On our last full day as a united team, the group – led by the extremely capably Ephraim – ventured off on an expedition to visit a famous kibbutz and experience what like must have been like for the early Jewish immigrants to Palestine.
Before we experienced the kibbutzim, we travelled up a long windy road to the top of the Naphtali plateau where we visited the Belvoir Crusader castle. The Hospitaller fortress, built in the late 12th Century, overlooks the River Jordan and the Sea of Galilee. After the battle of the Horns of Hattin, Saladin’s forces besieged Belvoir where the Hospitallers managed to hold out for a year and a half. Saladin was impressed by the tenacity of the defenders and upon the castle’s surrender, he allowed the Crusaders to leave unmolested back to their homelands.
The castle, which is magnificent in its size and strategic position high above the Jordan River valley, is incredible and a must visit place for anyone venturing to Israel. After the quick visit, we then made our way to the first kibbutz where we would learn about the early Jewish migrants and their quest for a homeland.
Unfortunately, for the early Jewish migrants, Palestine wasn’t quite up to having a Jewish presence when European Jewish migrants began to show up in the Ottoman occupied territories. Numerous instances of Bedouin raids, sabotage and crop destruction forced Jewish migrants into collective communities, not only for protection, but also for financial security; independently a Jewish family could not afford the land, but in groups the potential financial power increased. Thus, the Kibbutz became an early form of self-sufficient outpost designed to feed and protect its inhabitants as they clawed their way towards the hope of a new future.
It was with a hope of a new future that Palestinian born members of the Jewish youth movement, HaNo’ar HaOved, established Kibbutz Gesher in 1939. The new Kibbutz was purchased with help from Edmond de Rothschild and Jewish migrants from Northern Europe soon made the place home. The Kibbutz was established right on the banks of the Jordan River and controlled access from Palestine into Jordanian territory. Because of its position, it was strategically a very important site in terms of commerce and access.
In 1948, after declaring independence, the State of Israel was attacked by the surrounding Arab countries. Kibbutz Gesher came under heavy fire from the Jordanian Arab Legion who used armoured vehicles and light aircraft to try and destroy the defenders. The attack was eventually repelled with the Legion’s forces suffering heavy losses. Despite suffering minimal casualties, the Kibbutz was destroyed during the hostilities and was eventually relocated 1km down the road and a museum that documents the history of the area was established.
While visiting the Kibbutz, we were given permission to access the militarised zone separating Israel from Jordan. Here we got to see for ourselves the bridges that had been blown up by the defenders of the Kibbutz to prevent the invasion of the Arab League. Not too far from where we stood, was a Jordanian observation post and we could see, much to our amusement, the Jordanian soldiers watching us through their binoculars!
Following our visit to Old Gesher, we then went to En Gev Kibbutz, a fishing kibbutz that also acts as a holiday resort. This hard working community sits on the tranquil shores on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. Here we were treated to a lunch of deep fried Galilean and Mediterranean fish. The experience of eating deep fried whole fish was somewhat sensational. Those not used to fish in general found the process rather nauseous and stuck with the chicken offerings, while those keen pescetarians among us, delighted in second and third offerings of the delightful fish platters.
From there we took a winding ride up the Golan Heights to Mt Bental. From our position on the mountain, we overlooked Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. This spectacular vantage point also serves as a military post in times of conflict and we were able to wander around the tunnels and trenches that protect the soldiers during hostilities. Back on the surface, as one looked into Syria, we were able to see the Syrian towns of Khan Arnabah and Al Qunaytirah.
Both these towns were subject to severe fighting in 2014 between forces loyal to the Assad government, the Nusra Front and ISIS. The towns and area now resemble little more than ghostly landscapes with no visible life and the shells of buildings dotted around the landscape. It really was startling to see the juxtaposition of Syria on one side and the developed agriculture of Israel bordering it.
This mountain also gave us clear views across to Mt Hermon and also across the Valley of Tears where the Israeli Defense Force fought off over 1,000 Syrian armoured vehicles (tanks and APCs) with only 175 Centurion tanks. This massive battle was a part of the Yom Kippur War, an event that occurred when the Syrian and Egyptian armies attacked Israel on its most holy day, the Day of Atonement. The battle saw the Israeli tank forces win the battle after four destructive days that saw their forces reduced to only 15 serviceable tanks run by a skeleton crew of injured men. Ultimately, the Yom Kippur war saw over 2,000 Israelis dead and some 7,000 injured in a battle to preserve their state.
After bearing witness to the sites of one of Israel’s most remarkable pyrrhic victories, we finished the day at the Golan Heights Winery. The winery, Israel’s 3rd largest producer of wines, has vineyards scattered throughout the region at various altitudes and microclimates that enable it to produce a range of delicious red and white wines. We were treated to a quick tour and a tasting by a fantastic gentleman who related ground-breaking and technologically innovative growing techniques that have enabled the Golan Heights Winery to put Israeli wines on the world map.
After the tour, some of us purchased some of the lovely beverages for the road which – given the two hour drive back to Jerusalem – made for some interesting toilet stops. Regardless, the trip was extremely enjoyable and I felt privileged to have been able to see so much of the Israeli cultural and military history in such a short space of time.