Report From Israel, 1957 – Part Five


Jerry F, Going Postal
Map of Israel.
Unknown artist, reproduced with permission

In 1957 my uncle, John Alldridge visited Israel for the Birmingham Mail. This is the fifth of his reports. – Jerry F

Eilat, Gulf of Akaba

You can’t go home (they said) until you’ve bathed in the Red Sea…

And as I have a quaint ambition to swim in every sea and ocean before I die, I caught a plane at Lydda and flew the 190 miles due south to Eilat, on this disputed Gulf of Akaba.

The flight takes slightly less than an hour. But during those sixty minutes you fly over Moon-country. Over a barren land that descends in a series of giant steps five hundred feet at a time. Until you are looking down on the deepest, wildest, cruellest valley in the world.

Nothing human could live down there, you say; down there among those knife-edged cliffs and dried-up watercourses. And even while you are saying it you see a cluster of tin roofs winking up at you, where yet another group of indomitable pioneers has got a foot firmly inside nature’s front door.

Then you are skidding across the roped-off dust bowl that is laughingly called Eilat Airport. And as you come blinking out into the sunshine again the heat hits you like the blast from an oven door. And is it good to run the hundred yards or so to the beach and get into the water!

You float on your back on that crystal-clear water and watch your feet swinging like a compass needle. Now they are pointed dead across the Gulf at that sandy gap in the mountains which marks the beginning of Saudi Arabia.

Now, turning lazily through a twenty-degree arc, they cover the white cubes and palm trees of Akaba, over there in Jordan. Swing fifteen degrees west and there is Israel straight ahead.

Spin like a top, so that your feet are where your head was, and you are directly in line with Egypt.

So there you are, bobbing like a cork, out there in the middle of that long bottle-neck they call the Gulf of Akaba. You feel horribly naked and alone out there, where four disputing nations, lying too close for comfort, have their eyes on you.

But you can see now why they call Eilat Israel’s Back Door; why that incredible oil pipeline, popping up out of the sea like a startled sea serpent, comes ashore here to start its fantastic 200-mile crawl to the Mediterranean.

Eilat has been part of Israel since May, 1948, when a company of Israeli infantry camped out on the beach and ran up the Star of David.

But for eight years it has been entirely cut off by the Arab blockade from the East African and Far East trade which rightfully belong to it. The six-mile strip of sand and rock on which it stands is picketed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Ships bound for Eilat have had to run the gauntlet of guns located on Tiran and Snefir at the mouth of the Gulf where it becomes the Red Sea.

Guns have been known to fire, just for the fun of it, on British shipping bound for the ancient, decaying Jordanian port of Akaba, just across the water from here. (Those guns are not very effective just now. A raiding party of Israeli commandos saw to that last November).

All the more exhilarating, then, to see that pipeline crawling ashore. To see a hardy community of pioneers growing up on the sun-drenched foreshore of the Gulf.

This is a border town in the old tradition of the Wild West. Ten miles up the road, the law ends. From then on you travel in convoy. Up in those knife-edged mountains lurk bandits as merciless as any Apache.

Eilat has a sheriff, too: a genial Dutchman who may not look like Wyatt Earp, but is just as quick on the draw.

Yes, Eilat is a border town. But a border town without the honky-tonks, the Last Chance Saloons and the gun-play. It is a highly moral little town, as strait-laced as Aberdeen.

The speed with which it has grown would be staggering in any other country but Israel, where such mushroom growth is commonplace. Last November there was nothing here but a jetty and half-a-dozen fishermen’s huts.

Today, on the very edge of stark wilderness, several hundred people, most of them from Tel Aviv and the northern settlements, live in a new town in conditions that would not disgrace a good garden suburb.

A township that already has its small, air-conditioned hotel, its municipal garden, a marine museum and a brand-new community centre; where the citizens, after one year’s residence, live free of income tax for the rest of their lives; expectant mothers get a free air passage to Lydda so that their babies may be born in Israel’s best maternity hospital.

That jetty can now handle vessels up to 2,000 tons. And an aerial bus service flies you down from Tel Aviv after breakfast and brings you back again in time for tea.

Six months ago there wasn’t a tree in Eilat. Then Canada sent over vast quantities of Californian palm seedlings. Come back next year, they say, and we’ll show you a second Palm Springs…

I am holding in my hand as I write a piece of rock, heavily slashed with green. That rock came from Timna. And Timna, you may recall, was the ancient site of King Solomon’s mines.

Here a labour force of eight thousand slaves toiled under a merciless sun to mine the copper ore that went on camel-back to Ezion-Geber, a mile or so south of what is now Eilat. From there it went across the Red Sea to the markets of Zanzibar; to be exchanged for ivory, gold and precious stones.

Well, the mines of King Solomon, after being lost and forgotten for three thousand years, are working again. They are giving up ore with 2.4 per cent. copper content — which is a lot of copper.

And that isn’t all. In the Valley of the Slaves, where you can still see the remains of the slaves’ field kitchens, they are building a whole new factory, with a crushing plant and a sulphuric acid distillery, capable of producing 90 tons of acid a day.

By this time next year they will be ready to export a high-grade copper cement to Far East markets, like Japan, that are crying out for it.

But before they can deliver they must first get it up that bottleneck, the Gulf of Akaba. They must get it past those guns. Let Nasser threaten as much as he likes; let UNO fret and chide. You can take it from me that copper will get through, somehow…

Down here they talk about “Eilat Fever.” It has something to do with the air, which is so hot and dry that after a time it has the same effect on you that drinking a bottle of champagne would have on top of Everest. You feel nine feet high. Permanently happy-drunk.

In that state of exhilaration anything can happen. When the time comes for the cork to pop out of the bottle-neck the report is going to be heard right round the world…

Reproduced with permission
© 2024

Jerry F 2024