Israel-Palestinian talks: Why fate of Jordan Valley is key

Palestinian gathering dates

Rows of date palms stand sentinel across the vast, flat stretch of land along the border between the West Bank and Jordan.

The view is dotted by dozens of Israeli settlements and Palestinian villages.

This is the Jordan Valley, captured by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War, most of it now still under Israel's military and administrative control.

However the fertile, largely undeveloped strip - which makes up a quarter of the West Bank - would form an integral part of a future Palestinian state if the Palestinians have their way. Israel, on the other hand, says it cannot give up the valley for reasons of security.

Peace talks which resumed in August are being held in secrecy, but the fate of the valley is said to be one of the points on which Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are struggling to find a compromise.

At a Palestinian family farm in Jiftlik the date harvest is just finishing.

Teenagers reach up from a platform to shake the ripe fruits from each tree while their elders sort them into crates.

Map

The farm's owner, Hazaa Daragma, tells me his date production suffers because of the Israeli occupation.

"The Israeli farmer has more benefits than the Palestinian farmer," he says. "He has water and resources. He gets government services and marketing. He sells his dates to Europe. We can't export so we just get a low price in the West Bank."

Palestinian date farmers face a struggle to continue in the Jordan Valley

Israel controls all crossing points between it and West Bank, making it by-and-large not economically viable for Palestinians to directly export their produce. Many sell their produce to Israeli companies, or rely on just trading within the West Bank itself.

Hazaa's father, Majid, who is in his 80s, remembers better times when he cultivated crops by the River Jordan before the land there was confiscated and turned into an Israeli military zone.

"We used to have a lot of land. Now we have a small amount and they are surrounding us more and more," he says.

Line of defence

The settlements are widely seen as a breach of international law, although Israel rejects this.

Jordan Valley The Jordan Valley's high ridges provide Israel with a natural security barrier

The first ones in this border area were set up with national security in mind. The valley is now home to about 9,000 settlers and 56,000 Palestinians.

"We are the people that the government sent to settle the Jordan Valley," says David Elhayani, who chairs a regional council, representing more than 20 settlements.

"As a Jew, I tell you we can't take any risks. The Jordan Valley has to remain under Israeli sovereignty. I'm not talking about our claims from the Bible. I'm talking about safety. By staying here we protect the people in Tel Aviv and all of Israel."

"Something will happen between the Arab countries and Israel, this will be the defence line."

Israeli soldiers can be seen on patrol near the border, and there are signposts warning of the presence of landmines.

Israeli border authorities also control Allenby Bridge, the only crossing to Jordan that can be used by Palestinians with West Bank ID.

Economic importance

The absence of information from inside the talks has not stopped the leaders on both sides from restating their long-held positions concerning the Jordan Valley.

In October, on the anniversary of the assassination of one of his predecessors, Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a Knesset meeting, "Our strength is the guarantee for our existence and peace… This requires a security border in the Jordan Valley, as Rabin said in his last speech."

Start Quote

Along the Jordan Valley you have immensely rich agricultural land. It's hard to see frankly how in the future you're going to have a Palestinian state that doesn't include that”

End Quote Tony Blair Middle East Peace Quartet

Previously the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had addressed graduates from a new police academy in Jericho.

"The eastern borders of the Palestinian state, stretching from the Dead Sea, through the Jordan Valley and the central highlands, to the borders of Bisan [Beit Shean in northern Israel] are Palestinian-Jordanian borders and will remain so," he said.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, who comes from Jericho, took foreign diplomats and reporters on a tour of the valley, stressing its economic importance.

A recent report by the World Bank calculated that the Palestinian economy would be boosted by $918m (£576m) a year if it could exploit Dead Sea minerals in the southern Jordan Valley.

A further $704m a year could be added if it had more access to farmland and water in parts of the West Bank fully controlled by Israel, the report said.

The Jordan Valley makes up the largest single segment of what is known as Area C - Israel's zone pending a final peace agreement, as defined under the 1993 Israel-Palestinian peace accords.

"In Area C, which is 60% of the West Bank, Palestinians have got to be able step-by-step to develop it," says Tony Blair, who represents the Quartet of Middle East peacemakers and has been working on a Palestinian economic initiative.

"Along the Jordan Valley you have immensely rich agricultural land. It's hard to see frankly how in the future you're going to have a Palestinian state that doesn't include that."

Mr Blair has been pressing for an easing of restrictions, such as extending the opening hours of Allenby Bridge.

"What we've got to try to do I think, even in advance of final agreement, is to give people on the Palestinian side a sense that the world is changing and that they can see the prospect of a genuine state opening up before them," he told me.

"Likewise for the Israelis of course [we must show] that the security concerns… are going to be taken account of."

Regional uncertainties

In previous inconclusive peace talks, it is said a tentative deal was reached on setting up a few Israeli-manned early warning stations in the Jordan Valley.

However Mr Netanyahu is now said to favour a much stronger presence even within the framework of a Palestinian state.

Israeli media report that he plans to build a new security barrier in the Jordan Valley and rejects an idea favoured by his chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, to introduce international forces to guard the border.

"Our experience has been that international forces just don't do the job," says Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs. He points to the limitations of Unifil, which was given responsibility for the southern Lebanon border after the 2006 war.

"Israel has absolutely nothing against Palestinian economic success and there are agreements we can reach so we can share in the economic potential of this area," Mr Gold says.

"But giving up the security of the Jordan Valley in a Middle East that's full of chaos? Who knows what's going to happen to Syria - maybe we'll have a new jihad stand to our east - that's a major worry for the Israeli army today."

Tensions

In the Jordan Valley, many residents - Israeli and Palestinian - admit to feelings of uncertainty as peace talks continue.

There are regular incidents that highlight the broader struggle over the area.

Jamilla Adeis (right) with family in village of Abu al-Ajaj Demolition orders have forced Palestinians in parts of the Jordan Valley to relocate

In September, the Israeli army demolished the Palestinian village of Khirbet al-Makhlul.

Defence ministry officials say construction there was unlicensed and Israel's Supreme Court had rejected a petition against the demolition orders.

However the action was internationally condemned. Human rights groups say it is almost impossible for Palestinians in the Jordan Valley to get building permits because of what they say are discriminatory practices - a charge Israel strongly denies.

"When applications are rejected, this is not due to discrimination," a government official told the BBC. "Building permits are in fact granted to Palestinians in the Jordan Valley when proper requests are made... [but] The Jordan Valley is in part a security-sensitive area, since it is a border zone (with Jordan), and this makes certain areas unsuitable for private development."

In the village of Abu al-Ajaj, which is still threatened with demolition, an elderly woman, Jamilla Adeis worries for the future.

"The Israelis don't want us to live here. They want to kick us out and give the land to the settlers so that they can plant dates," she says gesticulating to the Massua settlement nearby.

Although Palestinian labourers work in the settlements, there is an uneasy relationship between the communities.

And with the murder of an Israeli settler in the Jordan Valley community of Brosh Habika last month, and the arrest of Palestinian suspects, tensions have only increased.

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