Palestine Museum of Natural History

Collections

The museum is a dynamic research and (soon) exhibit museum. Most of the collection is thus a research collection. It is growing rapidly and we welcome any additions. There are currently over 6000 specimens of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. There are also thousands of photographs and other documentary material relating to fauna, flora, and humans in Palestine. We also have a library (both physical and a much larger digital library) of thousands of books and papers relating to this work.

For many people, Palestine’s significance is its religious and emotional role as the Holy Land.  Its biogeographic importance lies in its location at a juncture of Asia, Africa, and Europe, between the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea and the farthest west extent of Asia.  Here lies the northern part of the huge rift valley that stretches from the decimated Hula Wetlands in the north of Lake Tiberias through the Jordan Valley and Wadi Araba and all the way to Kenya and Tanzania.   This is why it is part of the Fertile Crescent where humans first developed agriculture and domestication of animals.

For a very small area, Palestine’s location and topography thus ensured significant biodiversity and a rich history of flora and fauna (including humans).  Hundreds of millions of birds, for example, still pass through Palestine in annual migration between Africa and Europe. Today, however, Palestine’s biodiversity is threatened.   While some species—especially large mammals such as rhinoceros, hippopotamus, spotted hyena, and even elephant—were lost over the past ten to twenty thousand years, the scale of environmental degradation and deforestation has increased drastically since the turn of the twentieth century.

If enacted in all the countries considered part of the Holy Land, proposed projects could achieve the protection of over five percent of that area.  Yet most of those countries have few institutions designated to protect nature.  Slowing down the pace of environmental destruction is too often secondary to political and short-term economic interests.  Areas of needed improvements are numerous.  First and most obvious is the need of adequate education in conservation issues.  Second, minimal funds are allocated for protection of nature, due to major economic factors.  Although this is a problem shared by many third world countries, it is exacerbated in the Middle East because of the almost continuous diversion of resources for war.  Third, overpopulation by humans leads to increased destruction of wildlife through habitat destruction and illegal hunting.

The Convention on Biological Diversity adopted at the Earth Summit conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 (CBD 1992) highlighted three key principles: conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of nature, and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits. In fact, in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had already declared that  “Everyone has the right freely to  . . . share in scientific advancement and its benefits”{ (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN 1948)]. The situation of Palestine, however, as a nascent state still under occupation, is unique.  The current institutions of the Palestinian Authority are under severe threats, and the Palestinian economy is heavily dependent on foreign aid. Under these conditions, issues such as biodiversity, conservation, and sustainable development have low priority.  The question before us is whether we can afford to wait on these issues during the time it takes to finally end the occupation and allow Palestine freedom and independence. The answer we Palestinians have given is No. [[ We have worked closely with universities such as Bethlehem University, non-governmental organizations including Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, and with the cooperation of the very limited Palestinian Authority staff dealing with these issues (e.g. the Environmental Quality Authority and the Ministry of Agriculture). As an example, with some funding from the UN Development Project (UNDP) we did a faunal and floral survey of the first protected area to be administered by the Palestinian Authority.]]

In any society, museums are integral to promotion of science, culture, nature conservation, and education, and are critical for development (Alexander and Alexander, 2008; Allmon, 1994; Hooper-Greenhill, 1992; Lane 1996; Mares, 2009; National Sciences Collection Association, 2005; Ramey-Gassert et al., 1994; Suarez and Tsutsui, 2004.). The importance of museums in these respects  makes them symbols of national identity (Bell, 2012; Kaplan, 1994). Having a museum affiliated with an institution of higher education is beneficial because of the essential interactions between between people and significant exhibit and research material and the fact that museums can support quality education (both curricular and extracurricular) and thus improve society (Ashby, 2012; Humphrey, 1991; Soubiran, 2010).  Museums of natural history are critical for biodiversity research, which is bound to grow in importance in this era of overpopulation, political change, and climate change (Ellis, 2011; Johnson et al., 2011; Shaffer et al., 1998). The dismal state of research and development (R&D) in the occupied Palestinian territories (Qumsiyeh and Isaac, 2012) must be addressed not just by ending the occupation but also by increasing awareness, among all members of society, of the value of collections and of R&D through museums.