The Jordan Valley is part of the occupied West Bank and lies along the border between Palestine and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It is at the centre of a silent Palestinian-Israel battle over fertile land, wells and underground water cisterns. The latter are crucial for Israel’s fruit and vegetable production and export.
It is obvious to anyone visiting the area that Israel is occupying almost every inch of the land, which accounts for about 25 per cent of the West Bank. However, the “Battle of the Jordan Valley” is not limited to land, but also to the economic conflict, which the Palestinians are still losing by all accounts. The reasons are simple: Israel’s Judaisation policies, neglect by official Palestinian institutions and the fear that Palestinian agricultural companies and investors will risk their profits if they sink their full investment potential into the area.
Illegal Israeli settlers are provided with many incentives by the Israeli government, including agricultural facilities, tax exemptions up to 50 per cent of the total cost of farms, crop insurance protection and export opportunities. Their goods are also promoted through local and international agricultural fairs backed by the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture.
In stark contrast, Palestinian farmers, especially those with limited investment potential, live in constant fear of assaults by Israeli settlers and the army. They receive no compensation for loss of crops due to adverse weather conditions or vandalism since the Palestinian Authority does not provide any insurance cover.
Indeed, the PA continues to avoid the issues of tax exemptions and material incentives for farmers, who have started to move away from farming towards other businesses as a result of the lack of support. Statistics provided by the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture confirm that the agricultural proportion of the Palestinian GDP fell from 23 per cent in 1994 to only 4 per cent by the end of 2012.
To make matters worse, Palestinian residents of the Jordan Valley, as well as their homes, tents, cattle and crops, face daily risks from 10,000 illegal settlers who live in various agricultural settlement-colonies established and expanding on Palestinian land. Even Palestinian water sources are not safe. According to Khaldoun Al-Dari, a resident of the village of Al-Fasail, Israel sees the Jordan Valley as one big ground and underground water supply with which to irrigate the fields. Expropriation of the water sources underpins Israel’s export of thousands of tons worth of fruit and vegetables.
Al-Dari points out that Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Valley area includes the destruction of homes by the settlers; his home has been destroyed three times by settlers who also killed 15 of his sheep and confiscated his land planted with vegetables for household consumption. He also said that he is followed constantly, “wherever I go”.
A few metres away from Al-Dari’s house, young Hassan Ramadan has re-pitched his tent, for the fourth time, on what is left of his land after the Israeli occupation authorities confiscated most of it for one of the farms seized by a settler in 2008. “This settler seized dozens of acres belonging to Palestinians,” said Ramadan. “They took over my land and filled my well with dirt; I used to irrigate my crops and provide my family with drinking water from it.” Ramadan described how he lives with the sound of water flowing underneath his land in pipes he cannot access; he has to buy water and transfer it in a tank.
A few hundred metres from the Palestinian tents and tin huts lie vast settlement farms guarded by Israeli military checkpoints and soldiers who criss-cross the land constantly. These agricultural settlements have turned into an important economic base for the Israeli occupation; they are no longer confined to producing fruit and vegetables, but are large farms for animal breeding, poultry, dairy and cheese products and the packaging necessary for agricultural goods to be exported.
According to Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture, there are now around 250 agricultural and livestock production factories in the Jordan Valley settlements. Together, their turnover is worth half a billion US dollars.
In some areas of the Jordan Valley, some agricultural companies maintain, albeit on a limited basis, a Palestinian presence. They produce goods such as greenhouses and packaging for export purposes.
According to the Chairman and Director General of Sinokrot Global Group, Mazen Sinokrot, whose investment in the Jordan Valley is valued at around $25 million, despite the existence of generally humble Palestinian agricultural units in the area there are serious attempts to exploit the land for national, political and economic purposes.
Sinokrot, though, is critical of the Palestinian Authority’s economic policies, which he described as unclear. “In practice, the PA does not have a strong presence in the Jordan Valley; international donors, including the Americans and the European Union, have more power in the Jordan Valley than the PA.”
He stressed that investment in the Jordan Valley is profitable. “Despite the obstacles imposed by the Israeli occupation in terms of the availability of land and water, and logistic hindrances relating to exports,” he added, “our agricultural investment in the Jordan Valley alone has brought in about $8 million.”