ERETZ The magazine of ISRAEL No. 96 November-December 2004

The Lure of The Trail
The pioneers of Israels hiking tradition

A recent article in Israel stirred up a controversy with the declaration that Meir Har-Zion and Rahel SvoraI had never really taken their famous hike to Petra in 1953. The article stated that the people who had followed in the footsteps of Har Zion and SvoraI and started Israel hiking tradition were just a reckless bunch of thrill seekers.
Yadin Roman met with the legendary Israeli hikers and tells their story.

by Yadin Roman


Meir Har-Zion, the most famous fighter in Arik Sharons Unit 101, which operated in the 1950s, does not usually speak to journalists.  Rahel SvoraI, his partner on the hike to Petra. On the other hand, could not contain her anger when she heard herself called the perpetrator of a hoax.  She wasnt concerned about her own honor, but the honor of those who lost their lives on the some of the legendary hikes that had been cast in doubt.

  She wasnt the only one who was upset. The pioneers of Israels hiking tradition were equally angry.

 The Beginning

Israel's hiking tradition began in the 1920s, When Zev Vilnai, Yosef Braslavsky, and David Benvenisti first organized hikes for the Histadrut (The federation of labor). At the same time, the first biology and nature teachers - - Moshe Karmi, Menahem Zaharoni, and Eliezer Shmueli began to infect their students with the hiking bug. Karmi introduced the idea of the annual class hike. He knew the local teacher and muktar (village head) in all the Arab villages, and they would host Karmi and his group. One of his students was Rahel Svoari.

   Shmuel SvoraI, who operated a nature room at Kibbutz Mahanayim, suggested to Vilnai that the pursuit of Land of Israel lore to be returned into a profession, combining hiking, guiding, nature study, archeology,, and history. In the 1930w, nature lovers associations founded by German immigrants sprung up in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

  The big hikes to the Negev were a tradition started by the palmah in the 1930s. These hikes were led by a group of people known as Sayarim (scouts), individuals with amazing knowledge of the land. Hillel Birger, who turned topography in Israel into science: Rehavham Gandy) Zeevi; Avi Zakai, the Negev Brigades chief scout; geographer Menashe  Harel, and Shmarya Gutman, of the Palmahs Arabic department; who led youths to Masada, turning the desert cliff into national symbol.

  In 1945, the first group of Sayarim marked the first hiking trail in the land of Israel from Bethlehem to Ras feshha, overlooking the Dead Sea. As a result of their weeklong expedition Birger developed a system of marking trails in the Land of Israel.

Faculty of Agriculture Hikes

"Before the establishment of the state of Israel, we would take the train somewhere and start walking from there," says Shlomo Gazit. "That was part of the curriculum. When the War of Independence began, we all joined Palmah." After the war, Gazit enrolled in Faculty of Agriculture of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He and other Palmah veterans

began to organize hikes. "We would go on Long treks during holidays," he recalls.

  "In 1951, the group set out on its first major hike to the Negev. Our destination was Ma'ale Akrabbim (Scorpions' Ascent) and the Large Makhtesh. The second hike was to Sdom an Ein Gedi."

 

  After the success of the second trip, the group of hikers grew. They decided to set out on a wild adventure during their 1952 university vacation:  a l0-day journey along the Egyptian border stretching from Nitzana to Eilat. This was completely unknown territory for Israelis - the Wild West from a security standpoint.

  General Moshe Dayan, then the OC Southern Command, provided the group with weapons.

 At Mt. Harif, they encountered Bedouin smugglers. A gun battle ensued and one of the hikers was wounded and evacuated. Opting for a safer route, the hikers followed the riverbed of Nahal Faran to the Arava and walked down the Arava to Eilat.

   "After the great Negev trip, we lost patience for excursions with large groups," says Gazit. "Arik Megger and I decided to embark on a series of hikes along Israel's borders. We hiked the entire coast, from the Gaza Strip to Rosh Hanikra. Then we hiked the borders with Jordan and Egypt. We were amazed that we had covered the entire country, and then someone said, 'Next year - Petra.' "

  Megger, of Kibbutz Ein Iron, was the group's spiritual father. With wild hair and beard, broad shoulders, and a wide smile, he was a hippie born before his time. When the War of Independence broke out, he joined the defenders of Beit Eshel, surrounded by the Egyptian army, and then joined the Palmah in its battles in the Negev - even though he had not enlisted in the army because he refused to take an oath that could obligate him to act against his principles. He, too, felt that he had seen all there was to see in Israel and that Petra was the next objective.

Passing on the Torch

Yigal Haskin represents the young generation of hikers who fought in the War of Independence. He had participated in the legendary hike along the Egyptian border. After five members of the hiking group were murdered while attempting to  make their way to Petra, Haskin decided to establish a hiking club in their memory. "The members were all from the moshav movement," he says. "We founded a club based on the model ~ of the Faculty of Agriculture group." The club continues to operate today.

  The Palmah scouts had grown up in youth movements. "In the movement, the hikes I became a tradition," says Yossi Feldman, who today heads the Council for the Preservation of Buildings and Heritage Sites. "We were members of the youth movements in the Palmah's formative years. In the seventh grade, we hiked from Tel Aviv to Nazareth. Nothing scared us." Like Feldman, Ze'ev Meshel was born in 1932 and missed out on fighting in the War of Independence by a year. "We were the generation that passed on the hiking tradition from the Palmah generation to the hikers of Israel's early days," he explains. He knew many of the Palmah scouts and turned to them often for advice.

  Meshel, Micha Livne, and Oded Katzman were appointed youth movement counselors in Holon. From a small apartment that was assigned to them in Jaffa, they planned the movement's most ambitious hikes. In the first year, 1953, they followed the routes they had inherited from the Palmah. Then they developed their own plan, which was followed for many years and included hikes to the Judean Desert, the makhteshim, and Eilat.
 

Petra, the Red Rock

"I don't care if they say we didn't go to Petra, but don't speak ill of those who fell," Rahel Svora'i declares. "Of course we were in Petra," Har-Zion laughs. "The path we followed was recorded in my diary, which was first published in 1960," The book was recently reprinted.

  The idea of going to Petra enthralled young Israelis in the early 1950s. Svora'i and two of her Palmah comrades, Gila Ben-Akiva and Aviva Rabinovitch, also caught the bug. One day, in the Kibbutz Ein Harod dining room, Svora'i heard that one of the kibbutz members had hiked from Bethlehem to Ein Gedi. His name was Meir Har-Zion. She realized immediately that he could help her fulfill her dream and asked him to hike to Petra with her. He promptly agreed. Two weeks later they set out.

They hitchhiked to Scorpions' Ascent, reaching it by evening. There they heard that a car was going to set out in the direction of Eilat the following morning from Ein Hatzeva, 20 kilometers away. They walked to Ein Hatzeva, reaching it in time to hitch a ride to the Public Works Department base in Be'er Menuha. The head of the base, Danny Har Habayit, gave them a room where they could leave some of their gear while they continued their hike. They didn't tell him, or anyone else at the base, where they were heading.

  "We had only a compass and a map on a small scale, but that was definitely enough to find our way to Petra," Har-Zion recalls. That night, they crossed the border into Jordan, and headed toward the mountains of Edom on the eastern side of the Arava. They rested in the foothills of the mountains and checked the map by the light of a match, but couldn't find the path that appeared on the map. They slowly made their way forward in one of the ravines. "The ravine ended at a wall. We tried to ascertain our location using the compass and the stars and quickly realized that we had lost our bearings."

  The only way to continue was to climb the wall of rock. After an hour and a half of climbing; they reached a rocky hollow and decided to stop. Exhausted, they quickly fell asleep.

  They woke in the afternoon. Using the compass, they worked out a route to follow for the afternoon and night. The area appeared completely deserted, and so they decided it would be safe to continue in the twilight. They set out at 5 p.m. and found a path leading to the top of the mountain. It then led down into a riverbed, past three waterfalls, and to a large pool full of water. "We were sure that Petra was around the bend," Svora'i remembers.

  They decided to wait until later that night to continue. At 1:30 a.m., they started moving again. The path they followed led to a wall of rocks, which they climbed, reaching the top by daylight. As they descended the mountain, a herd of goats approached them. They moved close to the rocks, waiting nervously for the herd, and a second one that followed it, to pass.

  Finally, the valley of Petra opened up in front of them. "We entered Petra in broad daylight," says Har-Zion. "We were facing the section where huge monuments were carved into the cliffs, rising above us like strange, amazing giants."

  Startled by the cry of a baby, they hid in a cave, waiting until it was almost dark to continue to explore. They headed north for several kilometers, avoiding the guard post, until they found a path leading west. Suddenly, they heard voices and quickly dropped to the ground, watching two armed Bedouins with a heavily laden donkey pass by.

  In the dark they made their way down a steep slope to the top of a cliff. Here they stopped to sleep. In the daylight, they saw a small stream below them, winding through colorful rock. Carefully descending the cliff, they followed the riverbed to the west. After encountering another Bedouin, they decided to hide and wait until evening to continue. In the evening they pressed forward, reached the Arava, and continued across it for another five hours. When they stumbled upon a sign reading, "State of Israel, Ministry of Agriculture," they realized that they were back in Israel.

  Four months after their return, in September 1953, the Faculty of Agriculture group organized another hike. Arik Megger, Miriam Monderer, Eitan Mintz, Ya'acov Kleifeld, and Gila Ben-Akiva set out for Petra.

  "We don't know exactly what happened to them," Svora'i says. "A snake apparently bit Eitan and they decided to turn back. When his situation worsened, they decided to turn themselves in to the Jordanian police at Bir Madhkur. The police shot and killed them as they approached and their bodies were returned to Israel the following day."
In April 1956, Dror Levi and Dimitri Berman tried their luck. Jordanians discovered them and opened fire with fatal results. Levi was killed and Berman, though wounded, managed to return home to Israel.

  That spring, a memorial to the hikers was erected in the Arava. But their deaths just strengthened Petra's pull. A few months later, in March 1957, Menahem Ben David, Ram Pragai, Kalman Shelef Shlafsky, and Dan Gilad set out for Petra. All four were killed by the Jordanian Army. The last tragedy led to an Israeli law against hiking over the border.

  Bedouins in the Arava were recruited by the Jordanians to follow Israelis trying to hike to Petra. In November 1987, they killed Amiram Hai and Mordechai Tuvi. But in 1960, Kushi Rimon and Victor Friedman came up with an idea to go to Petra and return to Israel safely: In a jeep and disguised as UN personnel.

  "In all, 12 hikers were killed on their way to Petra," Svora'i says. "When the peace agreement with Jordan was signed, Israelis flooded to Jordan and Petra was - and still is - the main attraction for Israelis."

  Following the signing of the peace agreement, ends of the hikers who were killed in September 1953 organized a special trip in their memory. At the police station near the spot where they were killed, a ceremony was held and a memorial erected, closing a circle, Svoari recalls. "We felt as if our friends were with us, finally fulfilling their dream".


         

 
 
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