• The Star Staff

Palestinians in Jordan Valley fear annexation would choke off their villages

By Adam Rasgon

Hamdan Saeed rises at 5:30 each morning to sell hot coffee to Palestinian and Israeli motor-

ists along Route 90, the main highway through the Jordan Valley, a resource-rich borderland in the occupied West Bank.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Ne- tanyahu’s push to annex the area has him worried that he could lose his livelihood if his tiny farming village is blocked off from the road.

“We have no idea what annexation would mean for us, because nobody is telling us anything,” Saeed, 49, a father of three who makes around $20 a day, said at his makeshift coffee stand on a recent blazing hot morning. “Who knows if I’ll be able to come here?”

Palestinians in the Jordan Valley have been left in the dark about how an- nexation would affect them. Many worry that it could block them from their farmlands, prevent them from getting to their jobs in Israeli settlements, and choke off their villages behind walls, fences and checkpoints.

Netanyahu has vowed to begin the process of annexing parts of the West Bank as soon as July 1, encouraged by the Trump administration’s proposal for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The unilateral annexation of oc- cupied territory has been widely con- demned by other countries as illegal.

While Netanyahu has not released his plan, he has promised to include the Jordan Valley, a 620-square-mile farming region that would give Israel a permanent eastern border abutting Jordan. Netanya- hu considers the valley a nonnegotiable requirement for Israel’s security.

He has suggested that he would carve out Palestinian villages, which would “remain as Palestinian enclaves.” Israel would not “apply sovereignty over them,” he said in an interview with an Israeli newspaper last month, but would retain “security control.”

Presumably the enclaves and their residents would be connected somehow to a larger Palestinian entity in the West Bank, but Netanyahu has not explained how such a system would work, and his office declined to comment.

But Netanyahu’s pledge has fueled concerns among Palestinian residents that they would be confined to isolated islands.

“What he’s saying is we should be put in small birdcages,” said Hazem Abu Jish, 53, a convenience store owner in Fu- rush Beit Dajan, a village in the northern Jordan Valley. “How can we live like that? What if I need to go to the hospital in Jeri- cho for an emergency? Will I no longer be able to drive there in a half-hour?”

Jihad Abu al-Asal, the Palestin- ian Authority’s governor of Jericho and the Jordan Valley, said that Netanyahu seemed to be willing to jeopardize Pal- estinian communities to advance annexa- tion.

“He thinks we are like pawns,” al- Asal said in an interview. “He thinks he can do whatever he wants with us to achieve his goals. What he wants to do is to formally institute an apartheid system.” Netanyahu has said he would not annex the Jericho area, home to more than 40,000 Palestinians. A conceptual map in the Trump administration’s pro- posal leaves Jericho under Palestinian control, as does a map Netanyahu pro- posed when he first promised to annex the valley last fall.

The valley, which Israel has con- trolled since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, comprises approximately a quarter of the West Bank and lies hundreds of feet be- low sea level. Outside the Jericho region, it is inhabited by about 12,000 Palestin- ians and 12,500 Israeli settlers.

Israeli authorities already prohibit Palestinians from building on most of the territory and deny them access to large parts of it, over half of which has been declared a closed military zone, accord- ing to Peace Now, an anti-settlements group.

Palestinian villages in the Jordan Valley regularly face power outages and receive far smaller allocations of water than neighboring settlers, according to several Israeli nongovernmental organi- zations.

“They give more water to the fruits and vegetables than the people,” said Ibrahim Obayat, mayor of the village of Fasayil, referring to Israeli farms in the area.

Israeli officials say they are not to blame for shortages of water and electric- ity. Danny Tirza, a former Defense Ministry official who worked on zoning issues in the West Bank, said the local utility, the Jerusalem District Electricity Co., has not renovated its infrastructure and does not purchase sufficient electricity from Israel to cover Palestinian demand there. He blamed the Palestinian Authority for the water shortage, saying it has refused to work with Israel to advance projects that would benefit both Palestin- ians and settlers. The Palestinians, along- side most of the international community, consider the Israeli settlements to be il- legal.

Whoever is at fault, farmers in the valley fear that annexation will only make matters worse. Abdo Moussa, 29, a farmer from Al Jiftilik, said Israeli authorities have squeezed Palestinian communities in the area for decades by cutting off their ac- cess to land and providing inadequate services.

“It’s always been that Israel wants the land but not the people,” said Abdo Moussa, 29, a farmer from Al Jiftilik. “They’ve tried encouraging us to leave our land by refusing to grant building per- mits and barely giving us enough water and electricity. I’m not sure the situation can get much worse, but I’m afraid they’ll find a way to do so.”

Shaul Arieli, a former Israeli negotiator who specializes in maps and borders, said that he did not expect Israel to im- plement any annexation immediately but that authorities could eventually decide to erect a barrier separating the Palestin- ian enclaves from the rest of the valley.

Despite the overwhelming pessi- mism about the prospect of annexation, some Palestinians in the area did not rule out the possibility that it might benefit them.

Raed Bani Fadal, 35, a worker at an Israeli date plant in the Netiv Hagdud set- tlement, said annexation might open the door to permanent residency, the status afforded to Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. He sees that as an improve- ment over the current military occupa- tion.

“It might mean they have to pay us higher wages and allow greater freedom of movement,” he said. “If I’m right, I hope they annex right away.”

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