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Asharq Al-Awsat Tours Jordan Valley as Israel Pushes for Annexation

Asharq Al-Awsat Tours Jordan Valley as Israel Pushes for Annexation

Saturday, 15 February, 2020 - 08:00
A Palestinian farmer packs courgettes at a field in the Jordan Valley. (AFP)
Jordan Valley – Kifah Zboun

Moving along the Palestinian-Jordanian border – the West and East Bank – we begin to understand the dispute over the Jordan Valley. The region holds security, political, sovereign, economic, water, geographic, demographic and even, existential significance.

Asharq Al-Awsat toured one of the world’s lowest points as the political and legal conflict over it rages with Israel threatening to annex the Valley and plunge thousands of Palestinians in the unknown. The calm in the area belies the tensions that have gripped the debate between Palestinians and Israelis ever since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to annex the area last year. The tensions were compounded after US President Donald Trump unveiled his Middle East peace plan, which gives Israel the long-awaited green light to annex the Jordan Valley.

We arrived in Ariha, located east of the West Bank, after passing though several checkpoints and settlements perched upon the mountains near Jerusalem. From Ariha, we traveled along a 90-kilometer road that took us to the Jordan Valley. We encountered almost no Israeli soldiers, except those manning the huge gate that divides the East Bank in Jordan from the Palestinian Israeli-occupied West Bank. Beyond the gate lies a closed military zone and we wasted a lot of time waiting to be allowed in.

Jordan is only a stone’s throw away. Two lines of barbed wire fence and a warning of landmines were the only barriers separating us from Jordanian homes, farms and lands. This separation still does not sit well with many locals, who prior to the Israeli occupation used to travel freely between Jordan and Palestine.

Hussam Sarghma was strolling through the area with his family. He told me that he was taking a risk by coming here, but was determined to do so to prove that the territory still belonged to them after the Israeli confiscated more than 37 dunums of land for security or military reasons. Israel often carries out military drills in the area, which on top of being a source of disturbance for the locals, is also an excuse for Israel to kick them out of their land.

Speaking of the close ties between the Jordanians and Palestinians, Sarghma recalled how his father and grandfather would have their dinner in Jordan, visit friends and relatives there, before returning to their home on the other side of the bank.

“We were here before the occupation and before these borders, fences and mines,” he declared. “They haven’t had enough. Now the Americans want to give them the region for free.”

Sarghma is one of millions of Palestinians who reject the US peace deal that hands Israel Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley and settlements. Annexing the Valley will lead to new legal arrangements for all those concerned. Palestinians seeking access into Israel must obtain a special permit and should the annexation happen, they will soon need one to enter the Jordan Valley.

The Jordan Valley accounts for 28 percent of the West Bank and stretches from the Red Sea in the south to the Bisan area in the north and from the River Jordan in the east to the foothills of the West Bank in the west. At 38 meters below sea level, the Jordan Valley is one of the lowest regions in the world. The 1993 Oslo Accords divided it into Areas A, B and C. The majority of the territories are within Area C.

Israel is not aspiring to annex the entire Valley. Ariha is not part of its plans. Netanyahu had said that he was seeking to annex 800 kilometers of the Jordan Valley, completely dismissing the Palestinians’ say in the matter. The annexation will take place in agreement with the American administration without the involvement of the Palestinians. Netanyahu also revealed that his interior ministry has even started drawing up new maps of the area.

‘Will they kick us out?’

Israel plans on annexing 36 settlements in the area, housing some 9,000 settlers. The area also includes some 5,000 Palestinians living in Arab localities, such as al-Maleh, Khirbet al-Homse, Kardala, Bardala, Khirbet Ras al-Ahmar, Ain al-Bayda and others.

One local, Ahmed al-Ayedi, who has been living in the area before the establishment of Israel wonders what will happen if the annexation goes through.

“Will they kick us out? I don’t know,” he told us. “Do you know anything?”

We told him that the Trump plan stipulates that no one will be forced out of their homes to which he asked: “Does this mean they will give us Israeli citizenship? Impossible. They won’t do that.”

His cousin then interjected, saying: “They will probably give us special permits.”

Many families in the region live off agriculture in the area, which is considered Palestine’s food basket. Contrary to Ariha, here you find green pastures for as far as the eye can see and thousands of dunums of high palm trees.

“We don’t know what will happen,” said one farmer working on his field. “We do, however, know one thing, we are here to stay. This is our land and we will not leave.”

Everyone Asharq Al-Awsat interviewed shared the same sense of confusion and wariness over what will happen. They expressed their doubts over the Palestinian Authority’s ability to rein in the Israelis. Many of us gave us a knowing smile when we asked them if they believe the PA had any power to do something.

Backbone of Palestinian economy

The PA had declared that it will not allow the annexation of the Jordan Valley, which is vital for the Palestinians. It provides 47 percent of its ground water, serves as its agricultural backbone and is the only gateway for Palestinians to the outside world.

PLO Secretary Saeb Erekat said: “We have 37 kilometers overlooking the Red Sea and 97 kilometers overlooking the Jordan River. We are entitled to the river’s water. Without this, there can be no peace.”

Despite these rights, Israel is working according to a methodological plan that aims to gradually rid the Jordan Valley of its Palestinian inhabitants and seize control of all of its resources. This plan has been in place since 1967.

The Jordan Valley boasts 17 wells, the majority of which are controlled by Israel and where it has established settlements. A recent Palestinian study revealed that 11,000 Israeli settlers in the Jordan Valley alone use up what 2.5 million Palestinians consume in water in the West Bank.

Faisal, a bedouin resident in the Jordan Valley, said his family sometimes cannot find drinking water. He pointed to the vast green pastures that have been taken up by the settlers “who have everything.” Water is not only used for drinking, but for irrigation and feeding cattle.

The stark divide between Palestinian and Israeli areas is glaring in the region. Settler areas are green and planted with palm trees. Cattle roam and fields are vast. Israel has planted over a million palm trees, developed vegetable and fruit pastures and set up poultry and cattle farms throughout. Arabs are strictly prohibited from accessing these areas. The Palestinians, on the other hand, lead a miserable life in arid territory where they are deprived of their water rights.

Strategic importance?

Israel has claimed that annexing the Jordan Valley will protect its eastern border. Netanyahu has alleged that the Valley offers Israel “strategic depth.” The Palestinians rejected his remarks, saying Israel only wants the region for economic purposes. Erekat added that Netanyahu wants the area because he wants to destroy the PA and eliminate their dream of statehood, revealing that Israel earns 620 million in investment there a year.

Palestinians further noted that Israel faces no threat from the east given its peace agreement with Jordan. Israeli officers have even noted that Israel has no security need to annex the Jordan Valley. A past strategy report also confirmed that the Valley offers no strategic depth for Israel. In fact, its low geography leaves it exposed to the nearby mountains, effectively making the Valley a deathtrap for any troops.

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