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“Welcome to Israel” – a trip down the Jordan Valley

by John, December 14th

Today we had a trip down the Jordan valley which didn’t start too auspiciously for our Palestinian contact – he had just been delayed for two hours at a checkpoint. A soldier on the way through a checkpoint had drawn a star of david in the dust of the car. When they returned the soldier wanted to know who had wiped it off and held them for two hours demanding to know.

We started at a farm near the Bisan checkpoint in the north where Palestinians now find it very difficult to take their produce through to the markets they once used, and therefore now have to go to markets elsewhere. However with problems at checkpoints this is often problematic and adds huge costs to their journey making their products less competitive as Israeli trucks are allowed to use settler-only roads and bypass the checkpoints.

Despite the fact that this is the Jordan valley the Israelis do have farms out here, which occupy almost all the agricultural land, and many Palestinians are angry at the amount of land that they have taken off them. Israeli settler-colonists who want to move here are given 70 dunnums of land, a house and long term loan of 70,000 USD.

Companies providing electricity, telephone and water services are obliged to give them discounts of up to 75% . This obviously makes their lives much easier out here despite the fact that this is well into the West Bank. Many soldiers seem to ignore this little fact – when checking our passports one soldier said “Welcome to Israel – I hope you enjoy it here”.

However it is not the case that although these settlers pay 75% less than the Palestinians, in fact the Palestinians pay nothing for these utilities. Why? Because they are not available to them – we passed a large number of houses often next to huge water tanks and electricity wires that they are not allowed to connect up to. Many Palestinians only build plastic houses or corrugated metal houses as otherwise the Israelis knock them down.

In fact even these can be knocked down. Last year 22 houses were demolished in one day while around half the land in the Jordan valley is no longer available to Palestinians – it is close to Israeli colonies, environmental reserves and military training areas. Now, as an environmentalist I would normally applaud the opening of environmental reserves but actually these people live very sustainable lives and there is no reason why these areas should be, in particular, protected. This has led to the population to drop from 300,000 pre -1967 to 52,000 last year, including the Jericho urban area.

Planning permission for new houses for Palestinians is impossible to get, a new school built in Al Jiftlik village is threatened with demolition, attempts to generate power are stopped.

Bardala has been waiting years for permission for a water tank but the nearby Israeli colony, built without planning permission, has services described in the paragraph above. A clinic in a tent has also been deemed illegal in the past and knocked down – despite electricity lines going right by it and some more ‘permament’ buildings they are not electrified.

But it isn’t in just these respects that the Israelis control the local area, they even try and control the sun, one Palestinian joked. A community project with NGO support enabled a few households to purchase solar panels to generate electricity. One man was arrested and put in prison for three days for ‘stealing’ this off the Israelis, despite the fact he had documentation to demonstrate how he had come to acquire it. He was fined 300 NIS and put in prison for three days without even being able to call relatives to help out while he was away. Israeli colonists then came and looked around the house while he was still in prison.

When visiting another farmer we saw the electrified fence, where the English reads, danger electric fence, but the Arabic says warning: potential death. The farmer’s daughter touched it and received a shock.

The land that is fenced off was once his but was taken in around 1970. The Israelis steal this by saying that land not used in three years can be taken and redistributed, the fact that many of these people were unable to return home or were prevented from accessing their land is not important. He finds it difficult to get water all year around as the Israeli settlers get the water from the Valley, in fact he has to drink bottled water.

Again the message I got was all these people want is their rights to be respected his family had lived in this area since 1920. The farmer accepted that the Jewish must live here (in Israel) but they did not have the right to take his land. He can’t see an end to this situation as both peaceful and non-peaceful means have both failed. The more time I spend here the less likely I think there is going to be peace anytime soon. Certainly if any peace deal does not remove the Israelis from most of this land and if the wall is at least not rerouted out of the West Bank then it certainly won’t be possible.

At checkpoints where we were stopped we often just handed our passports to them and they handed them back a few minutes later without checking them. Often however Palestinians are forced to wait much longer than we are.