An abandoned hydroelectric power station founded in the Jordan valley in 1927 serves as a vestige of regional cooperation; an environmental group is now collaborating with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian planners to preserve the historical site – a process fraught with obstacles.
By Keshet Rosenblum | Sep. 12, 2013

“Why hasn’t the train arrived yet?” screams out the graffiti carved into one of the pillars in the train station in Naharayim, in the northern Jordan Valley. It was written on April 1, 1939, two years after the station was officially opened. There are other messages scrawled on the walls of the white train station. One of them was written by the adolescent daughter of the manager of the nearby power station in February 1946. Another was scribbled on the wall in 1943 by a British soldier serving with the unit that maintained the railroad stations and tracks in British Mandatory Palestine. Jordanians passing through added graffiti in Arabic. One particularly boisterous group of schoolchildren, apparently when their teacher was not looking, inscribed their impressions of the “big school excursion” that passed through the station at some point in its history.

The hydroelectric power station that Pinhas Rutenberg founded in Naharayim in the northern Jordan Valley and the adjacent buildings are interwoven with the history of the relations between Jews, Arabs and British in the Middle East. Although the station was a project of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine, it was an integral part of the entire Middle East at a time when development and economic feasibility were factors that took precedence over regional conflicts. The infrastructures of electricity, transportation and water were interconnected during the British Mandatory period in Palestine and transcended borders, extending from Medina in Saudi Arabia to Damascus and Palestine. Since May 1948, when Israel became an independent state, the site has been abandoned and the structures there serve as fossilized testimony to a different epoch. Nonetheless, plans have been formulated in recent years for revitalizing this site.

Rutenberg built the Naharayim power plant in 1927, four years after establishing the Israel Electric Corporation. Its construction was financed by money provided by private investors and raised on the London Stock Exchange. His professional background in hydroelectric engineering helped Rutenberg in the selection of the site for the plant: the confluence of two rivers, the Jordan and the Yarmoukh (hence the name, Naharayim, which means “two rivers” in Hebrew). It was the first hydroelectric power plant in the Middle East, using the energy created by the difference in water levels and by the pressure of the water, which was to be channeled through a system of dams. It is reasonable to assume that today’s environmentalists would take a rather dim view of a project that involved the rerouting of two rivers and the introduction of huge quantities of concrete; nonetheless, Rutenberg’s vision of electrical power for the Jewish state-in-the-making illuminated all of British Mandatory Palestine within only five years. When the power plant was inaugurated in 1932, its capacity was 18 megawatts; by comparison, electric power consumption in Israel today is close to the country’s optimal capacity of 13,000 MW.

Initially, the electric power that was generated served most of the country. When additional stations were built, the power from Naharayim flowed primarily to Haifa, the settlements in the Jordan Valley and the royal court of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. The individuals who attended the official opening of the Naharayim power station bespeaks the level of regional cooperation that existed then: the British High Commissioner for Palestine, Sir Arthur G. Wauchope; the British Resident in Amman, Colonel Henry Cox; Emir Abdullah, the great-grandfather of Jordan’s current king, who bears the same name; and Rutenberg. This was the first of four electric power stations that Rutenberg planned to establish along the Jordan Valley and the only one that was actually constructed.

The structure of the power station was influenced by what was fashionable at the time in the world at large. Thus, the station had a rounded, almost delicate, façade with windows placed close to the roof. Like other power stations in British Mandatory Palestine – including Haifa A and Tel Aviv’s Reading Power Station, built shortly afterwards – the floor in its turbine room had black and white tiles. Alongside the power station was the “White House,” where Rutenberg stayed whenever he visited the site. It was a modernistic cottage built of white concrete cubes. The structure, which included an office, bedrooms and a dining room, would later be used by high-ranking dignitaries such as Abba Eban, King Abdullah and Golda Meir (the latter two met at the site just before the British Mandate in Palestine was about to expire and Israel was about to declare its independence). The building survived Israel’s War of Independence of 1948 but was destroyed in the War of Attrition of 1969. The blueprints for the power station, the “White House” and the train station, which was built later, were apparently drawn up by the Haifa architectural firm of Benjamin Orel and Yehezkel Zohar.

Clearing the minefield

The train station is a small concrete structure that provided some measure of protection from the sun to passengers waiting for the train. In front was a room in the shape of a half-circle containing the ticket office; at the side was a large awning supported by three central pillars. Despite its simplicity and functionality, it was an attractive structure; because of the circumstances surrounding its erection, it was not replicated anywhere else in the country.

The train station operated for less than a decade, until the bridges leading to it were blown up by the Palmach (the elite unit of the Haganah, the main Jewish underground in British Mandatory Palestine) during the Night of the Bridges – a Haganah operation that demolished all roads and railroad bridges in Palestine in June 1946. The heating-up of the confrontation between the Jews, Arabs and British signaled the end of the entire Rutenberg project in Naharayim. The site was captured by the Jordanians during the War of Independence, its employees were taken prisoner and the station closed down permanently. In the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, it was agreed that the eastern portion of the site, which included the power station and the residential structures, would be annexed by Jordan, while the Island of Peace, which included the train station, would become a buffer zone under Jordanian sovereignty and would be accessible to the citizens of both countries (there are separate visiting days for Israelis and Jordanians and thus no interaction between the visitors from either country). In a terrorist attack in March 1997, a Jordanian soldier opened fire on a group of Israeli teenage girls who were on a school visit to the site; seven died in the attack and six were wounded. Following the attack, King Hussein of Jordan stationed Bedouin guards to replace the Jordanian ones at the entrance gates.

The immense power station operated for only 16 years; it ceased operation when the Israeli-Jordanian border cut the site in two. In recent years, however, there have been signs of life on both sides of the site: the paving of paths, the removal of mines and the provision of easy accessibility to the site. For over five years, the Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME) has promoted plans for an ecological revitalization of the area and the preservation of its historical structures, including the transformation of the railway station into a small museum. These plans have faced difficulties and repeated delays, products of bureaucratic, military and security obstacles. Each step forward is subject to the vagaries of relations between Israelis, the Jordanians and Palestinians. Nevertheless the plan is moving ahead slowly and initial steps have been made.

“We are working toward the creation of two parks on either side of the border, in the hope that conditions will later develop for the creation of a joint Israeli-Jordanian site,” explains Gidon Bromberg, Israeli Director of FOEME, which has been operating in the region since 1994 and which focuses on water and environmental issues that transcend borders.

FOEME is collaborating with Yale University’s Urban Design Workshop and Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian urban planners and landscape architects, who have come up up with an ambitious plan for a multinational park, including hotels. However, Architecture Professor Alan Plattus, founder and director of the Yale Urban Design Workshop, admits that no progress has been made at the architectural level. At this stage, the project in Naharayim is being conducted as two separate projects, while the dream for a joint Israeli-Jordanian park is still a distant vision.