Jerusalem — For many Israelis, the biblical comparisons were irresistible: locusts were swarming across the border from Egypt three weeks before Passover, like a vivid enactment of the eighth plague visited upon the obdurate Pharaoh.
Others with a more modern sensibility said it felt more like Hitchcock. Israel first announced that it was on "locust alert" on Monday, after large swarms were spotted in the Cairo area. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warned that wind and climate conditions increased the chances of an entomological cross-border invasion.
The Ministry of Agriculture set up a hot line for swarm sightings. By Tuesday, grasshoppers the size of small birds were reported on balconies and in gardens in central and northern Israel. But the largest concentration, an ominous black cloud of millions, settled for the night near the tiny rural village of Kmehin in Israel’s southern Negev desert, not far from the border with Egypt.
Potato farmers in the area complained that their fields were being ruined. Drivers said they could not see through their windshields for all the bugs flying in their direction. On the up side, some considered the curse almost a blessing. The popular Channel 2 television news showed delighted Thai agricultural workers frying up locusts for a crunchy snack. The Israeli television crew munched on a few too, noting that locusts are considered kosher.
The Agriculture Ministry said it was the first time that Israel had seen locusts since 2005, and recalled an even worse invasion in the 1950s. Stav Talal, a researcher from Tel Aviv University who went south to gather samples of the invaders said that the locusts had originated from the deserts of Sudan and had moved north in search of food. But he added that the conditions in Israel were not ideal for the locusts, the relative cold making it hard for them to multiply.
"As I understand it," Mr. Talal said, "they did not come here in droves."
However, as in the time of Moses, Egypt was deeply afflicted. While the country’s political chaos has been grabbing international attention, the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture has been combating locust swarms countrywide: in Cairo, Upper Egypt, the Canal area, the Red Sea governorate, El Arish and other border areas in the Sinai Peninsula.
Monitoring stations have been established in areas suspected as possible destinations for the locusts, the state newspaper Al-Ahram reported. While the ministry maintained that there were no material losses, the Bedouin of Upper Egypt said the locusts had destroyed their cumin crop and asked the government for compensation.
The Jewish holiday of Passover commemorates the biblical story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. Divine punishment in the form of 10 plagues afflicted the Egyptians as the Pharaoh refused the entreaties of Moses and Aaron to let their people go. An east wind brought the locusts that devoured what was left of Egypt’s crops. Locusts also appear in the Koranic version of the tale.
Modern Israel, however, has a greater range of tools to fight off this plague. On Wednesday, the Ministry of Agriculture said in a statement that spraying pesticide from the ground and air had reduced the size of the swarm considerably.