Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat—The battle between the Palestinians and the Israelis over the West Bank’s Jordan Valley has recently erupted into a full-scale row, presenting a major obstacle to progress in the peace process.
When US Secretary of State John Kerry took charge of the Middle East peace process in August, he did not envisage that “the bottom of the world,” the lowest point on Earth not covered by an ocean, was so important, or that it would become a ticking time bomb at the negotiating table. He has since failed repeatedly to persuade the Israelis and Palestinians to agree to proposals to work out their differences over the Jordan Valley.
Palestinians say they will not give up a single square inch of the Jordan Valley, because it is Palestinian territory and is state’s gateway to the world. The Israelis, on the other hand, insist they will not withdraw from the area because it offers them strategic depth and a secure eastern border.
So far, talks appear to be inconclusive. Following more than 20 hours of negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, Kerry said that both sides were making “some progress” in the peace talks and believed reaching an agreement was still possible.
He added that “the remaining difficult options have become clear to everyone, but I cannot inform you specifically of the time when the final piece of [the] jigsaw will fall into place.”
Gateway to the world
Located in the West Bank, the Jordan Valley is 799 square miles (2,070 square kilometers) in area, 76 miles long and between two to nine miles wide, stretching from north of the Dead Sea in southern Palestine to Bardala, near Bisan, in the north. Around 50,000 Palestinians live in the area, while 7,000 Israeli settlers control most of its land. International law regards these settlements as illegal.
The region forms a third of the area of the West Bank, and it is one of the main sources of water for Palestine, forming 47 percent of its underground water resources.
During a short visit to the area, Fathi Khudairat, Coordinator of the People’s Anti-Settlement Committees and the official in charge of the “Save the Jordan Valley” campaign, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the Israeli interest in the Jordan Valley is equaled by the Palestinians’ desire to stay. It is the only place for the expansion of East Jerusalem and the only place where refugees can be absorbed in the event of their return.”
He added: “It is the only Palestinian gateway to the outside world, the backbone of Palestinian economy.”
As well as insisting that the area is necessary to ensure the viability of a future Palestinian state, critics of the Israeli position also allege that Israel’s desire to retain the West Bank’s Jordan Valley is motivated by more than security fears.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said on more than one occasion that Israel gains 620 million US dollars annually from Jordan Valley projects, and that Israel’s claims that it needs a security presence in the Jordan Valley are false.
Israel has established its largest palm tree plantations in the area, as well as fruit and vegetable plots and huge farms for poultry and cattle. Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley currently produce a considerable portion of the exportable agricultural produce from the area, producing 60 percent of the dates sold in Israel with the remaining sold for export, according to the World Bank. Interviews conducted with farmers in the Jordan Valley show that of the 300 packing facilities for agricultural products there, only two are run by Palestinians, who stand to gain a further 704 million US dollars a year if they are given more access to the farmland and water in areas currently controlled by Israel.
The Dead Sea, which is situated in the area and which contains valuable minerals including large deposits of potash and bromine, currently accounts for 4.2 billion US dollars in annual sales by Jordan and Israel. Six percent of the world’s potash comes from the sea, as well as over 73 percent of global bromine output.
A World Bank report has estimated that the Palestinian economy stands to make 918 million US dollars per year from Dead Sea minerals, which is equivalent to 9 percent of its 2011 GDP, and almost the size of the entire Palestinian manufacturing sector.
Tourism is another sector in the region from which Israel benefits. Despite Palestine being home to some of the most stunning tourist attractions in the world—the Palestinian Authority has submitted some 20 attractions to UNESCO for consideration as World Cultural Heritage sites—revenues from tourism are measly. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) estimates that the sector currently only contributes 3 percent of Palestinian GDP and some 2 percent of total employment. There are an estimated 3,110 archeological sites registered by the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in the Jordan Valley—247 of which are located in or around Israeli settlements—including the Qumran National Park, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found and which received 373,826 visitors in 2012, generating 2.05 million dollars for Israel. The potential to develop the Dead Sea coastline, opening the way for hotel and resort construction, is huge. Revenues from these projects alone could produce some 126 million dollars per annum, or 1 percent of Palestinian GDP in 2011.
A security problem
Some Israeli parliamentarians recently announced draft bills to annex the Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley and apply Israeli law to them. The bill proposes the application of the same governance and administrative laws to Jordan Valley settlements and the roads leading to them as in Israel’s pre-1967 territory.
The Palestinian government responded by holding a cabinet meeting in Ramallah to discuss the issue, and allocated millions of dollars to support the residency of Palestinians in the area.
Following the meeting, the Fatah Central Committee issued a statement condemning Israel’s Jordan Valley settlement annexation bill, denouncing it as “a crime against humanity, and aimed to undermine US and international efforts to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting resolution.”
Hamas also condemned the Israeli decision and said it was “a blatant aggression . . . which must be resisted and confronted in order to ensure its failure by any means.”
Israeli ministers predicted the bill would fail and be rejected by the Israeli government. Two ministers, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, said they would appeal the decision.
This was not the first step taken by Israel in the Jordan Valley. Decades ago, Israel implemented plans that displaced Palestinians from the area, and in recent years, Israel has attempted a number of experiments aimed at forcing Palestinians out completely.
The area was declared a closed military zone and a state territory, and lands were turned into settlements, factories, and military training areas. Local farmers and residents were banned from using their lands for agriculture, grazing or building. Israel disconnected water supplies from Palestinian areas and took control of the underground water resources, it demolished houses and isolated the area from the West Bank, and banned any visitors from entering the area.
But the former head of Israeli intelligence service Mossad, Meir Dagan, has dismissed claims that Israel needs to keep control of the area.
Dagan said: “I have no problem with a political demand for the Jordan Valley to be part of the State of Israel; it is a legitimate stance to take. However, I am greatly disturbed when it presented as a security problem.
“There is no Iraqi army, and there is no eastern front, and we have a peace treaty with Jordan. I do not like to speak about the Jordan Valley as a main issue for the security of Israel. It is a maneuver and an exploitation of the security issue [for political purposes], nothing more.”
Responding to Kerry’s recent proposals, which the Israelis also rejected, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Once the State of Palestine is established, we will not accept the presence of one Israeli soldier in the West Bank or the Jordan Valley, not on the land, in the sea or in the air, and not at border crossings.”
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that any Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would “affect the freedom of the operations of the Israeli army and will lead to the collapse of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ government.”
But Erekat stressed the Palestinian side’s belief in its right to the area: “Our peace will not be at any price . . . We have many rights: rights to water from the River Jordan, rights to a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the right of return of refugees.”