The Jordan Valley, about 62 miles long, extends from the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) to the Dead Sea. Michal and Steve Kramer recently joined a full busload of hikers for a wonderful 8-mile trek sponsored by the English Speaking Residents Association (Esra). Read Steve's account of the hike below ...
We were visiting the area between the Kinneret and the small city of Bet She’an, the location of some of Israel’s most impressive Roman ruins. It was just before Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish new year for trees. We couldn’t have picked a more perfect day to be among the hills, valleys, and flora. This hike, in one of Israel's most scenic locales, was great.
We were hiking in the Valley of the Springs, the new name that the JNF (Jewish National Fund) has given to the former Bet She’an Valley, one of several valleys comprising the Jordan Valley region. This is an area of the Jordan Valley that we hadn’t previously hiked, which made the beautiful day’s activity even more memorable.
Although there is much ancient history in the Jordan Valley area, we concentrated mostly on Israel’s hydroelectric power plant, built in 1932 at Naharayim (meaning two rivers, the Yarmouk and Jordan) and nearby Kibbutz Gesher (meaning bridge). Though many middle-aged residents of the area have childhood memories of sleeping in bomb shelters, with few exceptions that has not been the case, since the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan. Currently, there are many cooperative projects shared by Israel and Jordan.
There is even a projected Jordan River Peace Park, part of which includes the so-called Peace Island in the Yarmuk River where seven Israeli school girls on a field trip were killed and seven were wounded by an unrepentant Jordanian border guard, just three years after the treaty was signed.
We began our hike at Moshav Menahemia, where we walked along the minuscule Jordan River to where it meets the Yarmouk River, one of the largest tributaries of the Jordan River. There we had a beautiful view towards Jordan’s Gilboa mountains, with the former power plant at Naharayim in the foreground (see picture below).
The hike was mostly on flat, terrain, but it was interrupted by a number of very steep hills which added some rigor to our exertions. We were rewarded by wonderful vistas which unfolded as the trail continuously changed direction. It seemed like one panorama was more exquisite than the next. The swooping of several flocks of migrating birds added to the beauty of our surroundings.
As we neared the site of the former power station, we learned a lot from Reuven, our excellent guide, about its visionary builder: Pinhas Rutenberg, the hydraulic engineer behind the electrification of Palestine. Rutenberg was a participant in Russia’s 1905 revolution, an adversary of the Bolsheviks in 1917, an ardent Zionist, and an activist and founder of the Haganah, the main Jewish militia in pre-war Palestine. He was a peer of the Jewish nationalists, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor, who were also Russian born.
While in America after WWI, Rutenberg co-founded the American Jewish Congress and wrote an influential book, The National Revival of the Jewish People. While there, he completed plans for his long-time dream, a detailed design in which the Land of Israel's water resources would be utilized for irrigation and electrical power production.
Back in Palestine, through his connections with the Palestine Mandate’s British leadership, Rutenberg was given the opportunity to bring his grandiose plans to completion, including damming the Kinneret to form a reservoir which would provide the hydropower he needed. Initially, he received financial support from the Rothschilds.
According to Wikipedia, in 1921, “… over fierce Arab-Palestinian protests against giving Zionism an economic stranglehold of the country,” Rutenberg received widespread electricity concessions from the British. In 1923, Rutenberg's Palestine Electric Company, Ltd. (which later became the Israel Electric Corporation, Ltd.) built an electric grid that gradually covered Jaffa, Tel-Aviv, nearby settlements, and some British military installations.
We walked along a concrete canal built by Rutenberg for the power plant and, after more steep ups and downs, arrived at the historic Gesher Kibbutz. “Old Gesher” is located on the banks of the River Jordan below the rebuilt (after 1967) Kibbutz Gesher. This stretch of the Jordan River is today’s border between Jordan and Israel, but Rutenberg had the authority at the time to utilize both banks of the river. Loaded with geopolitical and historic information, the Battle Museum is located in an underground shelter which was the center of the settlement’s activities during the battle of the War of Independence.
The museum chronicles the history of the Naharayim power plant, which was operated from 1932 to 1948. We watched a fascinating film about how the villagers prepared for and fought the Iraqis and well trained, British-led Jordanian soldiers.
We learned about the three bridges over the river at the original site of Kibbutz Gesher, each from a different period: the first, a Roman bridge, the second, a 19th-century Ottoman railroad bridge, and the newest, built during the British Mandate. The Jordan Valley Train station there was connected to the Ottoman bridge and was the only station on the line located in Transjordan (now Jordan). This line, which connected Haifa and Damascus, was built by the Turks, with Germany’s help, to strengthen Ottoman control in the area and to link up with the Hejaz Railway further east, terminating in Medina, Saudi Arabia.
Reuven told us that the Valley Train was so slow traveling through the Jordan Valley that a passenger could jump off to pick flowers and re-embark with no difficulty. Currently, a modern railroad line is being built between Haifa and Bet She’an, an investment which is expected to aid this promising region to bloom.
We learned how the three bridges were destroyed during the Palmach militia operation, the “Night of Bridges.” A total of 11 bridges were targeted (10 were destroyed) on June 16-17, 1946, to prevent the Arab Legion from crossing the river. The bridge at Gesher was attacked a second time during the war in 1948.
The young guide at the museum presented an interesting film in the kibbutz’s original dining room, where summer temperatures were often well over 100 degrees F, accompanied by clouds of mosquitoes in summer as well as stinging nettles and treacherous mud in winter. He proudly described an immense achievement of the kibbutz fighters: the takeover in 1948 of the Tegart Fort which the British abandoned - one of the few Tegart Forts (62 in all) not handed over to the Arabs on the eve of the War of Independence.
Prior to the War of Independence, the border with Transjordan was open and the Valley Train was used by all. Impending Jewish independence changed all that. The Jews built trenches and bunkers, but there were only 140 mostly untrained fighters plus women and 52 youngsters on the kibbutz. They were soon subjected to heavy artillery fire from Jordan with little hope of winning or even surviving an invasion by the Arabs.
During the battle for Gesher, a gateway to the Jordan Valley, it became necessary to evacuate the children to another kibbutz, a six-hour march north. Those men not escorting the escapees remained to fight, facing 3,000 Jordanians and Iraqis across the river. The near-miracle was that, with “only” six fatalities, the British-built bridge was destroyed in the nick of time, stopping the Arabs from crossing the river. During the War of Attrition, following the Six Day War of 1967, the kibbutz children slept in shelters every night for three years from fear of further attacks.
I hope you enjoyed this article about Steve's hike in the Jordan Valley. You can read more about the author on my Other Resources page.