(photo credit: Courtesy)
Over twenty thousand people participated in the three-day "Bridges over the River" festival at KKL-JNF's Italy Park - Nahal Alexander. The Alexander River, formerly a polluted stream and ecological hazard, was restored with the generous assistance of KKL-JNF Italy and France, and what was formerly an eyesore became a major recreation site for Israel's Emek Hefer region.
The first day of the festival focused on youth and featured local bands and a popular Israeli rock group. Festival planners expected 500-1000 youngsters but over 2,000 turned up, bursting with energy, for a summer evening of music, with the Alexander River flowing quietly in the background. The second day of the festival was devoted to families and included circus performances, street theater, music and acrobatics, to mention just a few of the attractions.
In addition, local craftsmen were selling their wares, such as locally produced honey, ceramics, jewelry, natural popsicles, ethnic food, and so on. There was a special emphasis on ecology, with a booth encouraging people to shift their cars to natural gas to save money and also decrease air pollution, one of the major causes of global warming. The last day of the festival featured a concert with two of Israel's major artists, Shulamit Aharon and Dudu Fischer. Although 3,000 people were expected, over 10,000 showed up, and police had no choice but to turn some people away.
The idea of a "bridge" was transformed into a metaphor for the ways and means by which the different sectors of Israeli society might be able to "bridge" their differences. There were many special events, such as an art exhibit that used Alexander River as a backdrop, poetry readings and panel discussions, at which Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, and people of oriental and western backgrounds exchanged ideas and visions on how all these very distinct traditions could become one vibrant whole without negating the identity and inspiration that individual cultures impart.
The atmosphere at the festival almost felt like a big family coming together. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, and it was as if the Alexander River really was a bridge bringing everybody together. We met Roni Yaniv from nearby Moshav Avihayil, and her two children, Shaked and Nitzan. "I was born in this region, so Alexander River was my childhood playground. We used to come here in jeeps or cars until the stream became so polluted that we were not allowed to go near it. I felt bad that my children would not be able to enjoy the natural wonderland that had been such a central part of my own childhood. Then the restoration project began and now we come here all the time! It's really wonderful that there were people who realized what a gem this place is and decided to clean it up!"
Yigal Yisraeli of Kibbutz Ma'abarot, which borders on Alexander River added: "You should see this place on weekends. It's no exaggeration to say that thousands of people come here. I like to ride my bike, but I can't even get around all the people, it's so crowded. Nahal Alexander is a long stream, so I would like to see additional segments of the riverbank restored so there will be room for everyone. I love the river and what has been accomplished here and I would love to see more of the same."
Roni Aidan is Head of Emek Hefer Regional Council, covering an area from Tulkarem in the east to the Mediterranean in the west; from Hadera in the north to Netanya in the south and about 35,000 residents. "Nahal Alexander Park is a magnet for the entire region - but not only for our region. On a typical weekend, you find people here who have come from Haifa in the north and from as far south as Rishon. Where else in Israel can you lay back on endless lawns next to a beautiful river? There is so much life here, the flora, the soft-backed water turtles, bicycle trails, picnic grounds. With KKL-JNF's help, we recently completed a new cycling trail and planted 500 trees around it. I had the privilege of planting the first trees, all native Israeli species - fig trees, berry, oak and carob. I insisted on planting one of each type.
"We try to restore an additional segment of the river each year - of course only if we have funding - as we are dependant on KKL-JNF. The KKL-JNF has taken responsibility for the actual work on site, owing to their know-how and expertise. Keeping the river clean and improving the quality of its water is no simple task. The streams and springs that feed Alexander River are located in the Palestinian Authority and unfortunately, there are no controls on the wastes and effluents dumped into the streams. The Yad Hannah Sewage Purification Plant deals with the polluted water before it reaches Alexander River, but although the plant was built about six years ago, it is already too small to deal with present-day needs, largely because of the constant population growth in the Palestinian Authority. We need to invest IS 15,000,000 in upgrading it. We are also conducting some amazing experiments with water recycling that we hope to expand. All this is a joint effort. We are very grateful to KKL-JNF - our main partner - and hope that KKL-JNF's support will continue."
In 1995, a masterplan to restore the river was put together and implemented by the Emek Hefer Regioanl Council and KKL-JNF thanks to the generous support of KKL-JNF Italy. The quality of the river's water was vastly improved and wide areas around the banks were preserved for recreation and sailing. In 2003, the Nahal Alexander restoration project won first prize in the Australian International River festival competition.