The Jordan Valley and Israel’s Invisible Wall

A painting by Morshid Graib, an artist from Jenin, whose work depicts the suffering of the Palestinian people.

15 May 2007

A few weeks ago I attended an event commemorating Palestinian Prisoner’s Day at Al Far’a Refugee Camp in the Tubas area. To enter the theatrical and cultural spectacle we had to pass through a makeshift checkpoint with soldiers pointing their guns in our faces and screaming in Hebrew for us to get back. Although I knew these were Palestinian actors role-playing the harassment they experience daily, it was very frightening to have men with guns yell at me in a foreign language and stick killing machines in my face. I realized immediately that although I witness harassment at checkpoints constantly, as a white Jewish American woman of extreme privilege I can never really know what it feels like to go through one as a Palestinian. I suspected the actors had been instructed to especially focus on Western attendees to illustrate some of the abusive behavior we remain so shielded from. It was very effective.

A young Palestinian actor from Al Far’a Refugee Camp illustrating the daily humiliation of military checkpoints.

Inside the spectacle, hundreds of locals and visitors were watching performers depict typical scenes of interrogation, abuse, and torture of Palestinians in Israeli prisons and detention centers. Some of the actors wore blindfolds, handcuffs, and chains and gave moving monologues about the injustice of abuse and imprisonment without trial in an occupier’s land. Others played Israeli soldiers and guards. After the play as a finale, young Palestinian boys danced debka to signify cultural pride and continuity in spite of monstrous hardships and injustices.

The event took place in a former prison/torture center and afterwards spectators toured the old holding rooms, haunted by past inmates and painted over with graffiti and prisoner shadows. There I met a mother holding a framed picture of her son, currently held in Israeli jail along with more than 9,000 other Palestinians, including many women and children. Near the old torture chambers was a holding center converted into an art studio, where I met Morshid Graib, an artist whose many stunning images depicted the suffering of the Palestinian people. His paintings and the performances reminded me once again of the extraordinary creativity of the Palestinians in their nonviolent resistance to the Occupation.

The next day I was going on a tour of the Northern Jordan Valley, about 10 km (6 miles) from Tubas the way the crow flies. By road it’s more like 22 km (13 miles), via Tayseer checkpoint, which only Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents of the Jordan Valley are permitted to cross. Tayseer excludes most Palestinians and internationals, so I was forced to reach my destination the long way around, via Ramallah in the center of the West Bank. It’s hard to comprehend the absurdity of such a detour without looking at a map. Rather than a 10 minute ride, I traveled six hours southeast through three checkpoints the first day, and then four hours back up through two checkpoints the next to reach the other side of Tubas’ eastern mountains. Ten hours instead of 10 minutes.

Another piece by Morshid Graib.

I was cranky from the long ride when I got to Ramallah, but a kind shop-owner noticed my malaise and took me into his store for tea and fresh bread. His name was Ali, and he spoke perfect English. An East Jerusalemite, Ali lived in the United States for 19 years. He studied civil engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology and was one of the top engineers behind a major Chicago public transportation infrastructure project. For 19 years, Ali flew back to Israel every three months to renew his Jerusalem ID, which wasn’t automatically renewed — although he and his family were born and raised in the city — because he is not Jewish. After Ali acquired US citizenship, he continued returning every three months until one day Israel revoked all Jerusalem IDs of Palestinians with another citizenship. This was the first Ali had heard of such a law, but suddenly his ID was confiscated and he was barred from ever returning to the city where his home and family remain (of course, all the American Jews who “make aliyah” and become Israelis never suffer penalties for dual citizenship). An extremely successful and well-educated engineer, Ali now works at a souvenir shop selling trinkets in Ramallah. He cannot get normal work because he doesn’t have a West Bank ID either.

Meeting Ali was a good prelude to my tour through the Jordan Valley where, like East Jerusalem, most Palestinians are not even allowed to enter, and those who live there are constantly threatened by house demolitions, ID-confiscation, and other actions that encourage or require them to relocate. According to our tour guide Fathi from the area, before 1967 there were 350,000 Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley. Now there are 52,000 — less than 15 percent than before.

A Palestinian working on a Jordan Valley settlement.

Much of the Jordan Valley indigenous population’s flight occurred after violent expulsions in the first five years of the Occupation, but the ethnic cleansing continues today as more and more Israeli Jews move in and Palestinians move out. Israel no longer accepts applications from Palestinians to move into the Jordan Valley, only out of it. (According to the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq, a similar one-way transfer is occurring out of the West Bank: “since the outbreak of the second intifada, Israel ‘has not approved a single change of address from Gaza to the West Bank’ ” but Palestinians have been forcibly transferred in the other direction.) Jordan Valley Palestinians who spend too long outside of the region also lose their residence permits, just like Ali did. And as in East Jerusalem, Israel’s annexation is so advanced that many Israelis don’t even know the area is occupied. Israelis come to the valley on vacation to enjoy the bountiful fruit orchards, the desert mountains, and the Dead Sea. The modern highways are lined with palm trees and nicely-groomed settlements, no Palestinians in sight.

At one point our tour bus stopped at a juice stand and we could just barely hear Fathi’s voice over the zoom of settler and vacationer cars speeding by: “I am 40 years old and from the Jordan Valley, but I have only seen the Jordan River twice in my life, on my way to and from Jordan. They say it’s about resistance, but Israel controlled this area strictly with checkpoints decades before suicide bombs or the intifadas began. As a Palestinian, I’m not allowed to go to the river, or even to the Dead Sea — that precious natural wonder which scientists now say will be gone in 12 years due to overuse … The valley is reserved for Jews and tourists. But it’s owned by Palestinians as far west as Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and beyond.”

Traditionally, Palestinian families used to live in the Jordan Valley during the wintertime because of the mild climate and fertile land. But now, of the 2400 square kilometers — 30 percent of the West Bank — half is controlled by Israeli settlements, and almost all the rest is split between military closed areas, border closed areas, and environmental “green” closed areas. The closed area strategy is familiar to anyone who has studied urban development in East Jerusalem: Israel declares large “closed” or “green areas,” bulldozes all the Palestinian homes and institutions within them, and after they’ve remained empty for a few years the state begins to settle Jewish Israelis inside.

A home in Fasayel village.

Some of these “closed areas” in the Jordan Valley are villages where Palestinians have been living for generations. We visited Fasayel, a Palestinian village that Israel has refused to recognize for forty years since the Occupation began. Because Fasayel is unrecognized, villagers aren’t allowed to build or even repair their own homes. They have no water infrastructure for the same reason. The village recently got electricity but the electric poles are under demolition order since they were built without a permit. In nearby Al Jiflik village, Israel has refused permits to build a school, insisting that families should either move or bus their children more than an hour each way to Tubas town. In peaceful response, the teachers of Al Jiflik started holding classes in a large village tent. Last year, Al Jiflik finally constructed a real schoolhouse, which students will use until it is demolished by Israel for being illegal.

Outside Fasayel we saw two 300-500 square foot gardens prominently labeled “USAID.” On its website, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the largest international nongovernmental organization partnered with the U.S. government, boasts about the $1.7 billion in economic assistance that the United States has provided Palestinians through diverse USAID projects since 1993, “more than from any other donor country.” But looking at the tiny plots, the effort seemed somehow token given that the U.S. government gives twice that sum to Israel per year, facilitating the Occupation that has prevented Palestinians from developing any type of real infrastructure themselves. Perhaps rather than U.S.-initiated projects addressing education, health, water, economic development, and democracy, Palestinians would prefer an end to the military and economic U.S. aid that Israel has consistently used to separate Palestinians from their schools, hospitals, and water resources, and to undermine Palestinian-led economic and democratic progress. The source of aid that funds the little gardens outside Fasayel — U.S. tax dollars — is the same source supplying the bulldozers that Israel will likely one day use to destroy the entire village. It is the same source helping to fund the settlements that have surrounded Fasayel and appropriated its land. Would the USAID’s goals of “promoting peace and security” not be sooner achieved by conditioning Israel’s billions of annual aid on respecting international law and human rights for everyone in the region?

About 4,500 Palestinians live in Fasayel and Al Jiflik combined. Just 1,800 more make up the total settler population in the Jordan Valley: 6,300 Israelis living in 36 settlements. The tiny population controls the land of tens of thousands of Palestinians. Some settlements are just a family or two, but have taken over huge expanses of Palestinian farmland. Naama settlement replaced Ne’ama Palestinian refugee camp and is home to 172 Israelis controlling more than 10,000 dunums. Of the land-rich third of the West Bank, just four percent is left for the remaining 52,000 Palestinian inhabitants. That includes the city of Jericho and a few built-up Palestinian villages, but leaves next to zero percent for agricultural use. This has been devastating for the agriculture-based society and explains the mass exodus of Palestinians even after Israel’s overtly violent expulsion tactics ceased. Having lost their livelihoods, Jordan Valley farmers can either move west, or stay and work as settlement laborers on their own land.

In Fasayel we met a young man named Zafar who works full-time packing grapes into boxes at Beit Sayel settlement because his family has lost all their land. Zafar said workers are paid between 30 and 50 NIS (US$7.50 - $12.50) for an eight-hour workday, depending on their age: 50 for adults, 30 for child laborers, sometimes 10 years old or younger. He said there’s no contract, no insurance, no holiday or sick pay, but they work like slaves because it’s the only alternative to leaving. We asked Zafar if he supported the boycott of Israeli products even though that could indirectly affect his job and he answered unhesitatingly: “Yes. I hope everyone will boycott. I only work for the settlement because I have nowhere else to work — they took all our land.”

The forgotten wall.

Along our tour we met a farmer named Abu Hashem who used to be one of the richest landowners in Palestine. Of his 8,000 original dunums, only 70 are left after Israel built what Fathi calls, “the Forgotten Wall.” East of the major settler highway is a barrier similar in shape and effect to Israel’s better-known Apartheid Wall, this one built back in 1971 and reinforced in 1999. From his modest house, Abu Hashem can see past the Wall across the thousands of his dunums that he can never return to, spanning all the way to the Jordan River.

Abu Hashem’s sons alternate years going to university and working on the farm to support the family. Abu Hashem would hire Palestinian laborers so his sons could study full-time, but Israel prohibits Palestinians from bringing in outside workers. Another farmer we met said he needs 50 farmers to cultivate his land, but he only has 10, since so many locals have left. Settlements, on the other hand, are free to bring in as much cheap labor from the rest of the West Bank as they like, so long as the Palestinians head back west when they’re done so as not to throw off the Judaizing demographic trend.

Much of the produce harvested by cheap Palestinian laborers in Israeli settlements is then exported by the company Carmel-Agrexco, which is 50 percent owned by the Israeli state and brought in three-quarters of a billion dollars last year alone (The Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign). Anyone who claims that Israel is not profiting off of the Occupation need only take a tour of the Jordan Valley to see truck after truck of local goods being sent off to the European market. Carmel-Agrexco boasts about getting produce from the Jordan Valley (which they often refer to as “Israel”) to the United Kingdom in 24 hours, when it takes Palestinians three times as long just to get it through checkpoints. Israel has consistently prevented Palestinians from exporting their own produce, so it rots on its way from one village to another, while Europeans enjoy fresh “Israeli” citrus and avocados and the Israeli state’s stocks rise.

Crops on a Palestinian farm rot since they are unable to be transported through checkpoints and sold in markets where Israeli companies have monopolies on the market.

A Jewish National Fund and World Zionist Organization billboard boasts about the water Israel controls in the Jordan Valley.

As always, Palestinians have explored nonviolent resistance to the monopolization of their land. We visited an agricultural cooperative where local farmers have pooled their dwindling resources to try and grow food to feed their communities so that they don’t have to rely on settlement products. Two representatives of the cooperative said that Israel — which controls all water in the Jordan Valley, as in the rest of the West Bank — only allows the farmers to use running water once a week, not nearly enough to sustain their crops in the desert heat (meanwhile, several settlements enjoy swimming pools to cool off from the desert heat). In addition, when the farmers produce enough to sell outside their communities, Carmel Agrexco and other Israeli companies lower their prices until the Palestinians are run out of the market. Then, secure in their monopoly, the companies raise their prices back up.

Politicians and analysts have called Jordan Valley the second priority after Jerusalem, but the most convincing reason is not border control. Carmel Agrexco is just one of many companies making a killing off of the Occupation, in the Jordan Valley and beyond. The electric, gas, water, and other governmental and private monopolies have greatly prospered since the Palestinian economy became a captive one in which Palestinians either have to buy directly from Israel or pay taxes to Israel for foreign goods. The latter isn’t always an option anymore, so millions go straight from Palestinians’ pockets into Israel’s. Outside financial support for Palestinians eventually feeds into the Israeli economy on top of the billions in aid Israel already receives from the United States, enough to offset most of the Occupation’s costs. Coupled with tax collection, a captive cheap unprotected labor source, and often unchecked industrial expansion using stolen land and resources, the Israeli economy as a whole has been profiting off the Occupation for many, many years.

Surprisingly - or perhaps not so surprisingly - it’s difficult to find this information all in one place, but a women’s coalition in Israel is working to do just that (right now the best you can find are the first few bulletins at the Alternative Information Center). Meanwhile, people continue to shrug off the near annexation of almost a third of the West Bank to “security,” never stopping to question who the real winners and losers are. Is the United States in Iraq for security? Or is it about big industries and private contractors? As in America’s war on Iraq, the driving force behind Israel’s policies in the Jordan Valley and all the Occupied Territories is not security; it’s power, control, and, money. The winners include the Israeli state, private sectors, the economic settlers and the ideological fundamentalists. The losers are too numerous to name: They are the millions of Palestinians living under brutal military occupation, each of whose stories is in some way as tragic as those of Ali and Zafar. They are the Israelis who live in fear, and who mourn the victims of Palestinian armed resistance. And they are us, the American people, who continue to foot the bill for so much of the carnage, many of us never knowing the difference.

All images by Anna Baltzer.

Anna Baltzer is a volunteer with the International Women’s Peace Service in the West Bank and author of the book, Witness in Palestine: Journal of a Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories. For information about her writing, photography, DVD, and speaking tours, visit her website at