Besor Stream: A Visit to the Shai Scenic Lookout

Before setting out we recommend that you call KKL-JNF’s Forest Hotline (Kav LaYaar) at 1-800-350-550 for any updates, such as closures due to extreme weather and any information that may be relevant to your route.

Besor Forest and the Yaakov Harari Recreation Area

On January 30th 2015, KKL-JNF inaugurated a new scenic lookout in the Western Negev in memory of Shai Dayan of Moshav Dekel. The expansive gully of the Besor Stream, the fields that stretch all the way to the horizon and a wealth of desert vegetation are all waiting for you at this site, which offers a splendid panoramic view of the entire area. Not far from the scenic lookout is the Yaakov Harari Recreation Area, in April 2014 Come and visit!

The red-marked trail serves the Dan Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant pipeline, which carries purified effluent southwards from central Israel. Today this plant supplies about 70% of the water used to irrigate crops in the Negev, and thus frees up millions of liters of potable water for drinking and domestic use. The reservoirs built by KKL-JNF along the Besor Stream are used to store some of this reclaimed sewage water.

Besor Forest is all around us. In the late 1950s KKL-JNF began to plant forests of tamarisk, eucalyptus, acacia and carob in the area of the Besor Stream, together with a few trees native to the region. The woodland also contains older trees (mainly tamarisks) that were planted during the British Mandate (1917 to 1948). In 2006 the forest received the title of Reserve Duty Forest (Yaar Ma‘arakh HaMilu’im) in honor of IDF’s military reserve force, and about a year after that KKL-JNF began renewed planting at the site, primarily of broadleaved trees. As this extremely arid area receives only around 200 mm. of rain in an average year, the trees were planted at comparatively large distances from one another.

After continuing for 3.8 kilometers or so, we arrive at the Harari Recreation Area, which was established by KKL-JNF in April 2014 in memory of Yaakov Harari, who introduced the cultivation of groundnuts (i.e., peanuts) into the Besor region. The recreation area, which is shaded by athel tamarisk trees (Tamarix aphylla), can serve as a useful starting point for excursions in this area of the Besor Stream, for meanderings along its banks and for a visit to the Shai Scenic Lookout.

Athel tamarisk trees are easily recognizable by their scored gray trunks and their wand-like jointed green branches that bear tiny, almost invisible, scale-like leaves. As the athel tamarisk is a fast grower that can withstand desert conditions, KKL-JNF uses it for forest planting in arid areas. Tamarisks, however, were planted along the Besor Stream long before this, in late Ottoman times and during the period of the British Mandate. Today these trees are placed adjacent to plots of farmland to serve as windbreaks and to provide protection from dust storms.

Tamarisk trees produce high quality wood, and their branches tend to bend so sharply that they sometimes form right angles. In times past these steeply angled branches were used in the construction of corners in buildings. Today they sometimes bend their way back into the ground, where they take root.

The tree’s leaves are equipped with glands that secrete excess salt, and on dewy nights the leaves drip salt water. This accumulation of salt beneath the tree prevents other plants from growing too close to it and thus partially protects it from competition for water and other resources found in the soil.

M4 barrels

The Yaakov Harari Recreation Area is situated at a crossroads. We turn westwards off the road to the Dan Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant and make our way along a trail that crosses a shallow gully before turning to the right after about 800 meters. At the bend in the trail, at the edge of a farmer’s field, two drums painted black and white and bearing the letter M and the number 4 stand one on top of the other. According to Dan Gazit of Kibbutz Gevulot, who volunteered to act as professional consultant for the creation of the explanatory plaque for the scenic lookout, this unlikely landmark represents the beginning of modern mapping of the Land of Israel.

The British Mandate’s Survey Department began mapping operations in the area in 1921, using a triangulation system based on the principles of trigonometry. Accurate measurement of the initial triangles is critical: if an error occurs at this point, it will affect all subsequent measurements. Because of this, the surveyors began their work in Palestine on the Besor plains, which allowed for easy deployment of tape measures.

Two of the three points of the first triangle, one adjacent to Ofakim (M3) and the other at Kibbutz Urim (M2), still survive. M1, beside Moshav Patish, has disappeared. The two drums here indicate the location of M4, the apex of the second triangle.

The Shai Scenic Lookout

About three hundred meters away from the drums, at the edge of the woodland, is the Shai Scenic Lookout, which commemorates Shai Dayan (1977-2005) of Moshav Dekel. The best time to enjoy the view here is in the afternoon, when the sun’s rays light up the east. The lookout was established with the help of donations from Friends of KKL-JNF in Israel.

The lookout is situated at a height of only 90 meters above sea level, just a few meters above the western bank of the Besor Stream. Despite this apparently unpromising location, it provides a view of the expanses between Gaza and Beersheba, of the Judean Foothills and of the Hebron Hills.

Before us is the wide bed of the Besor Stream, which continues for around eighty kilometers after rising at Ramat Avdat, near Sde Boker. The stream’s tributaries, which include Nahal Hebron and Nahal Beersheba, drain the Negev Hills and the rainy expanses of the Hebron Hills. About seven kilometers downstream from here, the Besor Stream is joined by Nahal Grar. The Besor Stream boasts an enormous catchment basin that extends over an area of some 3,600 square kilometers. This is the largest catchment basin of all the Israeli waterways that flow into the Mediterranean Sea.

On the far side of the river lies the extensive Besor Plain. During the last ice age, which reached its peak between eighteen and twenty-five thousand years ago, loess soil and sand became more plentiful in the region, causing the rivers to silt up and burst their banks. In the floodplains, the silt that had been carried downstream was deposited to create level flatland of the kind we now see before us.

In the area of the scenic lookout, Amnon Gat of Kibbutz Re‘im discovered numerous flint tools and fragments, all evidence of human hunter-gatherer habitation at the site in the Early Stone Age (between five hundred thousand and two hundred and fifty thousand years ago). Back then the Western Negev had a comparatively damp climate that supported a rich abundance of wildlife, and hundreds of local sites offer proof that prehistoric human beings followed the animals into the region.

At that time flint, a hard rock that breaks into sharp splinters, was the principal raw material available for the production of tools. The site discovered here was hidden for years under layers of loess soil, and flint tools can still be found in it. If, on your visit, you find any yourself, do please leave them where they are.

The Battle of Datin

According to the explanatory plaque at the scenic lookout, the remains of a cemetery from the Ancient Muslim Period were found opposite the site. Could this cemetery possibly be linked to the Battle of Datin, which was fought in this area on February 4th, 634 CE? A Muslim battalion commanded by Amr Ibn al-As attempted to infiltrate the Land of Israel via the Negev, which was ruled at the time by the Byzantine Empire. The Muslims attacked villages in the region in order to obtain food and perhaps also seize booty. A Byzantine force was dispatched from Caesarea to repel the invaders, and it may perhaps have received help from ships that sailed southwards to provide the force with supplies.

The Muslims engaged with the Byzantine battalion dispatched from Caesarea and overwhelmed it. The precise location of Datin is not known, but the battle is generally presumed to have taken place between Tel Sheruhan and Tel Gamma (the Shai Scenic Lookout lies between the two). Nor is it clear exactly what happened in the course of the battle: although Muslim historians report that the Muslims routed the Christians, they do not in fact appear to have broken through the Byzantine defenses, nor did Gaza surrender.