Aircraft Trail around Eitanim

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.

Starting out

Hikers in the Jerusalem Hills generally use the two tall aerial masts on top of Mount Eitanim as a landmark, but these prominent features of the landscape were not placed there at random: the summit of Mount Eitanim towers 776 meters above sea level and it is well secluded from the other local peaks.

A new trail that encircles the top of the hill and offers a splendid view of the Jerusalem Hills landscape is the result of a joint initiative on the part of KKL-JNF and the Eitanim Mental Health Center’s Board of Directors. Preliminary preparation of the route the trail was to follow was carried out by KKL-JNF staff, KKL-JNF national service volunteers, and staff and patients at Eitanim Mental Health Center. “Eitanim Mental Health Center wants to make use of the trail to allow patents to experience nature,” explained Dr. Gadi Lubin, the center’s director. “Walking the trail has become part of their local routine, and, in its own way, this contributes to the healing process of people who are undergoing a period of mental crisis,” he said.

The result is simply splendid, and we can confidently say that walking this trail is a worthwhile experience for anyone.

Before starting out, you might want to take a look at the large group of plants with broom-like branches that are growing at a height of up to 80 cm in the shade of the cypresses. This is poet’s cassia (Osyris alba), which is a semi-parasite plant: although it creates its own nourishment by means of photosynthesis, its roots attach themselves to the those of other plants and absorb water and minerals from them. Poet’s cassia puts forth tiny yellow flowers that are barely noticeable, but its round, juicy, bright red fruit is highly conspicuous: birds adore it, and by eating it help to spread the seeds. In this particular spot, the plants would appear to taking advantage of the nearby cypress trees.

We set out along a broad dirt track. To our left we are accompanied by an assortment of native woodland trees, primarily Israeli common oak (Quercus calliprinos) and Palestine pistachio (Pistacia palaestina, also known as terebinth). There is an interesting phenomenon here that is surely worthy of scientific investigation: some branches of the Israeli common oaks here produce very large leaves that are about three or four times bigger than the norm.

After just a couple of minutes, the magnificent landscapes of the Jerusalem Hills come into view on our right. They are best seen from the area at the foot of the tall Eitanim mast, where we can get a true impression of the vast scale of the Sataf Forests and of Sorek Ridge and the deep gorge of the Sorek stream (Nahal Soreq) that runs between them. On the horizon we can see the ridge of the Hebron Hills.

Deir Amr

Directly at our feet are the remnants of the orchards of Dayr 'Amr, a tiny Arab village where a handful of people lived until Israel’s War of Independence. Terraced slopes, cisterns and the remains of small buildings are all visible below the trail. One source that describes the site mentions the existence of a small spring slightly to the south of the village, but there is no sign of it today.

At the top of the hill stands a shrine to the memory of Amr the Messenger (al-Sa‘i Amr), the messenger of Umar Ibn al-Khattab, who conquered Jerusalem in the 7th century CE. From Yehuda Ziv, our master and teacher in everything concerning knowledge of the historical geography of Israel, we learn that local tradition links the site to Sheikh Hussein, who is buried at the top of hill that bears his name. He was also known as Abu al-Armala (“father of the widow”) as he was a renowned patron of widows and orphans. And, indeed, in 1942, the Arab Higher Committee initiated the establishment, at the top of the hill, of an educational institution where students – most of whom were orphans whose fathers had been killed in the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 – could combine study with farming. Slightly later on, work was also begun on a school for girls. The village was captured on July 16th, 1948 by the 4th Battalion of the Harel Brigade, and today the farm compound is the site of the Eitanim Mental Health Center.

The Arbutus Trail

From the area of the masts, the trail descends to reveal new vistas: Kibbutz Tzuba with the hill protruding above it and the vineyards of Nahal Tzuba in the valley below. Close by is the village of Ein Rafa, and on the other side of Route no. 1 we have a clear view of Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, Kibbutz Maaleh HaHamisha and Mount Adar. At about 250 meters away from the aerial mast, we leave the dirt road and turn left on to a stepped trail that climbs slightly and skirts Eitanim from the north.

Large numbers of Greek strawberry trees (Arbutus andrachne) add their attractions to this stretch of the trail, and their presence is proof that we are now walking on the yellowish layer of the Motza formation. The Greek strawberry tree is very easily identified by its thin red bark that peels off every year to reveal the smooth yellowing trunk beneath. The Motza formation is largely composed of poorly ventilated fine-grained soft chalk rock, and this, naturally, influences the nitrogen regime in the soil. The Greek strawberry tree, however, would appear to overcome this problem by cooperating with fungi in the soil that help to render the nitrogen more available to the tree.

Note the giant terrace that constitutes the upper surface of the step crossed by the trail. It does not resemble the other terraces we have passed along the way, and it may have been built in the 1950s by new immigrants employed in work on national projects. The pine and cypress trees that survived from that period suffered a great deal in the hard winter of 2015. Some have been completely uprooted, while others have barely survived.

Givat Yearim and the airplane

Opposite us, at the head of a long spur, sprawls Moshav Givat Yearim. This is the point at which we need to explain the name “Aircraft Trail.” In early May 1948, just a few days before the State of Israel was declared, Jewish forces attempted to force a way through to Jerusalem. To step up the pressure, a decision was taken to bomb Arab positions in the area of Bayt Mahsir (today Beit Meir), which was situated on a bluff overlooking the highway. On May 10th, a Norseman aircraft that had arrived from Italy only the previous week was dispatched to carry out the bombing raid. Its captain, Yariv Sheinbaum, was a former British Royal Air Force pilot, and his co-pilot was Daniel Bukstein, who was commander of Sde Dov Airport at the time. The other members of the crew were radio operator Shlomo Cohen and three men from the ordnance corps: Zvi Shusterman, Yitzhak Shakenowitz and Shlomo Rothstein. When the plane reached the area of Bayt Mahsir Daniel announced over the radio: “We’ve identified the target, we’re going down to bomb.” After that all contact with him was lost, and the plane disappeared with all its crew.

Amid the turmoil of battle there was no time to look for the remains of the plane, and when searches did begin around two months later, it became clear that the plane had crashed right opposite the spot where we stand, on the southern slope of Givat Yearim (“Forest Hill”). Ahmad Sameh Al-Khalidi, principal of the orphanage at Dayr Amr, who had been too ill to flee together with the other residents of the village and farm, led Isser Halamish, the intelligence officer of the Harel Brigade’s 6th Battalion, to the spot where the plane had crashed.

The bodies were not found until some time later. Following instructions from members of the Alyan family of Khirbat al-Jab‘a (Givat Yearim now occupies the site of this vanished village), who today live in Abu Ghosh, Issar arrived at a cave situated below the tomb of Sheikh Amr, where the remains of the plane’s crew had been placed. They were removed and taken for burial at Kiryat Anavim. Today the cave no longer exists. Part of the plane’s engine was found and laid at the main Air Force memorial site on Har HaTayyasim (“Pilots’ Hill”); another section of it was placed in the garden at Moshav Givat Yearim.