The Jordan Valley’s forgotten Palestinians

The newly paved roads of the Jordan Valley lead to the various settlements with no Palestinians in sight, May 2007. (Anna Baltzer)

From the veranda of his home up on the hillside, Hassan Abed Hassan Jermeh looks out over his village, fertile green fields, and all the way over to the mountains across the border in Jordan. Village elder since 1995, he is intimately familiar with the challenges facing Palestinians in the Jordan Valley.

Al-Zubeidat is home to around 1,800 members of the same hamula (clan), originally Bedouin refugees displaced from Beer al-Sabe’, now the Israeli town of Beer Sheva, in 1948. The residents mainly work in agriculture on land that since 1967 has been rented from the Israeli government, which refused to recognize previous agreements made with the Jordanians.

Hassan described how since the Oslo Accords, and the formation of the Palestinian Authority, the village’s living conditions have improved, from access to water and electricity, to health clinics and schools. Yet while there have been tangible benefits to Palestinian civic life, Hassan is more doubtful about the political achievements.

On the outskirts of the village, and visible from Hassan’s home, are a collection of shacks, thrown up by villagers as the population outgrew the existing built-up area. Two weeks ago, Israeli soldiers arrived and ordered their removal under threat of demolition. Hassan sees this kind of struggle as part of the Palestinians’ need to create “their own facts on the ground,” in response to Israeli colonization.

There are times when the conflict over land possession becomes absurd. Higher up the hill is Argaman colony, and between the house and the settlement are trees planted by Hassan. However, the dividing line between the Oslo-designated “Area B” and “Area C” runs right along the veranda, and so one day, Israeli soldiers arrived to inspect the trees — and then demanded that they be uprooted.

Hassan grins as he tells what happened next. “So before the soldiers came back to check on the trees, I removed them, hiding them from sight. After the army had visited, I simply put them back!” While able to see the funny side of this particular story, Hassan notes that al-Zubeidat suffers greatly under the occupation, “with the Israelis imposing closures, shutting the entrance to village, and harassing us daily.”

The Jordan Valley is an area that despite taking up over a quarter of the West Bank, is rarely subjected to the same kind of critical scrutiny afforded to, say, Jerusalem or settlement blocs like Gush Etzion or Ariel. This despite the Jordan Valley being not only essential for any future Palestinian state — with regards to territorial continuity, agriculture, water, and border access — but also having been the target of intense colonization by successive Israeli governments which have not only declared its strategic significance but also the intention of eventual annexation.

In the Jordan Valley there are around 56,000 Palestinians and 9,400 illegal Israeli settlers spread out over 38 colonies. The latter cultivates around three times as much land per head as the Palestinians. Colonization of the Jordan Valley began almost immediately after 1967, with 21 settlements springing up in the first 10 years. In more recent times, the Israeli government has encouraged its Jewish citizens to move to the Valley’s settlements with millions of shekels worth in subsidies and tax-cuts.

While each settlement means land lost to the Palestinians, the Israeli military has also confiscated land (for “security purposes” of course), as well as designating more than 400 square kilometers of the Jordan Valley a “closed military zone.” [1] Moreover, accessing the north of the Jordan Valley without a military permit is now forbidden for non-resident Palestinians. Those whose officially registered address is elsewhere, but have long lived in this area, run the risk of physical removal from their homes, should they be discovered during Israeli raids.

Six checkpoints, and hundreds of flying checkpoints, mean that the farming-dependent communities of the Jordan Valley find it impossible to market their fresh produce. A further burden particularly for the Palestinian agricultural sector is the water shortage resulting from the Israeli authorities’ unequal distribution policies. The settlers in the Jordan Valley consume annually over six times the amount of water used by the Palestinians, a situation that in al-Zubeidat, for example, means that along with two other neighboring villages, each person has an average of two liters daily.

In another gross abuse of power, the likes of Amnesty International have documented Israeli army demolitions in the Jordan Valley, such as the destruction of “the homes and livelihoods of four Palestinian families” in Hadidiya in February of this year. The report noted that over the past year “several other Palestinian families in the area have suffered the same fate,” including last August when “Israeli army bulldozers razed several tents and animal pens in Humsa, leaving some 40 villagers homeless.” [2]

The people of Bardala village know Israel’s apartheid bureaucracy of permits and checkpoints all too well. Home to around 2,000, like so many small communities in the Jordan Valley, Bardala is almost entirely dependent on agriculture. Less than a dozen people have permission to work in nearby settlements, thus some herd, but most plant.

Closure, however, is throttling the life out of this village. As village council head Mahmoud Saleh Yousef Sawafta explained, the Israeli occupation’s restrictions have meant that unemployment has risen to as high as 30 percent. Mahmoud explained that he and the other landowners try and employ as many as possible — “but there’s only so much we can do.”

Mahmoud tells sadly of how about 30 of those with a university education from Bardala have emigrated, mainly to the Gulf countries. His own son went to Egypt to study, but was unable to complete the course due to a lack of money. He is now back at home and works in the fields.

Although Bardala benefits from a number of international non-governmental organization development projects, these can only have a short-term impact. Sustainable initiatives, such as factories, are impossible, Mahmoud points out, because “there is no possibility of marketing products outside the local market.” “We don’t need even Israel — we could export to Jordan, and to the Arab world.”

Like many in the Jordan Valley, Mahmoud is loyal to the Palestinian Authority president, and doesn’t believe that Mahmoud Abbas will make the kinds of concessions being demanded by Israel. “There’s no way a Palestinian state will emerge without the Jordan Valley, it feeds the West Bank. It’s like Jerusalem, a total red line.”

Many in the Jordan Valley are herders, whether Bedouin or fellaheen, and in the north-east corner of the West Bank, the small community of al-Malih typifies the extent to which an entire way of life has been threatened by the occupation. I spoke to Mohammad Abdul Rahman, a 16-year-old boy and eldest of 11 in his family, while his father was out taking care of the animals.

Al-Malih is a cluster of 11 residences, with around a dozen living in each. Not only are they are next to an Israeli military base, but they are also inside a designated military firing zone. Five days of the week, Monday to Thursday, it is forbidden for them to move around, making herding impossible.

Military vehicles often destroy what they plant for their animals, Mohammad said, and a relative of theirs was once shot while herding. At the beginning of the year, another person trod on a mine, and was killed. Apparently, there is no information provided to these communities by the Israeli military about the whereabouts of mines.

Al-Malih suffers from severe infrastructure deficiencies. There is no natural water source, and so they have to buy water at around 100 NIS ($25 US), enough for between 10 to 20 days. The nearest schools are in Tubas, which means a 13 kilometer walk, including passing through Tayasir checkpoint. Mohammad actually stopped going to school, he said, because of the harassment by soldiers at the checkpoint.

In their short incident report on home demolitions by the Israeli army in the Jordan Valley, Amnesty International noted the following:

“The local Palestinian population — which has been there since long before Israeli forces occupied the area four decades ago — is being put under increasing pressure to leave the area … The villagers rebuild their homes each time and have shown their determination to remain in the area. However, they are no longer able to cultivate their land and are finding it increasingly difficult to survive.” [3]

But is the growing difficulty for Jordan Valley Palestinians in maintaining their way of life in the face of land seizure, demolitions, closures, and the permit system an accidental byproduct of these restrictions — or is it their very purpose?

From the Allon plan of 1967 to the Beilin-Abu Mazen understanding in 1995, through to the Camp David discussions in 2000, Israel has sought to retain all or part of the Jordan Valley in any eventual settlement. [4] The annexation assumption is common across the board in Israeli political and military circles; then Minister of Defense, Shaul Mofaz, remarked on Army Radio in February 2006 that Israel’s future permanent borders would include “the Jordan Rift Valley.” [5]

The previous year, an Israeli government spokesperson revealed plans “to double the number of Jewish settlers” in the Jordan Valley, an increase accompanied by further “agricultural subsidies and the development of tourism in the area which also incorporates the Dead Sea.” [6] Of course, such serious and costly investment only makes sense in the context of Israel’s determination never to relinquish this part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

There is no shortage of evidence for Israeli intent. In his book Blood and Religion Jonathan Cook cites David Levy, “a settler leader in the Jordan Valley, [who] said Sharon had shown him a map of the eastern fence that would annex a 20 km-wide strip of the Jordan Valley to Israel.” [7] When Ehud Olmert was on the election campaign trail in 2006, meanwhile, he often said “that the Jordan Valley would remain under Israeli control in any future settlement.” [8]

Given that Israel seems set on pursuing its goal of the long-term annexation of the Jordan Valley, it should not come as a surprise if erasing the very presence of Palestinians in this coveted area is the desired effect of the numerous policies already mentioned (all under the guise of “security” naturally).

Writing in the Israeli daily Haaretz in 2002, members of the Israeli group, Taayush - Arab Jewish Partnership, Gadi Algazi and Azmi Bdeir, talked about the slow motion ethnic cleansing happening in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. They called it the “creeping process” of “transfer” that is “hidden from view,” the “main component” of which “is the gradual undermining of the infrastructure of the civilian Palestinian population’s lives in the territories.” Measures like closure and siege, “taken together,” serve to “undermine the hold of the Palestinian population on its land.” [9]

While Israeli policies in the West Bank, such as the consolidation of colonies in the “Jerusalem Envelope” and the separation wall, not to mention desperate and besieged Gaza, rightly deserve attention, the Jordan Valley is in danger of being passed over. It’s an omission that will primarily affect those Palestinians whose very presence in the Valley is under threat by unchecked Israeli colonization.

Ben White is a freelance journalist specializing in Palestine/Israel. His website is at and he can be contacted directly at ben A T benwhite D O T org D O T uk.


[1] “Under the Pretext of Security: Colonization and Displacement in the Occupied Jordan Valley,” Negotiations Affairs Department/Palestinian Monitoring Group, 30 July 2006.
[2] “Israeli army destroys Palestinian homes,” Amnesty International, 14 February 2008.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Tanya Reinhart, Israel/Palestine, Seven Stories Press, 2002, p.27, pp.48-49.
[5] “Mofaz describes Israel’s ‘future borders,’ including Ariel,” Haaretz Service, 27 February 2006.
[6] “Israel Plans to Double Number of Settlers in the Jordan Valley,” Agence France-Presse, 24 June 2005.
[7] Jonathan Cook, Blood and Religion, Pluto, 2006, p.155.
[8] As’ad Ghanem, “Israel and the ‘danger of demography,” pp.48-74, Where Now for Palestine?, Ed. Jamil Hilal, Zed Books, 2007, p.63.
[9] “Transfer’s real nightmare,” Haaretz, 15 November 2002.