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Let There Be Light , Israel

At the confluence of two streams, a man with a dream brought water-powered electricity to Israel. The visitors centers at Old Gesher and Naharayim-Ashdot-Yaakov tell the tale.

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Jordan River at Naharayim region

he story begins in 1919, when Pinchas Rutenberg, a Zionist engineer who emigrated from Russia to Palestine, realized that attracting millions of Jews here, as hoped, would require a technological makeover – and that required electricity. In the face of doubts and obstacles from many quarters, from the British authorities to the philanthropic Baron de Rothschild (who preferred steam power), Rutenberg decided that a hydroelectric power plant should be built in the northern Jordan Valley, where the Jordan and Yarmukh rivers converge.

 

 

Until a few years ago, the closest people could get to this historic place was a point along the Jordan Valley road about 10 miles north of Beit She’an, where the plant could be seen at a distance. However, it was too close to the Jordanian border to actually approach it. But the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty in 1994 paved the way to restoration of a site known as Old Gesher, adjacent to Naharayim, where a kibbutz was founded in the 1920s, as well as the area around the Naharayim plant itself. Visits to both sites are now possible.

 

The story

 

At Old Gesher, you’ll enjoy the Naharayim Experience, where flowing water, sound, colored lights and other effects take you back to the old days. You’ll learn that even after Rutenberg got his franchise, plenty of obstacles remained. Who would build the dam to regulate the Jordan’s flow at the Sea of Galilee? Who would construct the 42-foot-high dam over the Yarmukh, with its massive sluice gates for diverting the river into a 300-acre artificial lake, or the 1200-foot-long canal that sent the water plummeting down 50 feet through iron pipes to the turbines? In spite of the grueling conditions, the project attracted laborers from across the country, providing work for 700 hungry pioneers.

 

Not even a natural disaster could stop construction for long. In 1931, a flood swept away the recently installed 20-ton transformers and the whole project seemed in danger. It was the laborers who saved the day, offering to work for room and board until Rutenberg could find investors to replace the ruined components. Inside of a year, the two transformers were replaced, a third was installed, and the plant went into operation.

 

You’ll also see remains of bridges at Old Gesher, dating from Roman and Turkish times, the British railroad bridge that connected Transjordan with Tiberias and Beit She’an (gesher means “bridge” in Hebrew), and an old inn where caravans spent the night, all of which attest to the centrality of the major four-way junction that was here. You’ll sit at the old wooden tables in the restored dining room of Kibbutz Gesher where the pioneers once took their meals, to see an imaginative audiovisual presentation of kibbutz life in the early part of the 20th century.

 

With today’s Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan as your backdrop to the east, you’ll also discover that the power station and the workers’ neighborhood fell outside the boundaries of British Mandatory Palestine. Many of the workers were citizens of Transjordan, a status they believed would protect them and their plant, even after Palestine was partitioned in November 1947 and chaos ensued.

 

On the eve of the War of Independence, Golda Meir held two secret meetings with Emir Abdullah of Transjordan (the great-grandfather of the present king, Abdullah II) at Naharayim – where she arrived disguised as a veiled Arab woman – seeking to convince him not to join the fighting. But join he did, and at the end of April 1948 it was decided to evacuate the women and children from Naharayim. Almost immediately afterward, the Jordan Legion attacked Kibbutz Gesher. Then, on Friday May 14, the day Israel declared independence, the Iraqi army entered Naharayim, breaking an agreement between King Abdullah and the workers. Within a few hours their community was in ruins. The workers barricaded themselves in the turbine hall, but had to surrender the next day. Forty-three workers were taken prisoner, and were repatriated only nine months later.

 

It was an emotional time when the new border arrangements made access to Naharayim possible again, especially for those whose personal history was connected to the place. In May 1996, two buses with “Naharayim children” – many of whom were now senior citizens -- set out to visit their childhood homes, hosted by officials of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Among the ruins, many found the houses and gardens they once knew.

 

About two miles north of Old Gesher, the second part of your visit awaits, at Naharayim itself. At the visitors center, before you start out on your tour, you may encounter a very special lady, Orna Shimoni, from nearby Kibbutz Ashdot-Yaakov, who lovingly cares for a garden planted here memory of seven girls killed by a Jordanian soldier in March 1997.

 

The entire fascinating saga of the two sites, Old Gesher and Naharayim, comes together here as you walk along the Dam Trail to see the massive floodgates over the Yarmukh, and stand on the Island of Peace, where your local guide will point out the confluence of the Jordan and the Yarmukh, the railroad that once connected Haifa to Damascus, the Israel-Jordan border, the cultivated fields of Kibbutz Ashdot-Yaakov, the workers’ neighborhood, and the hydroelectric-station – powered not only by water, but by vision and determination.


 

Old Gesher was restored by the Council for the Restoration and Preservation of Historic Sites, the Electric Corporation, the Tourism Ministry, Kibbutz Gesher, and other bodies. Special arrangements for the mobility-challenged, hearing- and sight-impaired are available at Old Gesher. The Jewish National Fund and the restoration council assisted in the restoration of Naharayim. For hours and group tours at both sites call: Old Gesher, 04-6752685 and Naharayim at 04-6709143.

 

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