Palestinians in Jordan Valley: ‘Our lands are already annexed’

Netanyahu’s pledge to formalise de facto Israeli control over Jordan Valley provokes unease among Palestinian residents.

Ahmed Atiyat[Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]
Ahmed Atiyat says his land is already under de-facto Israeli control [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]

Ras Ain al-Auja, Jordan Valley – In between sprawling arid lands of the Jordan Valley, which stretches north of the Dead Sea and west of the occupied West Bank‘s borders with Jordan, lies the small Palestinian village of Ras Ain al-Auja.

If Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu goes through with his plan, announced on Tuesday, to annex the Jordan Valley and areas north of the Dead Sea, the village of about 350 residents and its fertile farmlands would become part of Israel.

Observers have dismissed Netanyahu’s plan as a campaign stunt ahead of next week’s general election. But the residents of Ras Ain al-Auja say Netanyahu’s words are threatening as his plan would formalise Israeli control over the area.

“This is not new. Our lands have already been annexed and we are living under Israeli occupation,” 48-year-old Ahmed Atiyat, a farmer in Ras Ain al-Auja, told Al Jazeera.

“All these lands and palm trees belong to the Israelis,” he said pointing across stretches of farmland dotted with green shrubbery and date palm trees extending towards the Dead Sea.

INTERACTIVE: Occupied West Bank - Jordan Valley Sept 12 2019

Netanyahu’s plan aims to annex the village and other parts of the Jordan Valley, however, would not include Jericho, the nearest Palestinian town to Ras Ain al-Auja.

The annexation of Jericho would force him to address the status of thousands of Palestinian citizens there. The current plan would potentially cut off Jericho from other Palestinian towns in the occupied West Bank.

De facto occupation

Ras Ain al-Auja’s population comprises mainly farmers who have worked on the land for generations. They say depleting water resources and restrictions on building and access by the Israeli military have made living conditions difficult.

“All our water sources are under Israeli control. We have very little drinking water let alone water for our crops,” said Atiyat, whose family moved to the area after they were evicted by the Israeli military from along the Jordan River in 1967. 

Hussein Saida, another farmer and member of the local municipality, agreed.

“We face ongoing challenges, especially when it comes to accessing our water wells and maintaining them to water our crops. Our water wells are under de facto Israeli control,” said Saida.

According to several Palestinian and Israeli NGOs, Israel denies Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley, as well as other areas in the West Bank, access to land, water and electricity, making living conditions difficult.

“Israel has de facto annexed the area of the Jordan Valley. A huge chunk of it is allocated for military use so Palestinians can’t live there. If they do, they are evicted,” Roi Yellim, director of public outreach at Btselem, a human rights NGO.

“There’s also an ongoing effort by Israel to make living conditions for Palestinians in the Jordan Valley difficult so that most of them leave their lands,” he added, pointing out that such conditions also apply across the whole of Area C, which constitutes about 60 percent of the West Bank.

Hussein Sa'ida [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]
Hussein Saida said farmers face daily challenges because of water diversions by Israel and the blocking of access to some of their lands [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]

The area which Netanyahu plans to annex constitutes about 30 percent of the West Bank. More than 65,000 Palestinians and about 11,000 illegal Israeli settlers live in the area.

Maha Abdullah, a legal researcher and advocacy officer at Al-Haq, a Palestinian NGO, said these conditions will only get worse if the area is annexed, leading Palestinians to consider leaving their homes.

“Those areas bring a lot of income to the Israeli economy and so it works well to exploit the resources and land,” said Abdullah.

“At the same time, creating a coercive environment for Palestinians living there through house demolitions, restricting water and electricity, will push Palestinians to leave,” she said, comparing it to the annexation of occupied East Jerusalem in 1967.

Palestinians in East Jerusalem have not been given Israeli citizenship since the annexations and their status remains controversial and unresolved.

Future Palestinian state

The plan also threatens the formation of a future Palestinian state as Palestinians seek the 2,400 square-kilometre (927 square-mile) Jordan Valley for the eastern perimeter of a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, denounced the annexation plan, telling Al Jazeera it would “bury any remaining prospects for peace and a viable and independent Palestinian state”.

Jordan Valley [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]
Farmlands in the Jordan Valley that could be annexed if Netanyahu’s plan goes ahead [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]

The threat to the future of Palestine is also felt on a more local level.

“Even if they are just words, for now, Netanyahu making plans to annex the most fertile lands in Palestine and part of a future Palestinian state is very dangerous,” Salah Frijat, the head of Auja’s local authority, which is the larger municipality which Ras Ain al-Auja belongs to, told Al Jazeera.

“There are continuous infringements on our lands and water resources. They want to see us leave as life becomes harder and settlements around us increase,” he added.

Israel has reiterated its intentions to maintain military control over the area, which it captured in the 1967 war, even if a peace agreement is reached with the Palestinians.

Last year, US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In addition to that, Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, which its forces captured from Syria in 1967, has left many observers wary that this plan could indeed come into play at some point.

“Although what Netanyahu said is very much a campaign stunt, he will probably go through with some sort of annexation because he has the support of Trump’s administration,” said Yellim.

Despite these difficult conditions and threats, Atiyat says he will never leave his land.

“Even if life continues to get harder, we would rather die here than leave or get evicted from our lands once again,” he told Al Jazeera.

Follow Arwa Ibrahim on Twitter: @arwaib

Ahmed Atiyat[Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]
Ras Ain al-Auja’s local population is mainly composed of farmers who have worked the land for generations [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera