The site “Naharayim at Gesher” is in the Beit Sha’an Valley between Degania and Beit She’an and its tours are inspiring, educational - and highly recommended. It is located on the previous home of Kibbutz Gesher (meaning bridge) and tells the story of the defense of the kibbutz during the 1948 War of Independence. Another of its themes is the first hydroelectric power plant built in Mandate Palestine in nearby Naharayim, as the Isle of Peace can no longer be visited. It is demonstrated with a large working model complete with running water, and also a movie. The usual tours are directed at Israelis, but the guide can provide information in English and the two movies have English subtitles when requested. With some background information, you will be able to get a lot out of a visit.
Directions: Enter “Naharayim at Gesher” into Waze and click on “נהריים בגשר.”
Time: Each tour lasts about 1½ hours.
Admission details: The site is open Sunday to Thursday 9.00 AM-4 PM, Friday 9 AM-2 PM and Saturday and holidays 11 AM-4.00 PM. A tour is advisable. They are at 11.00 AM and 12.30 PM on weekdays. Admission is 39 nis, and 35 nis for children 5-13 years and seniors. But call 04-675 2685 to check on prices, tours and extent of English. This is their Hebrew website.
The Mamluke bridge built on Roman foundations
About Naharayim in Gesher
Kibbutz Gesher was founded in 1939 in a strategically important location by the Jordan River. Its strategic importance can be gauged by the number of constructions here. These include three bridges that crossed the Jordan – a Roman/Mamluke bridge, a Turkish bridge for the Hejaz Railway between Haifa and Damascus built in 1904 that reached all the way to Mecca and Medina, and a British Mandate bridge that served the Haifa-Baghdad highway. You will be viewing these bridges during the tour. The bridges were blown up by the kibbutz during the War of Independence but the Roman bridge was repaired following Israel’s peace agreement with Jordan. You can now walk halfway across it (although not all the way or you will be in Jordan). A fortified khan was here from the 14th century to protect the bridges and trade caravans along it, and some of the kibbutz buildings were constructed in its ruins. A British Taggart police post was also constructed during the Mandate.
The kibbutz was started as a tower and stockade settlement by a Yishuv youth movement and immigrants from Germany and other countries on land purchased with the help of Baron Edmond de Rothschild.
During the War of Independence, the Haganah took over the British police station when it was evacuated by the British. In April 1948, the kibbutz refused the Arab Legion’s demand to evacuate it, and its 150 members were attacked. An exchange of fire lasted for 3 days before the Arab Legion ceased its attack. More threatening was an attack by Iraqi forces in May with armor, artillery and air power. A demolition expert together with some members of the kibbutz undertook the dangerous task of destroying the bridges to make it more difficult for the Iraqis to cross over the river. The kibbutz succeeded in repulsing the attack with only light weapons and the Iraqis retreated after 7 days, although the kibbutz buildings were destroyed. This inspiring victory prevented Arab forces from severing the connection of settlements with the north of Israel. You will visit a hastily constructed underground bunker (the Large Shelter) that was constructed during the war and which was the center of the kibbutz’s activities during the Iraqi siege. After the war, the kibbutz moved to higher ground 1 km to the west of its original location.
This site also explains about a nearby hydroelectric power plant built by a remarkable individual called Pinhas Rutenberg at Naharayim (the two rivers).
Pinhas Rutenberg and his hydro-electric power plant at Naharayim
Wherever Pinhas Rutenberg lived he was in the thick of the action – often in important leadership roles. He was also a visionary and in Palestine at least he was able to bring his ambitious plans to fruition. To describe all his many activities is beyond the scope of this article, but some highlights will be explained, particularly as they relate to Naharayim.
Rutenberg was born in 1879 in what is now the Ukraine but which was then part of the Russian Empire. While studying in the Technology Institute in Saint Petersburg, then the imperial capital of Russia, he became active in the Socialist-Revolutionary Party in Russia and played an active part in the two Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917.
Forced to emigrate after the first Russian Revolution, he moved to Italy in 1906 and studied hydraulic engineering. When the First World War broke out, he realized the importance of the Jews in Palestine having an armed force and he joined Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor in setting up the Jewish Legion. While in the US promoting his ideas, he cofounded the American Jewish Congress and also completed designs for the use of hydraulic resources for irrigation and generating electric power for all of Palestine.
He was back in Russia for the Revolution of 1917 in leadership roles, but was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks. He was released and made his way to Palestine in 1919 via France. He was determined to carry out his ideas for generating electricity and in Paris was promised financial support from Baron Edmond de Rothschild.
When he arrived in Palestine, he established the Haganah together with Jabotinsky, and was the chief officer of their troops in Tel Aviv during the Arab hostilities of 1921. The first electricity-generating plant built by his company the Jaffa Electric Company was in Jaffa, although this was diesel fueled. It provided electricity to Jaffa, Tel Aviv and neighboring settlements. He subsequently founded the Palestine Electric Corporation which would eventually supply power to all of Mandate Palestine with power plants in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Tiberius, and eventually Jerusalem.
His most impressive achievement in providing electric power was his building the first hydro-electric plant in the Middle East at Naharim, at the confluence of the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers. A complication needing high-level political resolution, including from Emir Abdullah of Transjordan, was that this site was on the other side of the Jordan in the country of Jordan. Nevertheless, the difficulties were resolved and 700 pioneers were able to complete the 14-meter-high dam and other dams, a 300-acre artificial lake for storing water, and a 300-meter-long pipe for bringing water to the turbines. Completed by 1932 it provided power to both sides of the border thus justifying Abdullah’s agreement.
The power plant ceased functioning from the time of the 1948 War of Independence on when the building was occupied by Iraqi forces.
Fast forward to 1994 and the peace agreement with Jordan when it was agreed that Jordan would have sovereignty over the 1,000 dunam island that had been created, and Israel would have a renewable 25-year lease to the land. This land was worked by Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’acov and Israelis could cross the border and visit the site without a visa or passport, just by showing their Israeli ID card. The lease ended in 2019 and the Jordanians refused to renew it. This was the end of the Isle of Peace as a tourist site. Naharayim in Gesher is an OK substitute – for tourists that is.
The Hejaz Railway built by the Ottomans in 1904.
The kitchen in the Large Shelter used during the Iraq invasion.
Movie about Pinhas Rutenberg and his power station projected in the model room.
Model of Rutenberg's hydro-electric power plant.
The British police station at Gesher.
One can cross the Mamluke bridge which has been repaired - only halfway though!