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Originally published Saturday, January 4, 2014 at 6:14 PM

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Struggle over Jordan Valley an impasse to Palestinian talks

As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators struggle to make headway on peace talks initiated by Secretary of State John Kerry, they have remained bitterly at odds over the strategic corridor that runs between the populous heartland of the West Bank and the border with Jordan.


New York Times News Service

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BARDALA, West Bank — The residents of this neglected Palestinian farming village in the northern Jordan Valley area of the West Bank say they get running water once every three days, which they store in bottles and cisterns.

The neighboring Jewish settlement of Mehola is a small paradise by comparison, with green lawns and a swimming pool.

The contrasts across this stark landscape of jagged hills reflect the complexities of the fierce contest for control of the Jordan Valley, and the challenges the Palestinians face in administration. As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators struggle to make headway on peace talks initiated by Secretary of State John Kerry, they have remained bitterly at odds over the strategic corridor that runs between the populous heartland of the West Bank and the border with Jordan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel insists on maintaining a long-term Israeli military presence along the border to prevent infiltrations and weapons smuggling from the east. Some in his Likud Party say there is no security or strategic depth without the settlements and argue that Israel should annex the area permanently. The Palestinians insist Israel withdraw its forces and settlements so they can control their own borders as part of an independent and sovereign state.

But for the residents of the Jordan Valley, where the long summers are intense and the black flies ubiquitous, the diplomatic jockeying is secondary to the hard realities facing two intertwined, adversarial communities. While settlers worry they will lose their homes, the Palestinians, who view the fertile valley as the bread basket of a future state, are concerned that Israel will continue to control nearly all the water and land.

“We live at their mercy,” said Dirar Sawafta, an employee of the Bardala Village Council.

Some 60,000 Palestinians live here in scattered villages and the ancient oasis city of Jericho. They farm about 8,600 acres of the land, much of it leased from wealthy Palestinian landowners in Jerusalem and Nablus. Many complain of mismanagement and dysfunction on the part of the Palestinian Authority, which administers Jericho and the villages, as well as the strictures of Israeli military rule.

The 6,500 Israeli settlers live in 21 small communities interspersed with army bases. Farming nearly 13,000 acres, they use treated wastewater to irrigate their abundant date groves and employ 6,000 Palestinians in a thriving agricultural enterprise adapted to the semitropical climate.

Palestinian leaders contend that Israel wants to remain here indefinitely out of economic interests. Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator, who lives in Jericho and represents the Jordan Valley in the Palestinian Legislature, listed the settlers’ assets: “The biggest palm farms, the biggest grape farms, turkey farms and alligator lakes.”

Yet the Jordan Valley settlers — many of whom came in search of a pastoral life under the aegis of security-minded Labor-led governments after the 1967 war — live with growing uncertainty the government will support their continued presence there.

In 1997, during his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu wrote a letter to the settlers saying that “the Jordan Valley will be an integral part of the state of Israel under any agreement.”

But many settlers here note that Netanyahu now speaks only of maintaining a military presence.

In Bardala, the issues are complex as occupation and internal Palestinian problems have left the wells dry. Before Israel conquered the area from Jordan in 1967, Bardala’s water came from a nearby spring. But the Israelis dug a deeper well nearby.

“Ours dried up,” Sawafta said.

A deal was made in the 1970s, and the Oslo peace accords of the 1990s brought new water agreements, but with the second uprising in 2000, Palestinians stopped paying their water and electricity bills to the Palestinian Authority. The Bardala council owes the authority about 2 million shekels (more than $560,000) in unpaid utility bills. So, Sawafta said, the authority has delayed funding for projects like new roads, a dam and a water network in the village.

Israel deducts the utility debts from the tax revenue it collects on behalf of the authority. Then the ever-cash-poor Palestinian government uses the rest to pay its employees’ salaries.

After that, there is little left to aid the farmers. Rifaat Hamdallah Daraghmeh, a Palestinian who employs 15 families on a farm he runs in the Jiftlik area of the valley and sells produce in Israel, said the authority owed him 300,000 shekels (about $85,000) in unpaid tax refunds over the past four years. Abdul Ghaffar Dawabshe, the deputy director of the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry department in Jericho, said there were 60 such cases in his office.

Khirbet Makhoul, a Bedouin-style encampment in the northern Jordan Valley, has in recent months become a symbol of the continuing struggle over every inch of Jordan Valley land.

In September, Israeli army bulldozers arrived at dawn and razed all the temporary structures, including those that housed animals and people. Supporters brought new tents, but the army came back three more times. The women and children moved to permanent homes in the village of Tamoun, near Nablus.

“We used to live like kings,” said Ashraf Bisharat, 30, a member of one of the dozen or so families raising livestock here, who noted that before September, the bare hillside was filled with animal shelters.

Makhoul sits between three army bases, and soldiers in training provide a steady background noise of booms and gunfire. Israeli defense officials said the shelters had been destroyed because they were erected without permits. The families have refused to leave the land they say they have owned or leased for decades. Now the authority is helping them register their plots and obtain permits. One animal shelter was rebuilt. Some of the local men were sleeping under nylon sheets, each on the ruins of his family tent.

Most of the Jordan Valley is classified as Area C, the part of the West Bank that remains under full Israeli control. Permits, whether for agricultural packing houses or zinc-roofed shacks, are hard to come by, and demolitions take place almost daily.

For now, the Jewish settlers are guarding their positions, too. After two Palestinians from the Hebron area bludgeoned a retired Israeli colonel to death in October in the yard of his home in Brosh Habika, an isolated tourism village here, yeshiva students and families from a nearby religious settlement temporarily moved into the holiday chalets to reinforce and demonstrate a presence.

In recent years, the settlers have planted part of a demilitarized zone between the border security fence and the actual border along the Jordan River with thousands of date palms. Children of the founders of the settlements who left for the city are returning, attracted by cheap housing and rural community living. This week, a senior Likud minister dedicated a new neighborhood in Gitit, a remote, once-secular settlement that has been revived by an influx of religious settlers.

“It took us 30 years to understand what to grow and how to grow it,” David Alhayani, the Likud head of the settlers’ Jordan Valley Regional Council, said in a recent interview. Alhayani runs an herb farm in his hilltop settlement, Argaman, where he employs more than 20 Palestinians. He spoke of quiet friendship and cooperation with his workers and some local Palestinian notables.

“They called us pioneers, salt of the earth, the true Zionists,” he said of the Israeli mainstream. Now, he said, the Labor Party and many others seem to have abandoned the Jordan Valley settlers.

“We came because our government sent us here — all the governments of Israel,” he added. “If the Israeli government decides differently, we will accept the decision.”



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