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Israel on alert as locusts cross in from Egypt

JERUSALEM — A swarm of locusts crossed into Israel from neighboring Egypt Monday, raising fears that Israel could be hit with a biblical plague ahead of the Passover holiday.

Israel sent out planes to spray pesticides over agricultural fields to prevent damage by the small swarm, which numbers about 2,000 locusts, said Dafna Yurista, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Ministry. The ministry also set up an emergency hotline and asked Israelis to be vigilant in reporting locust sightings.

The locust alert comes ahead of the weeklong Passover festival, which recounts the biblical story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt. According to the Bible, a huge swarm of locusts was the eighth of 10 plagues God imposed on Egyptians to persuade Pharoah to free the ancient Hebrews from slavery. Pharaoh did not agree to let them go until after the 10th plague, the death of the first born in every Egyptian family.

This year Passover begins March 25.

Locusts can have a devastating effect on agriculture by quickly stripping crops. Farmers told Israeli media they were worried about a potential onslaught.

"(The locusts) may not have ruined Pharaoh, but they could ruin us," Tzachi Rimon, a farmer, told Israel's Channel 10 TV.

Yurista said the number of locusts was relatively small, but "just because they aren't many doesn't mean we are ignoring them."

Locusts are known to move with the wind, and the swarm was swept eastwards from Egypt, said Amir Ayali, who heads Tel Aviv University's zoology department, on Channel 10 TV. The last time Israel experienced a major locust outbreak was in 2004.

Egypt's state news agency MENA said more than 17,000 locusts were exterminated in an area spanning more than 84,000 acres. No significant economic losses were reported, as the locusts were not mature enough to cause damage and did not remain long in the area to feed. Other affected areas were mostly desert.

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