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Palestinians in Jordan Valley Fear Annexation Would Choke Off Their Villages

by ace
Palestinians in Jordan Valley Fear Annexation Would Choke Off Their Villages

AL JIFTILIK, West Bank — Hamdan Saeed rises at 5:30 each morning to sell hot coffee to Palestinian and Israeli motorists along Route 90, the main highway through the Jordan Valley, a resource-rich borderland in the occupied West Bank.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s push to annex the area has him worried that he could lose his livelihood if his tiny farming village is blocked off from the road.

“We have no idea what annexation would mean for us, because nobody is telling us anything,” Mr. Saeed, 49, a father of three who makes around $20 a day, said at his makeshift coffee stand on a recent blazing hot morning. “Who knows if I’ll be able to come here?”

Palestinians in the Jordan Valley have been left in the dark about how annexation would affect them. Many worry that it could block them from their farmlands, prevent them from getting to their jobs in Israeli settlements and choke off their villages behind walls, fences and checkpoints.

Mr. Netanyahu has vowed to begin the process of annexing parts of the West Bank as soon as July 1, encouraged by the Trump administration’s proposal for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The unilateral annexation of occupied territory has been widely condemned by other countries as illegal.

While Mr. Netanyahu has not released his plan, he has promised to include the Jordan Valley, a 620-square-mile farming region that would give Israel a permanent eastern border abutting Jordan. Mr. Netanyahu considers the valley a nonnegotiable requirement for Israel’s security.

He has suggested that he would carve out Palestinian villages, which would “remain as Palestinian enclaves.” Israel would not “apply sovereignty over them,” he said in an interview with an Israeli newspaper last month, but would retain “security control.”

Presumably the enclaves and their residents would be connected somehow to a larger Palestinian entity in the West Bank, but Mr. Netanyahu has not explained how such a system would work, and his office declined to comment.

But Mr. Netanyahu’s pledge has fueled concerns among Palestinian residents that they would be confined to isolated islands.

“What he’s saying is we should be put in small bird cages,” said Hazem Abu Jish, 53, a convenience store owner in Furush Beit Dajan, a village in the northern Jordan Valley. “How can we live like that? What if I need to go to the hospital in Jericho for an emergency? Will I no longer be able to drive there in a half-hour?”

Jihad Abu al-Asal, the Palestinian Authority’s governor of Jericho and the Jordan Valley, said that Mr. Netanyahu seemed to be willing to jeopardize Palestinian communities to advance annexation.

“He thinks we are like pawns,” Mr. Abu al-Asal said in an interview. “He thinks he can do whatever he wants with us to achieve his goals. What he wants to do is to formally institute an apartheid system.”

Mr. Netanyahu has said he would not annex the Jericho area, home to more than 40,000 Palestinians. A conceptual map in the Trump administration’s proposal leaves Jericho under Palestinian control, as does a map Mr. Netanyahu proposed when he first promised to annex the valley last fall.

The valley, which Israel has controlled since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, comprises approximately a quarter of the West Bank and lies hundreds of feet below sea level. Outside of the Jericho region, it is inhabited by about 12,000 Palestinians and 12,500 Israeli settlers.

Israeli authorities already prohibit Palestinians from building on most of the territory and deny them access to large parts of it, over half of which has been declared a closed military zone, according to Peace Now, an anti-settlements group.

Palestinian villages in the Jordan Valley regularly face power outages and receive far smaller allocations of water than neighboring settlers, according to several Israeli nongovernmental organizations.

“They give more water to the fruits and vegetables than the people,” said Ibrahim Obayat, the mayor of the village of Fasayil, referring to Israeli farms in the area.

Israeli officials say they are not to blame for shortages of water and electricity.

Danny Tirza, a former Defense Ministry official who worked on zoning issues in the West Bank, said the local utility, the Jerusalem District Electricity Company, has not renovated its infrastructure and does not purchase sufficient electricity from Israel to cover Palestinian demand there.

He blamed the Palestinian Authority for the water shortage, saying it has refused to work with Israel to advance projects that would benefit both Palestinians and settlers. The Palestinians, alongside most of the international community, consider the Israeli settlements to be illegal.

Whoever is at fault, farmers in the valley fear that annexation will only make matters worse.

Abdo Moussa, 29, a farmer from Al Jiftilik, said Israeli authorities have squeezed Palestinian communities in the area for decades by cutting off their access to land and providing inadequate services.

“It’s always been that Israel wants the land but not the people,” said Abdo Moussa, 29, a farmer from Al Jiftilik. “They’ve tried encouraging us to leave our land by refusing to grant building permits and barely giving us enough water and electricity. I’m not sure the situation can get much worse, but I’m afraid they’ll find a way to do so.”

Momen Sinokrot, the managing director of Palestine Gardens, a date exporting company near Jericho, said the prospect of annexation adds another challenge to his business, which has already faced a number of complications this year.

“It’s been a tough time,” he said at his packing plant. “We had a trade conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian sides in February, then the coronavirus came in March and now we are dealing with annexation.”

He worries that annexation could require the placement of a barrier between his packing plant and suppliers scattered throughout the Jordan Valley. “This issue is creating a lot of uncertainty for us,” he said.

Shaul Arieli, a former Israeli negotiator who specializes in maps and borders, said that he did not expect Israel to implement any annexation immediately, but that authorities could eventually decide to erect a barrier separating the Palestinian enclaves from the rest of the valley.

Despite the overwhelming pessimism about the prospect of annexation, some Palestinians in the area did not rule out the possibility that it might benefit them.

Raed Bani Fadal, 35, a worker at an Israeli date plant in the Netiv Hagdud settlement, said annexation might open the door to permanent residency, the status afforded to Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. He sees that as an improvement over the current military occupation.

“It might mean they have to pay us higher wages and allow greater freedom of movement,” he said. “If I’m right, I hope they annex right away.”

The Palestinians in the Jordan Valley who feel most anxious about the ongoing annexation discussions are Bedouin shepherds — several thousand of whom live in tin-roofed tents in encampments that Israel considers illegal.

“They have been practicing annexation against us since 1967, trying to deny us all the basic needs of life,” said Abdel Rahman Bisharat, 71, a resident of Al Hadidiya, a Bedouin village that is accessible only by a rocky dirt road. “We now fear they will try to expel us from our land.”

In Al Hadidiya, water is so scarce that residents can take showers only once a week, he said.

Israel has not said whether it would expel shepherds in unrecognized villages if it annexes the Jordan Valley, but Mr. Arieli predicts they would likely be “the first casualty” of the process.

Mr. Bisharat, however, said his family would not accept relocation.

“We refuse to leave,” he said. “We were born on this land and we will do everything we can to stay here.”

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