Once fertile valley dries up as Jerichoans face drought and demolition

12:00 Jul 19 2011 Jordan Valley

MICHAEL JANSEN for the Irish Times

Israel’s grip on the Jordan valley makes life arduous for Palestinians farming the soil

THE PALM trees of Jericho stand tall on the broad brown floor of the Jordan valley, their thick green fronds fluttering in the stiff breeze.

A Palestinian policeman manning the checkpoint at the entrance to the town waves us through without a glance. Few visitors come to this biblical battleground these days. The central square is surrounded by restaurants and shops selling limp toy animals and faded plastic junk. On the second floor of an old building, the words “Egyptian Arab Land Bank est 1880” bear witness to the town’s heyday as the centre of a thriving agricultural area at the very time European Jewish colonies were being established in Ottoman- and British-ruled Palestine.

At the turn of the last century, my friend Dyala’s grandfather, Mohieddin al-Husseini, built canals of clay and mud brick and brought water to Jericho from the foothills of the Judean range to the west.

He was the first to plant bananas, citrus, wheat and barley alongside Jericho’s date palms, famous in ancient times. A fuzzy photo shows him in white kaftan and Arab headdress: a man of vision and vigour determined to make the desert bloom in Jericho and develop markets for its produce in Jerusalem, Nablus, and Tulkarem.

Today the small Jericho enclave administered by the Palestinian Authority is surrounded by an Israeli trench that restricts the freedom of movement of the town’s 20,000 citizens, as well as its ability to expand.

Palestinian exports from the Jordan valley, once a chief source of fruit and vegetables for the country, are funnelled through Israel’s Hamra crossing to the northern West Bank. Sun and heat spoilage is high for soft fruits and vegetables due to delays at Hamra.

Muhammad Njoum, who heads the Jericho office of the Palestinian Union of Agricultural Work Committees, says that, until 2000, Palestinians cultivated 40-50,000 dunums (10-12,500 acres); today the figure is just 3,500 dunums (875 acres).

“The springs have dried, there has been a 15 per cent drop in rainfall, and Israeli cultivation takes most spring water. Al-Auja river [a main source of irrigation water] is also dry,” he says.

“This is a sign of what is going to happen in the near-future. We will have land drought, rain drought and hydrological drought. The aquifers are no longer recharging.”

While Palestinians face drought now and Israeli settlers could do so in the future, Palestinians also contend with eviction. Njoum observed, “Israel has issued demolition orders for every single house and shelter” in the area under its control. “Demolitions are not [necessarily] connected to demolition orders but are taking place in politically important locations.”

He rejects Israel’s claim that “security” is behind its determination to retain the Jordan valley. He holds that if this is Israel’s justification, its army should be deployed along the Jordan river border with the Hashemite kingdom, not in the middle of the valley.

“Why are the Israelis expanding settlements and planting palm tree jungles that make perfect ambush areas [for Palestinian fighters]? This is not security. Why are they taking huge amounts of water and urging Israelis to settle in the Jordan valley? Why are they cancelling entire Palestinian hamlets?

“They want to make the Jordan valley part of Israel and a main sector [in the Israeli economy] with a majority Israeli population and a majority of Israeli landholdings.”

Israel plans for the long term, he asserts. “Its half-century aim is to encourage [Palestinians] to leave their villages and lands” and settle in towns. He says 60 per cent of the inhabitants of al-Auja, his village, have already moved to Jericho. “If a Palestinian state is established in parts of the West Bank, Israel will not allow it to have a common border with Jordan.”

He suggests Israel might agree to a Palestinian corridor between Jericho and the Allenby bridge crossing that handles most passenger and goods traffic between the Palestinian territories and Jordan.

After driving through al-Auja, a scattering of raw cement houses set down in a baked and barren landscape, we proceed down a rough track to the encampment of Farisiya, a rock-, rubble- and rubbish-strewn location where, on June 14th, Israeli bulldozers flattened the homes of 18 families.

Since then a few shelters for people and chickens have been erected using metal supports and loose-weave black material normally covering greenhouses where plants needing shade are grown.

Three women dodge the noon sun under a small tree, a boy shows off his orange plastic toy bulldozer, the only item he salvaged from the wreckage.

Community leader Issa Ghazzal says, “We are villagers and Bedouin driven from the Bethlehem area by Israeli settlements and the [West Bank] wall.”

Several families herd sheep and goats; some men work in Israeli settlements. The 22 families not affected by the demolition live in ramshackle huts fashioned from plastic, canvas and cloth. One or two sport small satellite dishes. They have electricity but depend on tankers for water.

Along the broad Israeli highway, we speed past Israel’s fat caterpillar greenhouses and vast green palm plantations that are drinking up the valley’s water. At Jifliq, the West Bank’s food basket, we make for a larger encampment demolished on December 24th last year and rebuilt by its inhabitants. Located across the road from the lush, walled garden of an Israeli settlement and just behind an Israeli greenhouse complex, the sun-bleached encampment is on privately owned Palestinian land confiscated five years ago but returned by order of Israel’s high court. The contrast between the two communities is striking.

While mature trees shade the prosperous settler compound, straw has been laid on the sheet metal roofs of Palestinian animal pens to deflect the rays of the sun. “Two hundred people, 20 families, and 3,500 goats and sheep live here,” says grey-bearded Adnan Dais.

“We are all from Jifliq, from the same clan. The Israelis came without warning and bulldozed the pens over the heads of the sheep and goats, 30 died . . . We get our water from tankers. We have a well but the Israelis blocked it up.”

He gestures toward a huge pile of twisted pipes, logs, plastic, and palm trunks.

The Jordan Valley: How it is divided

ISRAEL CONTROLS 88.3 per cent of the Jordan Valley. The Palestinian Authority administers and provides security for 7.4 per cent.

The authority administers another 4.3 per cent but Israel is responsible for security there.

The land is allocated as follows: 32 per cent is classified by Israel as closed military areas and free-fire zones; 18 per cent has been mined by Israel; 20 per cent has been allocated to Israeli nature reserves; 3.5 per cent is occupied by Israeli settlements; 10.5 per cent has been allocated to settlements in Israel’s master plan for the area; 1 per cent is occupied by 26 Palestinian localities with a population of 50,000.

Areas under Israeli control are inaccessible to Palestinians.

There is also a wide Israeli buffer zone along the Jordan river border with Jordan.

There are 18 Israeli checkpoints and gates.
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