Sharing a tiny peace of land

An ambitious new project hopes to tap into Jordanian-Israeli potential and bring 250,000 visitors to the Naharayim area each year.

Jordan bridge 88 224 (photo credit: Michael Green)
Jordan bridge 88 224
(photo credit: Michael Green)
The last few weeks have seen Israel celebrating 60 years of the state's independence, marking the success of the Zionist movement's aim of settling and building the country. But in one corner of the country, architects, environmental activists and community leaders are hoping to turn the clock back six decades. More precisely, to flood the land and return it to its previous ruler: Mother Nature. It's been exactly 60 years since water last flowed through the Rotenberg hydroelectric power station at Naharayim, which provided 40 percent of the electricity to Mandate Palestine from the time it opened in 1932 until it was destroyed in the War of Independence. The series of dams, canals, and a man-made island were built by Pinhas Rotenberg, an immigrant from Russia, under a unique agreement with King Abdullah I of Jordan, to harness the power of the Jordan River where it meets the Yarmuk River. The power station's huge concrete structures are still standing but, like the narrow polluted stream that flows through between the rivers' banks, it is a shadow of its former glory. Today, the most action the place sees is Border Police jeeps speeding past. Standing over the polluted water that now flows through one of Rotenberg's canals is an Ottomon-era bridge on which Israeli flags flutter alongside those of Jordan, denoting the international border. The flags seem to be an unassuming sign of the potential waiting to be unlocked at the site. Instead of fences and checkpoints, two Jordanian Beduin border guards sit in their white hut on the eastern side of the bridge and welcome busloads of Israeli and international visitors into the Jordanian "Peace Island" - without the slightest glance at their passports. The site enjoys "special regime status" according to the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, a designation that means that although the island is technically Jordanian territory, Israelis can enter without having to remember their passports or obtain a visa. Apart from the novelty of being able to say "I've been to Jordan today," there's not much to see at the Peace Island yet, apart from a Jordanian military outpost and a view of the rivers and kibbutz fields. But an ambitious new project hopes to bring 250,000 visitors to the area each year by expanding the cross-border zone into a full-fledged "Peace Park." Conceived by regional NGO Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), and supported by the heads of the Jordan Valley and Beit Shean regional councils, as well as their Jordanian counterpart in Moaz Bin Jabal, a Peace Park would not only help conserve the environment by breathing new life into the ailing Jordan River, but also encourage tourism that would provide economic benefits for the Israeli and Jordanian communities. "An ecological project like this will surely have economic benefits. Jobs will be created on all levels," Abed Rahman Sultan, FoEME's Jordanian project manager, told a group of Israelis at the asphalt Peace Island standing in the shadow of a large Jordanian flagpole. Sultan noted that the nearby Jordanian village of North Shuna suffers from 40% unemployment and high migration to big cities due to a lack of economic opportunities. "We want to use the bubble of the Peace Island and expand it. Our vision is to re-flood the dry lake bed, which is a natural depression, to create a bird sanctuary, as well as building bicycle and hiking trails," head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council Yossi Vardi tells Metro. Vardi acknowledges that the site currently lacks attractions, tourist facilities or nature reserve status. But FoEME's Israeli director, Gidon Bromberg, predicts that a bird sanctuary would attract over 500 million migrating birds each year that can best be seen late at night or early in the morning, thus encouraging tourists to stay in the area overnight, which would boost income and foster social interaction. "The idea is to diversify income for rural communities beyond just agriculture. In the Galilee, 30% of the income comes from tourism and that's what we want to see here," explains Bromberg. "If fresh water flows in the Lower Jordan River, there is a huge potential for tourism that hasn't been realized," believes Mira Edelstein, from FoEME's Tel Aviv office. "We have found a common issue that brings Israelis and Jordanians together. That's the issue of the Lower Jordan River, which starts a few hundred meters from this office," Vardi said last week at the regional council's headquarters - which overlook the Sea of Galilee. Vardi spoke at the start of a four-day charrette, an intensive design event aimed at consolidating plans to revitalize the area, which included participants from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, their colleagues from Yale University's School of Architecture, and architects from Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. "The water has great potential, it's something that everyone can agree on, but tourism is a more sensitive slogan because people see it in different ways," says Shmuel Groag, architect and conservation consultant at Bezalel. "How do Jordanians see the heritage of Rotenberg as he was part of the Zionist project? And how seriously do they take the agreement with King Abdullah and interpret historical events?" The proposed Peace Park would expand the cross-border zone at Naharayim along to the Gesher, or "Three Bridges," site a few kilometers to the south. The buildings that formerly served as homes for the plant's workers would be turned into lodges, thus transforming the power station into a tourist attraction. Gesher has served as a crossing point over the Jordan River for thousands of years, and includes ruins of bridges built by the Romans, the Ottomans and the British, as well as an unused train station from the erstwhile Haifa-Damascus railway line. But since 1948, neither people nor vehicles have crossed the river at the site. The faded white Bauhaus style of the station's long roof bears a surreal resemblance to the trademark curved balconies of many Tel Aviv apartments, serving as a reminder that the borders of the Middle East were once more fluid than they are today. In addition to the area's ecological sensitivity, the remnants of historical events and previous rulers of the land also pose a challenge for the designers of the Peace Park. "The site doesn't reveal itself easily, there are fragments of stories standing tantalizingly out there, often unfinished. We need to do justice to the complexity, not simplify it," says Alan Plattus, a professor of architecture and planning at Yale. "There is a lot of fragmentation and tension at the site, it's dangerous to try and connect it all in a transparent envelope. To try and 'beautify' it would [make it] lose its authenticity," agrees Groag. "Coming from [other parts of the country], people see the outside as picturesque, but we know there are tensions on the inside. It's not just an architectural project, it's about finding the meaning of the place."