Text and Photos by Lydia Aisenberg
Traveling through the northern portion of the Jordan Valley (Syrian-African Rift) and visiting the heights of the Golan mountain range in springtime is a pretty awesome experience as the fourth group undertaking the 5-month duration MASA-Givat Haviva Intensive Arabic Semester recently discovered.
On a particularly hot spring day preceded by a few days of rain, the undulating hills on the Israeli side of River Jordan wending its way through the valley are nowadays covered in green undergrowth, carpets of colorful flowers and orchards of purple blossomed nectarine fruit orchards. On the other side of the River Jordan and valley floor, the Gilead mountain range equally as green and peppered with Jordan villages large and small the success of their agricultural efforts as evident as those of the Israeli farmers on the east bank of the river.
Old Gesher was the first port of call for the day. The site of the original Kibbutz Gesher, the first settlement to withstand an attack by the Arab Legion in April, 1948 is an important geopolitical and historical site attracting thousands of Israelis and overseas visitors annually.
The new Kibbutz Gesher stands a short distance away on a hilltop overlooking the original settlement, the River Jordan and the remains of three bridges, Roman, Turkish and British built, straddling the waters. Kibbutz born Nirit Bagron, whose grandparents Ruth and Ayli Kapp were founder members of Gesher (bridge in Hebrew) welcomed the students to the place her grandparents built, defended and eventually abandoned in order to rebuild at a nearby location easier to defend.
Nirit explains that when the Arab army attacked the 120 member kibbutz in 1948, the communities 50 children were kept in an underground bunker but later smuggled in the middle of the night to the neighboring kibbutz of Ashdod Yaacov and from there to an abandoned monastery in Haifa – nowadays renovated and to be found in the courtyard of the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa.
Following a 15-minute audio-visual film (screened in the reconstructed dining hall) describing the founding of Old Gesher, the fighting in the 1948 War of Independence and background of the historical three bridges and railway line that crossed the River Jordan and continued on to Damascus in pre-1948 days, Nirit accompanied the students to the underground bunker where the children had been sheltering and that also served as a center to treat the wounded and safe place for the radio operator to transmit from.
In the section of the bunker – only in recent years rediscovered under mounds of earth and renovated – used to treat the wounded, Nirit shows where kibbutz member and then nurse Leah Kremer (nowadays 92 years of age) worked under the most difficult of circumstances.
Standing next to a plaster model of Leah Kremer at work, Nirit shows the actual book that Nurse Leah recorded the dates, names, injuries and treatment given in her portion of the bunker, shared with the communications officer, the original radio equipment sitting on a table opposite the treatment bed.
Back above ground and a short walk to the present day security fence and on a hilltop a short distance away, over the river and the three bridges, a Jordanian Army sentry box.
A one-hundred year old engine which was rescued from the demilitarized zone has been restored and stands by the fence under the old dining hall.
Nirit unlocks the gate in the fence after checking with the Jordanian soldiers it is okay to enter the demilitarized zone - adhering to the agreement brokered with regard the site. Right: a basalt built khan in a photo as it was many decades ago and prior to recent renovation in the zone.
Once permission was given for the Israelis to work uncovering remains in the area over the fence but hugging the east bank of the River Jordan, many artifacts of various periods of rule, whether the Roman or Ottoman Empires or the British Mandate.
The Roman bridge became to be called the “Bridge of the Meeting Place” due to the convergence of the rivers Jordan and Yarmuk a short distance upstream.
The 1904 Turkish bridge was built as part of the famous Hedjaz Railway Valley Line from Haifa to Damascus and the British constructed the third bridge in 1925.
All three bridges were blown up by members of the Hagana during the 1948 Independence War in order to put pay to the invasion plans of the Arab armies at that time.
NAHARAYIM – The ISLAND of PEACE – The PICKED FLOWERS HILL
A unique agreement was reached with the Emir Abdullah of Transjordan in 1927. That agreement enabled engineer Pinchas Rutenberg, founder of the Palestine Electric Company, to build the company’s main power station at nearby Naharayim, Hebrew play on words meaning where two rivers meet – the Jordan and the Yarmuk.
Later to become the Israel Electric Corporation, the Emir agreed to give the rights to use 6,000 dunams of land that at the time was under the control of Transjordan and the building of 3 dams got under way in the early 1930s. The Naharayim plant began to supply electricity to communities both sides of the border until it was blown up by the Arab Legion during the War of Independence.
The story of Naharayim and the opening of the ‘Peace Island’ following a peace accord with the Jordanians in 1994 and the founding of the ‘Picked Flowers Hill’ in memory of seven Israeli high school girls murdered by a Jordanian soldier visiting the ‘Peace Island’ were dealt with by local guide and member of Kibbutz Ashdot Yaacov, Ran Amitai.
Passing through the security fence to the Peace Island, stopping at the point where the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers join and for papers to be inspected by Jordanian soldiers stationed in a sentry box in the form of a large arch with portraits of the late King Hussein and his son, the present day king Abdullah, the IAS students arrive at the Peace Island where another large portrait of King Abdullah graces an observation platform.
After a detailed description of the terrain and background to agreements made between Israel and Jordan, Ran accompanies the group deeper along the banks of the Jordan to the remains of the main portion of the Naharayim Power Station and an old Hedjaz Railway Station, the latter covered in fascinating graffiti from the 1930s to later periods. A number of signatures were from Jewish workers employed by Rutenberg and also one left by a British serviceman in 1943.
Next port of call:
THE GAVRIEL SHEROVER CENTER at TZEMACH on the shores of Lake Kinneret
A visit to Beit Gavriel on the shores of the Kinneret en route to the Golan Heights was a welcome break and opportunity to not only admire the innovative architecture and Jerusalem stone used to construct the cultural center in memory of Gavriel Sherover but accommodating staff agreed to open up the ‘Peace Room’ incorporated in the design of the center by Gavriel’s mother, Gita Sherover.