Photos and Text by Lydia Aisenberg
A field trip to the Jordan Valley and Golan proved to be quite an adventure for the IAS students who were somewhat perplexed as to why they needed to give Lydia - their guide for the day - their passport numbers. Unbeknownst to them they were to be taken through the security fence at the remains of the Naharayim hydro-electric plant where the Yarmuk and Jordan rivers meet, practice their Arabic with Jordanian soldiers hiding from the relentless noon heat in a small guard post to the side of an impressive archway (both sides of which adorned with enormous portraits of King Hussein and his son Abdullah, the present king of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan), and try to decipher Arabic graffiti in an abandoned Turkish built railway station, a left over from the Rakevet HaEmek (the Valley Train) from Haifa to Damascus.
All that and so much more, so maybe we should start at the beginning of the day – one that saw 40 degrees pounding down on one’s head and almost impossible to be out of the air-conditioned but for more than a short period – giving even more sympathy to the Jordanian soldiers in their sentry boxes by the way!
FIRST PORT OF CALL: The Old Courtyard at Gesher.
IAS students heard Avraham Zohar who was born and raised at Kibbutz Gesher and still lives there. Avraham explained about the Naharayim hydro-electric plant, the dream that became reality of Pinhas Rutenberg a German born engineer who harnessed the Yarmuk and Jordan rivers by diverting the Jordan from its natural course to pour into the Yarmuk – hence Naharayim (two rivers); the history of Kibbutz Gesher and the Old Courtyard where the original kibbutz stood and where members withstood heavy fighting in the War of Independence; the three bridges below the observation platform – Roman, Turkish and British – and their being blown up by Jewish forces in the late 40s as there was fear the Iraqi troops on the other side of the River Jordan would break through and over-run the Jewish defenses in the area.
A working model of the complex known as Naharaim, a feature only opened in recent years at the site, explained in depth about Rutenberg, his relationship with King Abdullah and their joint belief in the project that when inaugurated provided a large supply of electricity in Palestine and areas of Trans-Jordan. The story of the village of Tel Or (the Hill of Light) built and lived in by the Jewish workers of Naharayim (and visible from the Old Courtyard sitting on a hill in the Jordanian controlled territory and today a Jordanian army base) and of the Jordanians destruction of the hydro-electric plant at a great loss to both Israel and Jordan and crushing the dreams of Rutenberg and the workers.
Avraham also told of how the children from the original kibbutz were smuggled out at night, each child accompanied by one of their parents, to Kibbutz Ashdot Yaacov from where they were taken to a monastery in Haifa – the building of which recently renovated and situated within the grounds of the Rambam Medical Center. “The decision was first made to somehow get the children out, then that one parent should accompany each child. They then decided which of the parents was the most needed to defend Gesher and so in some instances it was the father who went with the child, maybe because the mother was a nurse or knew how to send Morse code, something like that,” explained Avraham whose parents were founder members of the kibbutz.
SECOND PORT OF CALL: Naharayim – The Island of Peace at Ashdot Yaacov.
Following the diversion of the Jordan River to the Yarmuk, an enormous lake or reservoir and dam was formed in order to provide the hydro-electric station with what was necessary to produce electricity. The building began in 1927 and continued until 1932 and supplied electricity until 1948.
The meandering river – there is no longer a lake as in the late 60’s the dam was blown up by Palestinian terrorists who had come from deeper inside Jordan – created an island. The land on the Jordanian side of the security fence in the area is actually owned by the kibbutzim of Ashdot Yaacov (Ichud & Meuchad) and under the Peace Treaty with Jordan, the kibbutzniks are allowed to continue to tend their date and banana plantations and other crops in those fields. They work every day under the watchful eyes of Jordanian soldiers in sentry boxes and a number of Jordanian army bases perched high on hills overlooking the area. The Israeli farmers must be out of the area by 17.00 we are told by local guide Ro’ee Baron from Ashdot Yaacov Ichud.
The kibbutz born and educated Baron is a mine of information, much of which already heard in the Old Courtyard presentation with regard Rutenberg and the hydro-electric facility but was good to hear again when looking not at a model but the remains of the real thing, judging the course of the Jordan River, Jordanian soldiers and both Israeli and Jordanian flags visible all around – in some cases, one opposite the other on the sides of the Bailey bridge crossed in order to get to the Island of Peace before continuing on to the other places of interest in the vicinity.
Jordanian soldiers were certainly happy to see some young people and break a little of the monotony of sitting, sweating and swatting flies all day. They were interested to hear that the students were studying Arabic and after a quick inspection, photographs snapped under the mounted monarchs on the wall, the bus allowed to continue on to the derelict remains of the main part of the hydro-electric plant and to see Tel Or from closer quarters. Only one of the original houses built for the workers at Tel Or remains nowadays.
The walls of the railway station are covered in graffiti most of which in Arabic. Here and there are also dates from the 1930s and 1940s. Ro’ee assures us that they are genuine – that of a British soldier particularly catches the eye. Joseph Valery of the Royal Engineers carved his name, date (7.4.43) in to the brick of the station roof. There is also an inscription penned by a Jewish woman in May, 1946 – some Arabic graffiti in a felt pen scrawled over the Hebrew. Ro’ee says that the lady, nowadays in her 90s, verified her historic inscription and was recently interviewed about life in Tel Or where she had lived with her family.
The return journey to the Peace Island, last wave to the Jordanian soldiers and back under the archway, through the security fence to Naharayim and the memorial site to seven Israeli high-school girls who were killed in 1997 by a crazed Jordanian soldier as they and their classmates from Bet Shemesh were visiting the island. The ‘Plucked Flowers’ site was created by Orna Shimoni, a member of the near by kibbutz Ashdot Yaacov, a bereaved mother of a son who fell in the line of duty in Lebanon. Orna is one of the founders of the Four Mother’s Movement attributed with bringing about the eventual pullout of the IDF from Southern Lebanon. A great deal to see and learn but the day still not over – the Golan waits and a meeting with Ramona Bar-Lev at Katzrin, one of the first settlers on the Golan, still on the itinerary.