful to have him back, knows that it could have been so much worse. He could have crossed the border into Lebanon, Syria or Gaza (where two Israelis with psychiatric disorders have been held captive for years by Hamas without contact with their families or visits by the Red Cross or other international humanitarian bodies.)

Rotban’s case is a poignant reminder of the emotional impact of terrorism. Too often, news stories report only on the physically wounded and fatalities and dismiss cases of shock. PTSD is soul-destroying and can lead to suicide or other causes of early death. Rotban and his fellow sufferers deserve all the help they can get.

ANOTHER STORY involving an Israeli man made international headlines this week, under tragic but intriguing circumstances. A 50-year-old man named in foreign reports as Erez Shimoni was drowned along with three other people when a boat they were in capsized in bad weather on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy. The Prime Minister’s Office confirmed only that the man had formerly served in the Mossad and that “due to his service in the agency, no further details are available.” A press statement on behalf of the intelligence agency read: “The Mossad has lost a dear, dedicated and professional colleague who, for decades, devoted his life to the security of the State of Israel, even after his retirement.”

Two Italian victims of the accident were also identified in the foreign press as intelligence officers. The fourth fatality was a Russian national, reportedly the wife of the skipper of the boat.

The scene could have been taken from a spy movie. Lake Maggiore, bordering Italy and Switzerland, is a popular film location. Most famously, it provided the scenery for the opening scene in GoldenEye where James Bond jumps from a dam.

It’s not yet possible to say what caused the incident – although it looks more likely that the bad weather and the boat carrying more passengers than it was licensed for played a major role, rather than an act of terrorism or sabotage.

Nonetheless, the idea of Israeli and Italian intelligence officers gathering on a boat for either a birthday party or a clandestine meeting – according to which report you’re following – grabs the imagination. In either case, the loss of life is a tragedy. But it is encouraging that international intelligence agencies enjoy friendly relations in their joint battles against international crime and global terrorism. My heart goes out to the families who are forced to grieve silently.

ON A different note, I’ve been worrying about the fate of the black sea urchins that have disappeared almost completely in the Gulf of Eilat following an outbreak of a mysterious pandemic. The sea urchins are an essential part of the delicate marine ecosystem, eating algae that would otherwise suffocate the coral reef in the Red Sea. There is now a major effort, led by Tel Aviv University’s Dr. Omri Bronstein among others, to help save the remaining black sea urchins in the Mediterranean to be used as breeding stock to replenish affected areas in the future. In this field too, it is heartwarming to see the international cooperation, which reportedly includes researchers in Saudi Arabia sharing information that could save the sea urchins and the coral reefs.

I’ve also been drawn in by the animal magnetism of Yulia – a rare Mediterranean monk seal who has been making a splash. She has been spotted resting on Israeli shores in recent weeks, becoming somewhat of a celebrity – which should not be taken lightly when talking about a sunbathing mammal weighing 100 kilos. Part of Yulia’s attraction is that she looks like she’s smiling.

Mediterranean monk seals are considered an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They are rarely seen in Israeli waters and no one remembers when one last decided to rest on an Israeli beach.

The story goes that she was given her name by an Arab boy called Mohammed who was on the beach in Jaffa when she was first discovered last month. He helped researchers from the Delphis Association, a marine mammal research NGO, keep other children from disturbing her. Yulia actually already had a name – Turkish researchers with the IUCN know her as 20-year-old Tugra. There were reports on Wednesday that Yulia had gone south into waters off Gaza and chosen to briefly rest on a beach there. Apparently, Israeli nature authorities passed on information to Gazan authorities on how best to protect her.

We could learn a lesson from Yulia. Swimming and napping: Sometimes we just have to do what comes naturally, working our way around the weather and life, with a little help from friends at home and abroad.