Driving along the Jordan valley between Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee you pass a kibbutz called Gesher (Hebrew for bridge) because on the site of the original kibbutz was a bridge that crossed the Jordan river joining Israel and Jordan. Actually there are the remains of 3 bridges, one a Roman bridge built of basalt stone, one Ottoman train bridge and one British concrete vehicular bridge.
The el-Mujami Bridge (Arabic for meeting, the meeting of the 2 rivers) built in 1904 holds the record as the earth’s lowest railway bridge at 257.5 metres below sea level. The line ran from the port at Haifa following the Jezreel valley (hence in Hebrew, rakevet haemeq), with the last stop at Hamat Gader before joining up with the main part of the Hejaz railway. [The line was unused for decades until 2011 when a new standard gauge rail from Haifa to Beit She’an along roughly the same route as the historic valley railway was constructed and began passenger service in October 2016.]
One of the stops was Naharayim, the station in Bauhaus style, constructed near the hydroelectric power plant built in 1927 by Russian Jewish engineer Pinhas Rutenberg. Rutenberg (1879 – 1942) was also a canny businessman and political activist. He was involved in two Russian revolutions, in 1905 and 1917 when he was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks. Freed in 1918 he travelled via Moscow, Odessa, Constantinople, Marseille to UK and on to Palestine. He was a contemporary and friends with Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor and founded the Jewish Legion and was sent as an emissary to the United States. While in the US, Rutenberg completed a detailed design for harnessing Palestine’s water resources for irrigation and electrical power production.
[This is an interesting question that I was asked. “When were residents of Palestine first given citizenship?” Rutenberg became the first Palestinian citizen after the British had enacted a law creating Palestinian citizenship in 1925.]
Rutenberg endorsed the Labour party and cooperated with David Ben-Gurion. He was involved in the establishment of the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary during the British mandate period. He founded Palestine Airways which flew between Haifa and Lydda (today Israeli-Arab city of Lod, 15 km. southeast of Tel Aviv) 3 times a week. Shortly after it moved its base to the newly built Tel Aviv Airport (in 1940 renamed Sde Dov) and flew the Tel Aviv to Haifa route, even on to Beirut.
After submitting a plan to the Zionist movement for the establishment of 13 hydroelectric power stations and securing financing for the plan Rutenberg was awarded a concession by the British Mandatory government to produce and distribute electric power and in 1923 founded the Palestine Electric Company (later, the Israel Electric Corporation).
This site was chosen because it is the juncture of two rivers (in Hebrew, nahar is river, naharayim would be 2 rivers), where the Yarmuk river which runs along the border between Jordan and Syria flows into the Jordan river.
A zero degree canal connected it to the Sea of Galilee that could be used as a reservoir, to store excess water in winter to be released in drier summertime. Construction began in 1927 and continued for five years, providing employment for 3,000 workers. A model community, Tel Or, was built for the Jewish workers who supervised the plant on 6000 dunams of land in Jordan authorized by Abdullah in exchange for electricity.
Here is an incredible photograph of the Naharayim site taken by Zoltan Kluger in 1937 as part of a set of 40 aerial photographs of pre-state Israel commissioned by Zalmen Schoken for his 60th birthday.
Hydroelectric plan at Naharayim – Kluger 1937. Credit: National Library Photo Collection
In violation of international law and a November 1947 agreement between Golda Meir and Abdullah, the Arab Legion’s 4th Battalion launched a mortar and artillery attack on the Tegart police fort and Kibbutz Gesher on April 27-29, 1948. After protests to the British Mandate administration the shelling was halted – Abdullah was reprimanded for “aggression against Palestine territory.”
When an Iraqi brigade invaded Naharayim on May 15, 1948, in an unsuccessful attempt to take the kibbutz and fort, the power plant was occupied and looted – it never functioned again. To prevent Iraqi tanks from attacking Jewish villages in the Jordan Valley, Israel opened the sluice gates of the Degania dam and destroyed the bridges that joined Israel and Jordan.