Jezreel Trail: From Ginegar to Balfouriyya

The KKL-JNF Jezreel Trail: Section no. 18

Before setting out we recommend that you call KKL-JNF’s Forest Hotline (Kav LaYaar) at 1-800-350-550 for any updates, such as closures due to extreme weather and any information that may be relevant to your route.

To the reservoir scenic lookout (Tel Par)

A good path leads downhill from the road and turns southwards, heading directly towards the fields of the Jezreel Valley. After about 700 meters the path passes by a reservoir with a small eucalyptus copse at its southern end, where two memorials stand in the shade. One is dedicated to the memory of pilot Yoel Kosta, who fell at this spot on August 19th 1951, and the other memorializes pilots Shai Dinur and Yuval Holzmann, whose Cobra helicopter crashed in the nearby fields of Kibbutz Ginegar on September 10th 2008.

Yoel Kosta took part in the battle of Mutilla, near Moshav Almagor. The Syrians had seized control of a demilitarized area, and for five days the Golani Brigade’s 13th battalion, under the command of Rehavam Zeevi (“Gandhi”), and another reserve battalion were involved in a battle with the Syrian force that ended with forty-one soldiers killed and scores injured. The political echelon forbade the use of planes in a demilitarized area, but Meir Amit, in his book Head to Head, relates that 2nd lieutenant Yoash Chatto (later Colonel Yoash Tzidon), who was the air aid officer, went over everyone’s head, obtained four Spitfires and ordered them to open fire “by mistake.” The planes performed a number of dry runs, on one of which Yoel Kosta opened fire, and the Syrians withdrew. Kosta was tried and reprimanded.

Our trail crosses Nahal Mizra gully (Wadi Ashlul al-Khawaja), which is one of the tributaries of the Kishon River, and makes its way between areas of field crops. Note the trail markings here: shortly before we cross the gully the trail turns right and then left, and after the crossing it makes another double turn, first to the right and then to the left. About a kilometer after crossing the gully, the trail turns to the left, makes its way through an olive grove, turns right between an olive grove and an unirrigated field and then turns left and ascends as it crosses an area of cleared stones to a hill with an old reservoir at its summit (map grid reference 113, marked on the map as “Tel Par”).

The reservoir scenic lookout

From the top of the small hill we have a splendid view, initially westwards, towards Mount Carmel. Afterwards the trail crosses to the southern side of the hill beside the reservoir wall, and there it reveals the landscapes of Mount Gilboa and Givat HaMoreh. We are now standing at the top of a volcanic tel. The basalt rocks both here and throughout the valley belong to the lower basalt formation (Middle Miocene, i.e., about 15 million years ago), which burst out of cracks and lower volcanic mouths. The basalt layer is hundreds of meters thick in some places: the Gideon 5 drilling site to the west of Afula descended for 630 meters into the basalt layer without reaching bottom.

On the KKL-JNF Jezreel map the hill is marked as Tel Par. Although this is the term used by Jezreel Valley residents, it is not the site’s official name. The name “Tel Par” was originally the Arabic name of Tel Yifar, which is where we are headed for. After the names committee gave Tel Yifar its name, the name Tel Par “wandered” over to this hill, and the error became an established fact. Perhaps the time has come to find an appropriate name for this site.

Ein Gideon

The trail descends from the reservoir hill and makes its way eastward among field crops and groves of almond trees. About a kilometer after the reservoir it arrives at a trench. Here we need to turn right and walk along the bank of the trench for about 300 meters until we reach Ein Gideon, which is part spring, part well, and which is completely surrounded by a round stone wall about 25 meters in diameter. The water is said to rise from a source seven meters underground. A small jujube tree (Ziziphus spina-christi) is growing beside the spring, but it cannot provide shade for this bare patch of ground. This may be the spot marked on PEF (Palestine Exploration Fund) maps as Bir al-Mawaleh (“the salt well”): the water from this spring is indeed bitter and brackish.

The Kishon Drainage and River Authority, which has provided a great deal of assistance with the KKL-JNF Jezreel Trail, placed large boulders in the trench beside Ein Gideon, and these can be used as stepping stones. After crossing the trench we turn to the right and continue to walk alongside it for another 600 meters or so before turning eastwards. After another 500 meters or so the path turns southwards towards the small hill about half a kilometer ahead of us. This is Tel Yifar (i.e., the real Tel Par).

Tel Yifar and the Balfouriyya Nature Reserve

Even when we draw close to Tel Yifar, we can barely see that it is actually a hill unless we turn towards the impressive monument that stands beside it and continue on to the end of the small spur. The view from here is magnificent. The Jezreel Valley is encircled by hills: here are the Nazareth Hills with the steep wall of Mount Precipice; over there are the Samarian Hills, and here are Mount Gilboa, the Menashe Heights and Mount Carmel. However, despite the beautiful view, the eye of the observer tends to focus on the small lake at the foot of the hill. It is surrounded by a small bog that is a remnant of the extensive marshland that covered hundreds of dunam here in the past.

The Balfouriyya swamp was notorious for being one of the most pernicious marshlands in the Jezreel Valley. In 1922, when the American Zion Commonwealth founded Balfouriyya (also spelt Balfouria), the large local swamp was drained. Iron pipes were laid in the ground to carry the excess water to the nearby Nahal Adashim stream, which flows into the Kishon River. Nonetheless, the heart of the swamp refused to dry up, and eventually even the most persistent of the Balfouriyya farmers despaired of trying to farm that particular piece of land, and it became a nature reserve – today the Balfouriyya Nature Reserve.

The special memorial that stands here, at Tel Yifar, rather than inside the community itself, is evidence of Balfouriyya residents’ close links to the site. The memorial consists of a giant rock on which Nahalal’s famous sculptor Mordechai Kafri (1920-2001) has carved the symbolic figures of a man and his mule-drawn plough, a woman in a dress and a young man who appears to be scattering seeds. One side of the rock bears a verse from the Song of Deborah, which records Barak Ben Avinoam’s victory over Sisera’s army, whose chariots sank in the Jezreel Valley: “Then he made him that remaineth have dominion over the nobles among the people,” (Judges 5:13). It is here, beside this monument, that the people of Balfouriyya hold their annual Memorial Day ceremony for IDF soldiers fallen in battle.

The Balfouriyya swamp has a history. Evidence of ancient settlement was found at Tel Yifar, and at the edge of the marshland a well whose sides date back to the Roman era was discovered. Today the well is dominated by an iron tower that during the First World War housed a vane pump installed by the German army to supply water to the Afula Railway Station, where it was used to fill the boilers of the Ottoman army’s steam locomotives.

In 1979 the remnant of the Balfouriyya swamp was declared a nature reserve, and today it provides a refuge for a variety of plant species, some rare, that were once typical of the Jezreel Valley. The Nature and Parks Authority surrounded the reserve with a fence in an attempt to perform the impossible task of conserving a variety of plants and wildlife in a tiny area of nature reserve surrounded entirely by farmland. Eventually it became clear that reeds were taking over the reserve. In an attempt to solve the problem, water buffalo from the Hula Nature Reserve were introduced to the site to munch on the meadows and keep the grassy vegetation down. These animals, however, tended from time to time to escape from the reserve and roam the valley expanses, and so they were banished by the Nature and Parks Authority, much to the disappointment of visitors.

The eucalyptus grove

About 250 meters to the east of Tel Yifar is a large eucalyptus grove that was planted by the founders of Balfouriyya. In late January and early February the ground of the woodland is covered in a huge carpet of anemones in a whole range of different colors; these join the blue lupins (Lupinus pilosus) and yellow asphodel (Asphodeline lutea) of Tel Yifar. A trail with transparent markings (i.e., two white lines with no color between them) marks the path to the woodland. There are carpets of anemones in the western section, but marked footpaths enable walkers to make their way among the trees without damaging the flowers.

The KKL-JNF Jezreel Trail reaches the edge of Route no. 60, continues for another 200 meters or so northwards, crosses the highway via a subterranean passage and continues southwards for another 400 meters or so, until it reaches the KKL-JNF sign on the bank of Nahal Tevet. Moshav Balfouriyya lies on the other side of the gully. The Jezreel trail continues to follow Nahal Tevet upstream to Tel Adashim, but our section of the path ends here.

The KKL-JNF Jezreel Trail

The KKL-JNF Jezreel Trail is a new, long footpath that is currently in the process of taking shape. The trail, whose main route is almost 100 kilometers long, passes through the principal sites in the Jezreel Valley and the surrounding hills: the Nazareth Hills, the Alonim Hills, Mount Tabor and Givat HaMoreh. Considerable portions of the route have already been marked out by the Israel Trails Committee, which has also produced a map of the area with marked footpaths on a scale of 1: 40,000. Subsidiary paths branch off the main trail, creating a network of some 200 kilometers of route – a veritable paradise for hikers and cyclists.

The creators of the KKL-JNF Jezreel Trail had a number of objectives in view. The main goal was to emphasize “Jezreelness,” an elusive concept that is nonetheless distinctly present in the area: it is compounded of historical foundations in the distant past, redemption of the land and draining the swamps, agriculture, nature and a human mosaic. The trail passes through both well-known locations such as Tzippori, Tel Shimron and the Balfouriyya Nature Reserve, and wonderful but less familiar sites such as Ein Gideon, The Alonim Springs and the subterranean hiding places of Khirbet Ruma.

The route is indicated throughout by orange trail markings. When our path follows a trail that is already marked as part of another route, an orange dot is added to the existing markings. The trail was planned by geographer and city planner Matanya Maya, who lives in the area. The Jezreel Valley Regional Council, KKL-JNF, the Kishon River Drainage Authority, the Ministry of Tourism, the Government Tourism Company, the Israel Trails Committee and the Nature and Parks Authority were all likewise involved in the creation of the trail.