ISRAEL: Vipers wake up grouchy

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Spring has long since sprung but summer here brings coils of another sort: snakes. Emerging from winter, these coldblooded animals wake up hot-headed, irritable and hungry. This last week alone, five Israelis have been bitten by snakes, fatally in one case. A sixth victim was a 12-year-old Palestinian girl from Ramallah, whose life was saved when she was rushed to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital, where she received five more doses of antivenin after the Palestinian medical team had administered their only one.

The most common poisonous snake in Israel is from the viper family. Common in Israel and the neighboring countries, it can grow to more than 4 feet long and and weight more than e pounds and kills more people in the country than all other snakes combined.

Synonymous with danger to Israelis, the army used the word combination ‘viper snake’ in its emergency announcements to the public when Iraqi Scud missiles were fired at Israel during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

All 41 species of snakes in Israel are protected by law, including the nine venomous ones. Some 80 snake-catchers are officially licensed by Israel’s Parks Authority, although dozens more operate independently and authorities are trying to enforce better supervision over the profession. Simple stickers advertising snake-catching services are a common sight on lampposts and traffic signs along the country’s roads.


Snakes have had a bad rap since biblical times. The 100-million -year-old creatures inspire fear but also respect, and snakes appear in the ancient world’s mythologies in many cultures. The Greek healing god Asklepios bore a staff with a single snake coiled around it, echoed in some emblems still used today by medical institutions around the world.

— Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Vipera Palaestinae, or ‘tzefa’ in Hebrew. Credit: Guy Haimovitch, from the Hebrew Wikipedia