Thursday Aug. 5, 2010 9:25 AM (EST+7)
Jordan Valley’s potential remains locked under Israeli restrictions
By KIERON MONKS
Read more: agriculture, Jordan Valley, Area C, Area B, settlements, settlers, colonies, colonization, displacement, forced displacement, trade, import, export
JORDAN VALLEY, August 4 (JMCC) - The most resource-rich area of the West Bank is also its poorest and least developed.
Struggling under restrictions typical of West Bank areas controlled by Israel, the Jordan Valley has an unemployment rate of thirty percent.
For generations, farmers in the Jericho and al-Aghwar governorates rimming the West Bank side of the Jordan Valley have worked the rich land for its dates, herbs and citrus. But since the 1993 Oslo Accords designated 60 per cent of the land as Area C -- under Israeli military control -- farmers have found the environment increasingly hostile.
Bassem Fuqa of Fassayil village was once one of the largest landowners in the region, growing a range of herbs and vegetables.
But after peace agreements with Israel, his 3,000 dunums were halved, confiscated by military settlements and military fire zones. His land is encircled by Israeli settlements, whose residents, along with the military, repeatedly raid his property.
Through an interpreter, Fuqa tells me that 450 of his date trees were destroyed, and that his electricity column was knocked down for being constructed illegally. He relies on an ever-diminishing supply of water from Mekorot, the Israeli water company, and has been arrested four times in the last year, most recently for being too close to the settlements.
Fuqa explains that neighboring farmers were forced to leave through similar harassment.
“I will never leave as long as I am alive,” he says defiantly, but the pressure is taking its toll.
Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib says Israeli policies in the Jordan Valley are designed to drive Palestinians from their land. Since 1967 when Israel occupied the area, its population of 300,000 shrunk to some 50,000 -- by far the lowest population density in the West Bank.
Settlement expansion here has been so rapid that the World Bank estimates that a population of just 10,000 settlers controls some 50 percent of farmland in the Jordan Valley. Eight military settlements are excluded from this data.
Key to the takeover is monopolization of water resources. Settlers in the Jordan Valley use an average of 13 times more water than their Palestinian counterparts, according to Peace Now statistics. Regulations in Area C dictate that any construction requires Israeli permission, which is granted so rarely that farmers are effectively banned from digging their own wells or springs. The supply from Mekorot, beside its exorbitant cost, is barely adequate for drinking needs, let alone crop irrigation.
A short drive up the road in Jericho, it is a different story. Ibrahim Manasra has a thriving date farm, largely because his water source lies just a few feet inside areas under Palestinian control.
“We got lucky,” he says. “I had to show the Israeli DCO [military authorities] aerial pictures to prove it,” he recalls. Now he has few problems with the military, and plans to open a new processing plant in September.
Support for farmers like Fuqa is scarce.
The AIX group, a network of Israeli, Palestinian and international economic experts, has been lobbying both Israeli and Palestinian ministers to allow economic development of the Jordan Valley.
Saeb Bamya, AIX’s chief Palestinian coordinator, believes progress relies on “political will,” without which Palestinians in the Jordan Valley “will face a catastrophe within the next decade.”
In 2009, the group argued in a paper that the Palestinians, Israel and Jordan should coordinate to maximize the region’s resources.
“Mutual interest is the key,” says Bamya, “cooperation can reflect the interests of all parties. But the Israeli government believes they can use everything for themselves, with all the agricultural land exploited by settlers.”
Just four percent of the Jordan Valley is currently cultivated by Palestinians. This is an appallingly low figure given the ideal growing conditions, and indicates just how much of the region has been rendered off-limits to Palestinian farmers.
AIX research has shown 50,000 dunums of cultivated land could generate one billion dollars of high-quality vegetables annually, which could then supply the Israeli market at favorable rates.
Nevertheless, Bamya says that dialogue with Israeli ministers and officials have given him no reason to believe they would support such an initiative.
PRESSURE, BUT FROM WHERE?
Saeb and Al Khatib argue that only international pressure can prompt Israel to change its practices.
Fathi Khdirat, head of the Jordan Valley Solidarity group, disagrees. He feels Palestinians “must work on the ground directly.”
He is distrustful of NGOs and donor groups, believing they “ignore Palestinian issues and work with illegal Israeli regulations.” Khdirat supports the regeneration of agriculture through the planting of year-round crops and better regional co-operation.
In the past year, both the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers have made statements embracing the Jordan Valley. Both are aware of the huge economic potential waiting to be unlocked.
But while Israel’s restrictions continue to paralyze the region, it will deliver just a fraction of that potential. That’s good news for settlers, who can make the most of the resources, but for Palestinian farmers and businessmen, this “bread basket” will keep delivering crumbs.