Jordan valley, desert for Palestinians, lush land for Israelis

September 17, 2013
Sarah Benton

A news report by JK D’Amours is followed by a more detailed report from IRIN.

Once fertile Palestinian farmland in the Jordan Valley, the water source now diverted by Israeli settlers. Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler

Politics eats into Palestinian breadbasket

By JK D’Amours, Inter Press Service
September 14, 2013.

JIFTLICK – In the Jordan Valley, contrasts are stark. Lush green agricultural fields and fenced-in greenhouses belong to the Israeli settlements that dot the landscape and benefit from the area’s abundant water supply on one hand. On the other, Palestinian farmers denied access to their lands and other resources by the Israeli authorities struggle to cultivate the most basic crops and make a living wage.

“It’s a struggle for the farmers,” Palestinian farmer Ahmad Said Moahri told IPS from his home in Jiftlick, a Palestinian village in the Jordan Valley. “The farmers lose money sometimes by farming the land, but they cannot leave or Israel will take it.”

The 46-year-old owns 47 dunams (47,000 square metres) of agricultural land in Jiftlick. He harvests vegetables – eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, and more on 27 dunams, and rents the remainder to another local farmer.

While Moahri earns between 15,000 to 20,000 shekels (4,200 to 5,600 dollars) annually through farming, he said that for five months each year, between September and January, he takes on a second job to support his family: packaging Israeli dates at a factory in Massu’a, an illegal Israeli settlement near Jiftlick.

“From the beginning, when the settlement was established, Israel gave them everything. There is no government support [for us], but in the settlement, there is,” said Moahri, who is paid 10 shekels (2.80 dollars) per hour, and makes between 12,000 to 14,000 shekels (3,400 to 4,000 dollars) each year from working in the settlement.

According to a report published by the Maan Development Centre, 1,800 dunams are allocated to agriculture in Massu’a, and the settlement produces eggplant, pepper, zucchini, cucumbers, watermelons, melons, and dates.

“The geographical location of settlements in the Jordan Valley has been determined by the important potential agricultural growth in the region. In addition, these agricultural settlements were established and maintained as export-oriented settlements,” Ma’an reported.

Map by the Economist. See Notes and links

The Jordan Valley constitutes nearly 30 percent of the West Bank; 87.5 percent of this area is located in Area C, which falls under complete Israeli military control. Today, some 9,300 Israeli settlers and 65,000 Palestinians live in the Jordan Valley.

Palestinians are prohibited from accessing almost 95 percent of Jordan Valley, as half the land is being used by Israeli settlements, and the Israeli army declared another 45 percent as closed military zones, which are off-limits to Palestinians.

The Jordan Valley is known as the Palestinian breadbasket, as most of the West Bank’s arable land is located there. In a 2010 report, the World Bank stated that if Palestinians could access 50,000 more dunams of land and additional water resources in the area, they could earn approximately one billion dollars annually.

This economic potential is not lost on Palestinian, or Israeli, leaders.

As the “peace talks” between Palestinians and Israelis continue, the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership has once again stated that the creation of a Palestinian state is impossible without control of Jericho and the Jordan Valley. “We are committed to that. We have said that more than once,” PA President Mahmoud Abbas said on Aug. 16.

The Israeli government, on the other hand, views the Jordan Valley as an important security buffer separating it from Jordan, and provides generous economic support to its settlements and settlement industries operating in the area.

In contrast, the PA government in Ramallah has done very little to support Palestinians in the Jordan Valley. The PA has never allocated more than one percent of its budget to the agricultural sector, and between 2001 and 2005, over 85 percent of that budget went to paying PA salaries.

The overall contribution of agriculture to the Palestinian GDP dropped from around 13.3 percent in 1994 to 5.7 percent in 2008, according to a report released by Al Shabaka, the Palestinian policy network.

“The support we get as farmers in the Jordan Valley is less than what we need. The government does not care about the agricultural situation. Agriculture was damaged because the (Palestinian Authority) neglected it. They didn’t change their strategy,” Moahri said.

Moayyad Bsharat heads the Jericho office of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, which supports Palestinian farmers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He told IPS that because it is bound by the Oslo Accords agreement of the early 1990s, the PA is unable to support the most marginalised Palestinian farmers working in Area C.

“The first (solution is) to end the Oslo agreement. The solution in the Jordan Valley is political, 100 percent. We are talking about rights. The farmers want to go to their natural resources – the land, the water and the cultivation – and these things will not be done on the ground without a big political solution,” Bsharat said.

In the meantime, Israel aims to force Palestinians to leave the area, and exploits the resources and economic potential of the Jordan Valley, Bsharat added.

“The Israeli settlements have three million palm trees in the Jordan Valley, which gives yearly millions of shekels to the Israeli government. They have the grapes, flowers… all these things are exported. It gives it a lot of national income for Israel,” he said.

For farmer Ahmad Said Moahri, making a living from agriculture in the Jordan Valley is a struggle, but he sees his work as a form of resistance.

“I love the land and our home is here. For this reason, I cannot leave the land. There is not a day that I won’t visit, or look at, or take care of my land.”

The IDF force a family of Bedouin cattle herders out of their tent in the Jordan valley as they declare the area a closed military firing zone. Photo from To Palestine in Solidarity blog, see Notes and links.

A precarious existence in the Jordan Valley

By IRIN news
January 01, 2013

AL-JIFTLIK — For those who recently watched images of the Israeli bombardment in Gaza,[November 2012]  the wide open hills of the Jordan Valley in the West Bank appear as a stark contrast.

Flocks of sheep accompanied by their herders cross the hillsides, home to some of the most fertile land in all of the occupied Palestinian territory and unrivaled even in Israel.

And yet despite the abundant land and resources, Palestinians living in the Valley are some of the poorest in the Palestinian territory, lacking even the most basic infrastructure.

The Jordan Valley is marked by a patchwork of zones in which Palestinians are allowed to live, which leave little room for manoeuvre.

“These restrictions have removed their ability to be self-sustaining. They are in an artificial humanitarian crisis; they have the capacity, the training, the education, but because of man-made restrictions, they are made vulnerable,” Ramesh Rajasingham, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in oPt, told IRIN.

For a start, much of the Valley is officially out of bounds to Palestinians – 44 percent is marked as closed military zones (including so-called firing zones) and nature reserves. An additional 50 percent is controlled by Israeli settlements, regarded as illegal by many in the international community. That leaves only 6 percent for Palestinians, according to figures from Save the Children.

A second layer of restrictions reinforces this exclusion: Under the Oslo peace accords, 90 percent of the Valley was labeled “Area C”. In this area of the West Bank, Israel retains full civil and military control, enabling it to restrict Palestinian movement, construction and development projects.

“A few years ago, communities in Area C were self-sustaining; they could trade, sell produce, graze their animals, and move around freely,” said OCHA’s Rajasingham.

Many of the Bedouin farming communities in these zones predate the Oslo accords and the firing zones (set up in the 1960s), but they now find themselves increasingly excluded or living a precarious existence.

Left: Ein al-‘Uja spring in better days. Photo, Itamar Grinberg, August 2004. Right: The dry ‘Ein Uja spring today. Photo by Eyal Hareuveni. See B’Tselem report, Notes and links

Most Palestinians there live without sufficient access to clean water, while Israeli settlements nearby have plentiful water supplies subsidized by the Israeli government.

Within the firing zones, more than 90 percent of the Palestinian communities are water scarce with access to less than 60 liters per person per day.

Food security in Area C is 24-34 percent for the shepherds, many of whom live in the firing zones.

Military operations

Overlooking the Valley are multiple Israeli military bases.

Army vehicles speed down the roads during the day, artillery fire echoes from nearby, while at night military helicopters circle overhead.

Seven weeks ago during the eight-day bombardment in Gaza, tanks, army jeeps and military camps were in the Valley as part of a training exercise carried out by the Israeli army, which their spokesperson’s unit told IRIN was necessary to “prepare for various security scenarios”.

They added that it was important for “intruders” to “be kept clear from the military areas. for the security of both soldiers and Palestinian civilians.”

“The army came and said ‘if you don’t leave this area for the training exercise, we will demolish your houses. You must go to Tayasir, which is far away from here,” Eid Ahmad Musa al-Fakir, a 68-year-old herder from the village of Hamamat Al-Maleh, told IRIN.

“It was hard for us to go there with our sheep and our belongings and it’s now winter, we don’t have so much money and the animals are breeding. So we moved just a short distance away to the roadside.”

In preparation for the military exercise, the Israeli army issued more than 40 eviction orders to Palestinian families in the northern Jordan Valley living in or near Firing Zone areas.

A number of Palestinians returned to their homes, but Al-Fakir and his family are unsure of when they will go back: “The army told us that even if the training exercise is over, we should not come back. Here by the roadside it’s hard for our animals to graze, but we are afraid to return and find that we have to move again,” he said.

Firing zones

This displacement and others like it this year have left Palestinian families in the area reporting a “general environment of fear and uncertainty, particularly among children”.

Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories did not respond to interview requests for specifics about the recent military exercise.

Some 5,000 Palestinians, mostly Bedouin and herding communities, live in designated firing zones across the West Bank, according to OCHA

Palestinians living in firing zones are among the most vulnerable populations in the West Bank with little access to services such as health care and education, and no basic utilities like electricity and sanitation.

Access to firing zones is prohibited to Palestinians without permission from the Israeli authorities and cover about 18 percent of the land in the West Bank.

Residents in these areas are frequently issued with eviction and demolition orders even though “many residents report that there is little or no military training in areas where they reside,” according to an OCHA report.

Where Palestinians have tried to construct, they face opposition from the Israeli government.

Permit regime

The Israeli permit regime, which some analysts say contravenes international law, makes daily living in Area C even more difficult for Palestinians as they are required to apply for permits to construct structures like water cisterns, latrines and houses.

Permits are rarely granted, forcing Palestinians to forego them and risk demolition.

Israeli settlers are freely allowed to build greenhouses in the Jordan valley. Photo by Thom in Palestine, see Notes and links

All these restrictions and layers of regulation make daily life in the Jordan Valley precarious.

According to the Ma’an Development Centre, an independent Palestinian development and training institution, “Israel has carried out more demolitions in the Jordan Valley than anywhere else.”

OCHA’s factsheet on Jordan Valley settlements says that in 2011 alone there were 200 demolitions of Palestinian structures, including homes, resulting in the displacement of 430 people.

In some instances, a building is demolished by the Israelis, rebuilt by Palestinians and then demolished again.

Israeli settlers on the other hand are given financial assistance by the Israeli government to encourage settlement expansion.

The settlement of Tomer, south of the Palestinian village of Fasayil, specializes in the production of dates.

According to the Ma’an Development Centre, the settlement has become “a flourishing community with a modern infrastructure, prosperous industries, and reliable social services” as a result of “tax breaks, grants and other benefits.”

By contrast, “[Palestinian] homes in Fasayil are made of tin, plastic and mud” and the community has faced four waves of demolitions since January 2011.

There are 10 Israeli settler communities partially or completely in the firing zones of the West Bank, though they almost never face threats of demolition.

A strategy of control?

Many in the Jordan Valley see military exercises in firing zones as well as repeated house demolitions as an Israeli strategy to empty the land of Palestinians and confiscate it for further settlement expansion and agricultural production.

“This is a mountainous area, with [Israeli] people scattered across the place. Their purpose is to make us all leave so that they can take it for themselves,” Fatima Abid Aouda Soraiya Fakir, one of the women displaced from the village of Al-Maitah, told IRIN. “They are afraid that we will become established here if we stay, like the village of al-Aqaba which now has schools and clinics.”

Al-Fakir, the Palestinian from Hamamat Al-Maleh, agrees. “The army wants everyone in this area to move,” he said. “It’s happening slowly and over time, but they definitely do not want us here.”

But the spokesperson’s unit for the IDF said all structures erected in closed military zones were illegal.

Chris Whitman from the Ma’an Development Centre agrees that the recent exercise is a method for Israel to consolidate its power in the valley.

“To have people who are outside the system, herding and moving around is [taken as] a form of defiance,” he told IRIN.

“So Israel makes sure these people know the boundaries; makes sure they are not connected to water or electricity; ruins the area with artillery so that the animals cannot graze; and gives them the idea that their existence is temporary.”

The IDF declined to respond to these allegations.

Whitman added that Palestinians in the Jordan Valley have become increasingly impoverished over the past 20 years.

Those that have family elsewhere, or can afford to, may eventually choose to leave for larger towns or cities. But many rely on their animals for survival and cannot move elsewhere.

The Palestinians in Al-Maitah say that despite their recent experience, they are staying put.

“We are here now and we just want the Israelis to leave us alone,” Ahmad Eid Soraiya Fakir from Al-Maitah told IRIN. “We are willing to live in any condition if we have to, but we will not leave.”

Notes and links
A dry bone of contention, Economist, November 2010
When the Jordan Valley numbers made sense., Thom in Palestine, a blog by a member of the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment team in Palestine, November 2011 – February 2012
Settlers and army collude in ethnic cleansing: photo journal, To Palestine in Solidarity blog, 2011
The Jordan valley: a microcosm of the Israeli occupation, factsheet, PLO December 2011
Dispossession and Exploitation: Israel’s Policy in the Jordan Valley and Northern Dead Sea, B’Tselem, comprehensive report

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