Palestinian families used to come to Al-Oja spring, in the Jordan Valley, to spend summer days bathing. The spring overflowed with water, turning the land into the "bread basket" of the West Bank. Today the spring has gone. Left behind is dry, arid land and a stone's throw away from where the spring once was is a large pump, cordoned off behind a fence. This pump takes the water that once was Al-Oja spring to the many illegal Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley.
Ariel Sharon once said, "You don't simply bundle people onto trucks and drive them away… I prefer to advocate a more positive policy, to create, in effect, a condition that in a positive way will induce people to leave."
The Jordan Valley, which runs the length of the West Bank and makes up one-fifth of its total area, has an abundance of fertile terrain and water resources. Once home to around 320,000 Palestinians the reality behind Sharon's statement has meant that less than a quarter of these people are still there.
Through a myriad of common practices, including dispossession, land confiscation, resource control and movement restrictions, Israel has ensured that the remaining Palestinians are being forced from their land. Jeff Halper, from the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, has said, "The EU calls it forced expulsion of Palestinians from the Jordan Valley; for sure, you could even define it as ethnic cleansing."
"What you have in the Jordan Valley is massive colonial expropriation of resources, 46 years worth of colonial practices," said a spokesman from Ma'an Development Centre.
While Israel and Palestine talks are underway, in the hope that within nine months a peace deal will be reached to bring an end to the decades of occupation, what will be the fate of the second most prized territory after Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley?
As Abbas opened a mosque in Jericho last week he reiterated that there would be no Palestinian state without Jericho and the Jordan Valley. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed in his May 2011 address to the US Congress, "Israel will never cede the Jordan Valley. Israel would never agree to withdraw from the Jordan Valley under any peace agreement signed with the Palestinians. And it's vital – absolutely vital – that Israel maintains a long-term military presence along the Jordan River."
During a tour of the area, Netanyahu told the IDF soldiers escorting him, "Israel's line of defence begins here… If rockets and missiles break out here, they will reach Tel Aviv, Haifa and all over the state." This comment echoed the thoughts of his predecessors. Former Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin once declared, "The security border to protect the State of Israel will be set in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of this term."
Rabin's comments stemmed from the 1967 Allon Plan, named after the Israeli politician who formulated it. The plan basically outlined Israel's desire to control the entire valley. It advocated the annexation to Israel of a strip of land up to 15 kilometres wide to act as a buffer zone between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries. It envisaged settlements as "permanent advance-position lookouts that would avoid having to call up military forces and could not only alert the military to a sudden attack by the enemy, but also attempt to halt, or at least delay, the enemy's advance until military forces could control the situation."
While the Allon Plan was never implemented officially by Israel, in 1968 the first settlement was erected in the Jordan Valley. Within a decade 19 settlements grew there, all illegal under international law, and in the northern Dead Sea area. In the 5 years after that, another 11 went up; today there are 38 settlements in the region.
The Oslo Accords further entrenched Israel's control over the valley. It carved up the terrain of the West Bank and, in the process, the slice which is the Jordan Valley fell into Area C. This means that around 90 per cent of the Jordan Valley is under complete Israeli military and administrative control, the access of which to Palestinians is prohibited or controlled strictly by Israel. While they were busy with Oslo, Israel implemented a settlement freeze which excluded the Jordan Valley.
Asked about the importance of the Jordan Valley to a Palestinian state, Halper said, "In terms of the economics, in terms of the border as a bridge to the Arab world and finally in terms of territory, the Jordan Valley is crucial. It is the core of a sovereignty and validity. The Palestinians do not just need a state; they need a state that is sovereign."
He added that the Jordan Valley will never go to a Palestinian state. "From 1967 until today, Israel has always seen it as crucial [to itself], both in the security sense and economically."
Even if the territory of the Jordan Valley was to go to a state of Palestine, Israel would use the gross power imbalance to continue to extort its resources. With the Jordan Valley now home to 9,600 settlers and the income from the exports grown on the settlement farms totaling around $128 million a year, it seems unlikely that Israel will ever relinquish its tight grip on the territory.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.