Isle of Peace and Naharayim – an Excursion

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.

The dam path

This circular trail, which is around 800 meters long, leads us up and down several flights of steps, but in other respects it is easy to negotiate. The entrance gate is situated several meters from the visitors’ center.

Beyond the gate is a bridge across a broad dry concrete channel about 1.5 kilometers in length. This is the Zero Canal, which connected the lake created behind the Yarmuk Dam to the River Jordan, and it was designed to solve the problem of seasonal differences in the quantity of water flowing in the two rivers. In winter and spring, when the level was high, surplus water was channeled through the canal from the Yarmuk to the Jordan, to prevent the lake from flooding. In summer, when levels were low, the same canal carried water from the Jordan into the lake. The water in the River Jorden comes from the Kinneret, and the dam build by Rutenberg in Degania allowed water levels in the Kinneret to be controlled. The canal takes its name from the fact that it was constructed completely on the level, with no gradient at all.

On the far side of the canal we follow a flight of steps down to the right to the shaded observation point on the southern bank of the Yarmuk, overlooking this river where water flows all year round. To the right, we can see the surplus-water dam of the Zero Canal, which enables extra water to be removed without opening the large Yarmuk Dam, which we shall see later on in our tour.

Close by this dam we can see the remains of the Valley Railway Bridge, which was blown up by Givati Brigade fighters during Israel’s War of Independence, to prevent the enemy from using it during a possible invasion. From the lookout point we continue upstream along the Yarmuk to a bridge built of basalt stones that dates back to the Mamluk era (14th century). It has since undergone renovations at different times. Beside it the waters of the Yarmuk tumble over a low waterfall, and in winter fierce currents rage here.

Our route leads us to another shaded observation point, which overlooks the Yarmuk Dam. This dam was responsible for the creation of the Naharayim Lake, which extended over an area of about one thousand dunam. The tamarisks and reeds that grow on the far side of the dam testify to the lake waters that once stood here.

The Yarmuk Dam marks the end of our tour, and from here we make our way back along the dirt track that runs parallel to the Zero Canal. Our route leads us beside a pillbox (a concrete military guard post) reminiscent of those common during the British Mandate, but this one bears the symbol of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Nearby is the gate through which we came in.

The Hill of Plucked Flowers

After the peace agreement Orna Shimoni sought to establish a park on the Isle of Peace for the benefit of peace-seeking young Israelis and Jordanians. “The peace agreement permitted us to plant trees and sow grass for the park,” she said. “I got KKL-JNF involved in this dream of mine, and began very slowly to develop the site.”

But on March 13th, 1997, things changed. A Jordanian soldier stationed on the Isle of Peace turned his weapon against girls from the AMIT School in Beit Shemesh who were visiting the site. Orna Shimoni was on the island at the time, on a trip with her granddaughter’s class. The shots rang out just as she was crossing back into Israeli territory. “I was sure that someone had let off a volley of bullets by mistake,” she recalled. “But then there was another salvo and I heard dreadful screams. I realized that something terrible was happening on the island. I felt as if the sky had been torn apart and the world destroyed. I ran to the police post near the Isle of Peace. The policewoman on duty, who had been talking on the phone, had heard nothing. I snatched the receiver out of her hand and shouted: “There’s been a massacre. Send a helicopter immediately.” I went outside and heard more screaming. Then there was a dreadful silence.”

The bus carrying the girls made its way back to the parking lot. “I got on the bus,” said Orna. “I saw girls sprawled out and blood everywhere. I laid the girls down on the floor. All that time I was concerned about three girls who didn’t stop crying and calling out: ‘Bring me my sister… Where’s Yaala? Sivan’s still there…’ I realized that some of the girls were missing. I asked one of the teachers to count them, and it became clear that nine of them weren’t there.” An ambulance arrived, went into the Isle of Peace site and found the bodies of two of the girls. The rest were taken to hospital in Amman. Five of them were dead on arrival. Seven girls were murdered in that massacre.

“Two days later I went to the school in Beit Shemesh,” continued Orna. “The principal warned me not to come, because the girls were very upset and people in Beit Shemesh were stunned and angry about the peace agreement. But the girls remembered who had stroked their faces in their worst moments, and the psychologist in charge asked me to drop by the other classes at the school, too.”

The story of the hill

Orna told us: “When I got home, I decided that, instead of a park, I would create a memorial site for the seven murdered girls, and that I would try to perpetuate their memory with flowers and trees, much as I had planned for the park. I wanted the site to be ready in time for the shloshim ceremony. The following day I took part in a meeting with the chairman of the local council and the architect Professor Yigal Tzamir. I arrived with a computer printout containing a proposal for a general plan. My idea was to create a garden in which an area paved with red tuff would depict the trunk of a tree, symbolizing blood. The branches, delineated in black tuff, would symbolize bereavement, and there would be seven small hills, each bearing the name of a girl whose life had been cut off by the massacre.

“They told me that implementing a plan of this kind would require a vast sum of money, and that there was absolutely no way the work could be completed by the shloshim, as it would have to be coordinated with forty different bodies and organizations. But I wasn’t deterred.

“On the fourth day after the murder I started work. I took possession of an abandoned military post opposite the visitors’ center. Jordan Valley regional factories lent me a bulldozer, and with its help, after I’d got permission from the army, I buried the military position. Every day I phoned the next person in charge and asked for help. Everyone rallied round, without asking for payment. I was there every day from four o’clock in the morning until ten at night. By the thirtieth day the site was ready for the memorial ceremony, which didn’t take place in the end because of a problem that came up with the Jordanians.

“The following year, and every year since then, a major ceremony has been held at the site. KKL-JNF orchestrates the memorial ceremonies, in which schools and Beit Shemesh Municipality take part. Since then KKL-JNF has been involved at every stage.

“While I was working on the site, my son, Eyal, suggested I plant a grove of trees in memory of the girls. KKL-JNF enlisted in this undertaking, too, and planted a remarkable woodland that covers an area of about 170 dunam and includes seven species of eucalyptus trees, each of which is notable either for its foliage or for the marvelous color of its flowers. This grove has grown wonderfully, and the time has come to open it to the general public, with signs and recreation areas. KKL-JNF has also improved the lookout points at the site and the Dam Trail along the Yarmuk River.”

The Naharayim Scenic Lookout

A stepped wooden path ascends to the top of the hill that looms above the Naharayim site. The view is wonderful. From here we can see the Yarmuk and the spot where it spills into the River Jordan. The Isle of Peace is on the far side of the river, and the hydro-electric plant’s dams and the Valley Railway Station on the island are also visible. Belvoir Fortress and the Elot Scenic Lookout stand out conspicuously on the ridges of Lower Galilee, and to the east are the lofty Golan Heights and the Mountains of Gilad. We can go down the flight of steps that descends southwards and walk a few meters to the gate in the fence where a gap provides access to the Dam Trail at a cost of 10 NIS per head.

The Kochava lookout point

The Kochava lookout point is situated on the highest hill in the area, which lies to the east of the visitors’ center. It can be reached by means of a paved trail that runs from the visitors’ center to the fence, along the Zero Canal. We turn to the left, and after about 250 meters the trail bends to the left and climbs to the top of the hill. Along the way we can appreciate the work of sculptor Abraham Hazan, a resident of Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov. From here we can take in the whole scene and enjoy a bird’s eye view of everything we saw and experienced earlier. The top of the hill was formerly the site of the building where the customs officials lived, and the customs house itself serves today as the offices of the Isle of Peace site.