Tag Archives: Binyamin

Climbing Tel Givon

Olive grove growing on edge of Tel Givon. A polluted stream flows by.
Olive grove growing at the foot of Tel Givon. A polluted stream flows by.

Tel Givon may be one of the most important archeological sites in Israel, according to Professor Yoel Elitzur of Herzog College. He was guiding my class to sites connected to the prophet Jeremiah.

But first, we had to get there.

The tel sits within the original tribal lands of Benjamin, in Area A, on the Arab side of the security barrier. Although we had permission of the IDF to enter the security barrier, our visit could be canceled at any time, depending on of the situation. Nonetheless, Yoel was very excited to be leading us up the tel. The last time he had visited the site was forty years ago, when he had taken his son to see it. In 1977, relations between Arabs and Jews had been more casual and movement between Arab and Jewish towns had been easy. The intifadas and terror attacks had changed that.

We arrived before our 9A.M. appointment with the IDF at the entrance to Givon Hayishana (Old Givon). Meir Rotem, our local guide, talked about the history of the area while we waited for someone to come unlock the first gate in the security barrier.

In this area, the barrier is a twenty foot high wall, like the one seen on most newscasts from Bethlehem. The security road runs along the Israeli side of the wall. Closer to us, down a small hill, a barbed wire fence runs parallel to the road.

Almost an hour after we arrived, the Border Police pulled up. Two policemen got out of the armored car and talked to Meir and Yoel. After about fifteen minutes, the policemen walked up the hill to the barbed wire fence and unlocked the gate.

We walked to the open gate, but had to wait for the IDF to arrive before going through. Yoel spoke some more about the history of the Gibeonites. A half hour later we heard the IDF was on its way. We walked up to the road, and along the wall for about two kilometers, to where the security barrier changes from wall to an electronic fence. The security barrier is a chain-link fence fitted with electronic sensors, to detect penetration or interference with its integrity, for more than 95% of its length.

The security barrier between Area A and Area C, showing where it changes from fence to wall near Old Givon and El Jib (photo from Arab side)
The security barrier between Area A and Area C, showing where it changes from fence to wall near Old Givon and El Jib (photo from Arab side)

Soon a green IDF armored vehicle pulled up to the gate in the fence. Three soldiers got out and walked around as we all waited for Magav Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Border Police) to come unlock the gate, and then re-lock it behind us. After a while, they arrived in their light gray armored car. Two policemen got out. One of them unlocked the gate. The other border policeman and two IDF soldiers accompanied us as we—finally!–walked through the gate. They would accompany us for the two hours we remained in Area A.

We walked down a small hill, through some fields, across the valley and then began to ascend Tel Givon. The valley through which we walked is bordered by Nebi Samuil, which at 908 meters is one of the highest points in the Judean mountains. At the top of Tel Giv’on we would be on eye level with Nebi Samuil.

As we walked through the valley, past olive groves and fields being readied for planting, Arab cars whizzed past us on the road between Ramallah, Al Jib and Al Judeira. Part of the way, we walked along a small stream. It had rained in the previous week, so I wasn’t surprised to see the water flowing. Due to its geology many springs in Benjamin flow year round. I was surprised, however, by this stream’s sick green color and sewage smell. Israel has offered to build sewage systems in several Arab areas, but for political reasons, the Palestinian Authority has refused. I wonder if the people who live with these open sewers know that their own government is forcing them to put up with this stench.

After crossing the small stream by stepping on rocks that offered almost secure footing, we started to climb the hill. There is no smooth path, like at established archeological sites and national parks. We walked through olive groves on soft soil, and along ridges of cobblestone sized rocks. We scrambled up small cliffs, clinging to outcropping larger rocks, carefully placing our feet on the same rocks the person in front of us did. In some places, a more adventurous classmate would walk a little farther along the flatter area, and find an easier route up a ten-foot high cliff. A few times I gratefully grasped the proffered arm of a taller, more fit, classmate to ascend a particularly high gap between a stone and the more secure footing above. It was not an easy climb. We hiked for about forty-five minutes without stopping.

Our security escorts climbed with us. At least one of them was always the last person in our ragged procession. Often one of them walked ahead of us, scouting his own route. I noticed how they held their weapons. None of them let his rifle hang down his back for more than a moment or two. They weren’t wandering through a quiet national park or down the streets of Jerusalem for pleasure. They had been assigned to hike with us because their services might be needed. Or, perhaps, to ensure their services would not be needed.              

A shepherd in a red sweatshirt watched us scramble up one cliff and cross the path in front him to climb the next steep area. I envied the goats’ sharp hoofs that could enabled them to climb up and down this hill easily.

About two-thirds of the way to the top, we stopped to enter a first Temple period burial cave. All the bones had been removed more than two thousand

Arabic graffiti in a First Temple period burial cave on Tel Givon
Arabic graffiti in a First Temple period burial cave on Tel Givon

years ago, when the cave was converted to an olive press. The Arabic graffiti on the walls showed the cave was still in use. Yoel read some of the graffiti and translated into Hebrew: “Hamas yesodi.”  It could be translated into English more than one way: violence is fundamental or Hamas [the group] is primary.

Leaving the cave, we continued to climb. At the flat top, we saw several large circular excavations. The shallow one had been used to press grapes. Yoel pointed out areas where the grapes were pressed and the channels carved in the rock to collect the juice.

The larger excavation was much more impressive. It was very wide and deep. Hugging the interior wall, more than a hundred stairs led to the bottom. Yoel led a few energetic people down the stairs to see where the water had once collected. The first few steps were covered with small stones; they looked more like a steep hill of rubble than a safe slope. I remained at the top. Even though Yoel was dozens of meters below us, those of us at the top could hear his explanation of the water system. Even our security escorts hugged the fence at the top of the water system, listening.  

Our IDF security detail was interested in hearing about the ancient water system on Tel Givon
Our security detail was interested in hearing about the ancient water system on Tel Givon

The pit reminded me of the circular excavations with carved stairs I had seen at Megiddo and at Tel Sheva. Yoel compared this water system to them, mentioning that it dated from either the Canaanite or First Temple period. A nearby, shallower tunnel to the spring is dated similarly. Experts question which access was constructed first. Because the Palestinian Authority has not permitted complete scientific excavation of the tel, the question will remain unanswered.

The shepherd in the red sweatshirt wandered past on the ridge above us. Four Arab men gathered on the stone steps above us to watch and listen for a while. They soon left.

I did enter the more shallow water tunnel. It was totally dark, except for the flashlights of those in front and behind me. I wondered if joining this short exploration had been a mistake and hoped I wouldn’t trip. Keeping one hand on the cold damp stone walls gave me a small feeling of safety. The short trip renewed my appreciation of what our ancestors did to survive. Fetching water was often a job for girls in antiquity. That’s why so many ancient cultures tell stories about boys and girls meeting at a well.

At the other end of the tunnel, water ran out of the hill in a cement block trench, built by the British during the Mandate, 1919 to 1948. While listening to

Goats and sheep on Tel Givon
The goats and sheep that seemed to follow us on our climb up

Meir explain the British work, I looked up and saw goats, sheep, and the red-shirted shepherd standing on the bank we had just scrambled down. I wondered if he was following us, or his regular route with the goats took him on a path that just happened to cross ours.

As we turned to go back down the tel, it started to drizzle. Descending wasn’t as difficult as climbing been. No strong arms were needed to help any of us traverse a particularly steep spot. Balance was a challenge because the rocks were getting slippery.

The man behind me quoted something we’d been told in class, “this is ‘intermediate level’ difficulty.”

“Then I don’t want to see ‘difficult level’ difficulty,” I answered.

He grunted.”You have to remember. In a terrorist attack, ‘intermediate injury’ means the person loses only an arm or a leg.”

At the bottom of the tel, as I walked back across the fields, I heard shouting behind me. Arabs at the top were yelling and throwing stones at us.

“Don’t worry!” shouted Meir. “They are out of range. They won’t hit anyone.”

The line of stragglers behind me, still on the steep hill, kept up their steady pace. Our security escort, a short distance behind the stragglers turned and moved towards the rock throwers. The Arabs disappeared.

We only had to wait a few minutes at the barrier for the Border Police to come unlock the gate. But when we got back to the barbed wire fence we had to wait a while in the rain for the Border Police to come unlock the gate. Cold and wet, I climbed on the bus, grateful that the driver had turned on the heat.

It was three days before my overstressed thighs could navigate stairs and hills easily. But getting to see ancient Giv’on was worth the pain. 

Tel Giv’on is on the eastern edge of Al Jib on this map.

Neve Tzuf /Halamish: Fluff or Flint

Tegert Fort courtyard, Neve Tzuf. Near base of wall on right are iron rings to tether horses of British cavalry
Tegert Fort courtyard, Neve Tzuf. Near base of wall on right are iron rings to tether horses

Tzuf is the nectar made by flowers. It is sweet, evaporates on the wind, and is produced in such small quantities it seems insubstantial, l ike a bit of fluff. When a group of Jews moved into an old British Tegart Fort to found a new community about 30 km north of Jerusalem, they wanted to name their town Neve Tzuf. They believed this was the ancient land of Tzuf, where Saul went to look for his father’s donkeys. While here, he met the prophet Samuel, who anointed him the first king of the children of Israel.

Their evidence for this claim came from their surroundings. Eve Harow, our guide on this trip, explained that Arab towns throughout history have kept their names, many of which go back to the Talmudic or to older Biblical periods. The names have changed slightly because of the differences in pronunciation between Hebrew and Arabic and the need to transliterate them from one alphabet to another. Nonetheless, the old Hebrew name can be seen within the Arabic one. The Arab town closest to where the Jews wanted to build their community is named Umm Safa; the nearby wooded area is the Tsafa forest. The first Israelis to live here believed Umm Safa was the Arabic name for the area of Tsuf. The government declared that was not enough evidence to support naming the new Israeli town Neve Tsuf, and they named it Halamish (flint).

Hard unyielding rock like flint, sturdy and enduring, would seem to be the opposite of Tzuf. But in looking at the early history of the community, you understand that both groups gave fitting names to the settlers who founded it. The people may have looked soft and gentle like tzuf, but inside they were hard and tough like halamish.

The pioneers came to the area during the winter of 1978-79 and lived in an old British Tegart fort (usually misspelled as Taggart forts). These forts had originally been designed by the policeman Charles Tegart for use in India during British rule there. They were built to withstand prolonged attack. During the Palestinian mandate period, the British had built a line of Tegart Forts as military police stations along the Lebanese and Syrian borders to decrease Arab weapon smuggling. They also built forts in strategic locations in the interior. These stations were built of reinforced concrete and had storage for supplies and water to last a month. When the British pulled out of the country in 1948, some Tegart forts were used by Israel or Jordan as police stations or military outposts. Many were eventually abandoned. Today abandoned Tegart forts have been turned into museums, arts centers, and schools.

The first winter in Neve Tzuf was very hard; the Tegart fort was cold and uncomfortable. Some of the original forty families left. There was talk of abandoning the attempt to build a town here. By the end of two years, only six men remained, who by then lived in an abandoned shipping container. At a community meeting, the leader asked them individually to state if they wanted to stay or leave. One after another the answers came back. The result was unanimous—all were resolved to stay.

Today, more than thirty-five years later, Neve Tzuf/Halamish is a thriving town of 280 families. It is classified as a Yishuv, a community that has no shared economic basis. Although it is a mixed community, with religious and nonreligious residents, everyone is expected to publicly observe Shabbat. As Shifra Blass, who has lived here since the early 1980s, said, “Men have their heads covered, or not. You see women wearing long skirts, and women in shorts.” Nonetheless, there is a great deal of social togetherness, including the school that all the children attend. Although the largest proportion of residents is native-born Israeli, other townspeople come from Russia, South America, U.S, Australia, South Africa, and Europe.

Shifra also talked about relationships with their Arab neighbors, which were cordial for many years. Her teen-age son Shlomo had gone into business with the teen-age son of the muezzin in Deir Nizzam, less than 3 km away. The Arab boy recruited women to crochet kipot (skullcaps) using patterns from a book supplied by Shlomo, who then sold the kipot to his friends. The kipot were well made, colorful, and very popular. The business was so successful, they were able to export crocheted Israeli kipot to South Africa. When the First Intifada broke out in 1988, the business was no longer viable. Even if the women had been willing to continue to make kipot for the Jews, the PLO had killed the muezzin, and the Arab teen-aged business partner was now living with family elsewhere.

The highlight of the our tour of Neve Tzuf was our visit to the old Tegart fort. Part of the fort has been converted into a specialized high school for religious girls to study music. The school has been so successful, a second arts high school, for religious boys, is now being planned.

The other half of the old fort has been converted into a gan, a day care for young children. We arrived at closing time, and our bus became part of a small traffic jam: two cars and one bus trying to use a one lane street to a dusty parking lot.

The entrance hallway to the gan is narrow. The forbidding gray/beige cement walls are decorated with children’s drawings. Once inside, we turned to the left, and entered a large courtyard surrounded by classrooms. The courtyard and classrooms were brightly lit by the sun. The children were chattering in several languages, telling their parents about the day’s events. Some were walking, some were strapped into strollers. One of the teachers was grabbing each parent to give a reminder about an upcoming activity.

Gan (daycare) courtyard in old Tegert Fort, Neve Tzuf
Gan (daycare) courtyard in old Tegert Fort, Neve Tzuf

The courtyard was wonderfully large. It held standard day care equipment— climbing equipment, sand boxes, a large parking area full of colorful riding toys—and was partially covered by a large blue tarp to shield the children from the sun.

As we walked toward the other courtyard, to the right of the entrance, the director of the school stopped us. She was leaving and needed to show Eve how to lock the door when we finished looking around. Most of us on this tour were Americans, and we felt a cultural disconnect. The teachers and parents here did not know any of us, yet we had been allowed to walk in and wander around during the confusion and chaos of dismissal time. And then, we had been left to lock up for the day. What school in the US would allow such a thing?

Some of us went into the second, larger, courtyard. It was empty of equipment and furnishings. It was just an empty dusty area open to the sky. We noticed an unusual feature of one of the walls. Small iron rings were screwed into it at intervals. This was where the British cavalry had tied their horses.

As she locked the door, Eve commented that this building was an example of how we turn swords into plowshares. I looked up at the outside of the forbidding structure, and thought about the toddlers’ riding toys and bright pictures on the walls inside.

Swords to plowshares indeed.

Talmon, Out of the News

Hills of Binyamin from Talmon
Hills of Binyamin from Talmon

The first time I ever heard of Talmon, a small town in the Binyamin region, was last July. Its name appeared on the front pages of the newspapers almost every day because it was the home of Gil-Ad Shaer, one of three teenagers kidnapped by Arab terrorists. For almost three weeks, Gil-Ad, Ayal, and Naftali were constantly in my prayers and in my thoughts. When they were found in hastily dug graves in a dusty field, I cried. I had not known the boys, their families, or even their towns, but through 18 days of prayer they had become mine. I grieved over their loss and my heart went out to their families.

During the tumult of last summer’s events, the international press invaded the towns where the three kidnapped boys lived. They camped out in front of the families’ houses, waiting for any word, any hint of news. It was hot, dry, and sunny, as July always is. Reporters can be invasive and pesky, trying to get a jump on breaking news. People in Talmon brought the reporters cold drinks, water, iced tea, and juice. They opened their doors so members of the press could use the bathroom. Some people gave members of the press the keys to their houses, and left the air conditioning on all day so reporters could go in and cool off.

That was not unusual behavior in Talmon. A number of years ago, an Israeli motorcycle club that had the custom of touring the country every weekend had asked permission to ride through Talmon. They did not intend to stop or ride within the town, but because the town was built along the main road in the area, they asked if they could drive by. Dozens of motorcycles driving by would make enough noise to shatter the peace of Shabbat, and it was only right that they warn the residents they were coming. Imagine the motorcyclists’ surprise when they came up the hill and discovered a Kiddush set up for them at the side of the road. Wine and grape juice, cookies and cake, no doubt some kugel and fish as well, all for them to enjoy with the local community. It was not the way they were usually welcomed, but it was typical of Talmon hospitality.

Last week, on a One Israel Fund trip to the Binyamin region, I toured Talmon with Ofir and Bat-Galim Shaer, Gil-Ad’s parents, as guides.

Ofir Shaer describing life in Talmon, with  tour guide Eve Harow
Ofir Shaer describing life in Talmon, with tour guide Eve Harow

The Shaers got on our bus just inside the security gate at the entrance to the town. Like most Jewish towns in Binyamin, Yehuda, and Shomron, Talmon is surrounded by a security fence. Arab towns do not have fences. Unlike the Jews, they know they are secure and safe from attack by their neighbors.

Talmon was founded during a rainy winter 28 years ago. Its location was not deliberately chosen in advance. The government had given permission to build Neria, but on the way to the designated site, the truck carrying people and supplies became stuck in the mud. The next night another truck heading towards Neria became stuck in almost the same place. Since they could not travel any farther, the settlers built their new town right there. Neria, also known as North Talmon, was founded four years later.

Ofir took us into a neighbor’s backyard to point out the topography of the area. The view was breathtaking—it is easy to understand why people would want to live here. From where we stood, at an altitude of about 2000 feet, we could see the green hills descending towards the coastal plain. Ofir pointed out nearby Arab and Jewish towns. To the southeast we could see the outskirts of Ramallah; to the west we could see part of Modi’in and Kiryat Sefer. Further away a gray haze marks Tel Aviv. The city is visible on a clear day, which I learned is defined as “early morning in the winter.” Apparently, the fog rises around 7 AM and obscures the city and the sea. Many Talmon residents go to this side of town between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur to say Tashlich, the penitential prayer which is traditionally recited where one can see a body of water that has fish swimming in it. The sight of the Mediterranean Sea 40 km away qualifies these hills as good spots to recite Tashlich.

Water channel from spring to pool  in hills of Binyamin
Water channel from spring to pool in hills of Binyamin

Water supply is not a problem in the hills of Binyamin. They are situated over the mountain aquifer and are dotted with springs giving potable water. In several places, teenagers have built pools by the springs. These spring-fed pools have become gathering places. Later in the day, when we visited one, our guide told us that Arabs have destroyed this particular pool three times, and each time the Jewish teens have returned and cleaned it out, lined it with cement, and repaired the water channel. It was a lovely spot overlooking the summer-brown hills. As we returned to our bus, we passed three young men headed towards the pool.

For Talmon, electricity can be a problem, because they have no backup supplier. Some families have private generators, but most rely only on the Israel Electric Company. Ofir reported that after the bad snowstorm two years ago, they were without electricity for nearly a week.

Our bus drove through town, past the large elementary school. The playground was full of boys practicing basketball drills. After winding our way past the stone houses we drove past some temporary homes and into Neve Talmon where new homes are under construction. We passed two large signs advertising homes available for less than a million shekels. That is cheap for Israel, where three room apartments in some areas sell for more than a million shekels.

Front of synagogue to be named in memory of Gil-Ad Shaer when completed
Front of synagogue to be named in memory of Gil-Ad Shaer when completed

We stopped at the half built synagogue. The townspeople had started building the synagogue a while ago but after the events of last summer they decided to name it in memory of Gil-Ad Shaer. Bat-Galim reminded us that the name Gilad means memorial.When they named their only son, they put a hyphen in his name, so it would mean eternal joy. His life was a prayer and it will continue with the dedication of this synagogue.

We sat on the unfinished cement steps leading to what will soon be the Aron Kodesh and listened to Bat-Galim talk about last summer. She said she started to understand how Jews are one people, one family, and there is a connection among us all, both in the land of Israel and outside it. It was absolutely amazing–the whole

Bat-Galim Shaer
Bat-Galim Shaer

country was looking for three children who had not come home. People prayed for them; strangers came just to hug her. She saw the Jewish People at its best. There was a feeling of unity. Everyone wanted to be part of it. This unity of purpose and of love was the most important thing to come out of their family’s tragedy. The message that the People Israel is one is important, she said. There is a great need to continue to continue and to promote the spirit of unity among our people.

As if to emphasize her message about unity, as we left the synagogue, we all stood on the unpaved path in front for a photo of our group with the Shaers. I turned to hug Bat-Galim, and felt her warmth and strength as her arms pulled me close. Sometimes when trying to give support to others, I feel as if I have received more than I gave. Walking back to the bus, I wiped the tears from my face.

Where is Talmon?