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How Israel's Annexation Plan Would Make Life Even Harder for Palestinians

Israel seems to have temporarily halted the annexation of the Jordan Valley, but life on the ground remains a challenge.
30 July 2020, 5:00am

In January of 2020, US President Trump published his much-anticipated Middle East plan, laying out his vision for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Dubbed the “deal of the century”, Trump’s plan was conveniently dropped during his impeachment proceeding. It received support from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised to enact one of its most controversial provisions, the annexation of the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank.

To rally support in a tough reelection campaign, Netanyahu initially tried to make it happen as soon as the plan was out, but decided to wait until after his reelection under pressure from the White House. In March, his newly-formed government scheduled the annexation for the 1st of July – but once again, it didn’t happen. Here’s why.

Trump’s Middle East Plan, Explained.

Trump’s Middle East plan calls for the establishment of a conditional Palestinian state alongside Israel, redrawing the borders between the two. Firstly, Israel would get Jerusalem as its entire and undivided capital, while Palestine would need to create a new capital in the far eastern suburbs of the city. This represents a historic break in US diplomacy, since previous administrations tried to respect the religious and cultural importance of Jerusalem to both Israelis and Palestinians. Currently, Jerusalem is divided into the Jewish West and Muslim East, but the eastern part was de-facto annexed by Israel in 1980.

Secondly, the plan assigns Israel the control of vast areas of the West Bank, including in the Jordan Valley, where many Israeli settlements have been built. Both the annexation of East Jerusalem and the settlements are considered illegal under international law.

In exchange, Palestinians would get land in the Negev desert, currently on Israeli territory. This new land is isolated from the rest of the West Bank, and the two would be connected by a long underground tunnel. Palestinian statehood would also be limited and conditional to meeting a series of demands. The future government would be demilitarised and have no control over its borders, airspace, foreign policy and security. The Trump administration also promised it would “facilitate more than $50 billion in new investment [into Palestinian territory] over ten years”, but did not go into more detail.

The plan was immediately rejected by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and by other international organisations, including the EU. Besides having to give up on key demands, Palestinian officials protested that they were barely consulted.

Meanwhile, Trump praised his plan as a “realistic two-state solution” and a “historic opportunity” for Palestine to achieve self-governance. “They’re [Palestinians] going to screw up another opportunity, like they’ve screwed up every other opportunity that they’ve ever had in their existence,” said Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, who headed the negotiations.

Although Netanyahu made annexation one of his main campaign promises, as the date drew closer to the 1st of July and international pressure mounted, his coalition partner backed off. Currently, there is no set date. Analysts think Netanyahu is trying to speed up the process in the event that Trump might not be reelected.

What Is the Jordan Valley and Why Does Israel Want to Annex it?

Israel was founded in 1948 after a war with Arab militias made up of residents of Palestine and neighbouring states. The conflict, also known as Nakba (or catastrophe in Arabic), displaced about 700,000 civilians, who sought refuge in camps in the country and abroad. Israel won the war and was recognised by the UN within specific borders, but it occupied more land after another war with its Arab neighbours in 1967.

Before Trump’s Deal of the Century, Israel and Palestine agreed on a series of treaties, The Oslo Accords, between 1993 and 1995. These were not exactly a peace treaty – their aim was to establish an interim Palestinian government in the lead-up to final negotiations. The Accords transferred control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to a newly-created Palestinian Authority (PA). Later, they divided the West Bank into three administrative areas – Area A, under exclusive PA administration, Area B, under joint Israeli-Palestinian administration, and Area C, under temporary Israeli administration. Area C comprises about 60 percent of the West Bank, and is where the Jordan Valley is located.

Areas A, B and C (white). Credit: Wickey-nl, as originally published.

At the time, the Oslo Accords received pushback from Palestine, as the future state was only 22 percent of the original Palestinian homeland. More importantly, the Accords did not give refugees displaced in the Nakba the “right of return” to their lands and homes, a human right protected by international law. Despite opposition, the treaties were adopted. The interim period was supposed to last five years, but the lands in areas B and C were never transferred to the PA.

Right now, most of the West Bank is under military occupation, including the Jordan Valley. “This is important,” says Suhad Bishara, director of the land and planning unit at the Palestinian legal NGO Adalah, “because it means people live under martial law, not civil.”

The Jordan Valley is very strategic. It takes its name from the river running through it and, located at the border with Jordan, contains the only crossing point between the West Bank and another country. The Allenby Bridge, just a few kilometres outside the Palestinian-administered city of Jericho, is under Israeli control. The Israeli army argues it needs it to protect the country from a potential invasion. The Palestinians argue they need an external border, since there are no airports in the West Bank or Gaza, and Israeli airports are off-limits.

The Jordan Valley makes up about 30 percent of the whole West Bank. Before its occupation in 1967, the valley was home to 300,000 Palestinians; now, that number is about 65,000, plus 11,000 Israeli settlers. Since the area is sparsely populated and rich in water resources, it is fertile ground for Israeli agricultural, residential and even touristic development.

Amit Gilut is a spokesperson for B'tselem, an Israeli NGO collecting data on human rights violations in the occupied West Bank. He explains that there’s a demographic logic to the areas Israel is interested in annexing. "We don't want the refugee camps,” he says. “We don't want to take care of the sewage and education for millions of Palestinians. What we want is the land under their feet."

The evolution of Palestinan land from 1917 to 2020. Credit: NAD-NSU.

Gilut says that although everyone is discussing it now, plans to annex the valley can be traced back to the early 1970s. But, under international law, annexation by an occupying power is illegal. “The occupying power has an obligation to provide services to the locals and act in their best interests,” says Bishara – but the reality on the ground is different.

What It’s Like to Live in the Jordan Valley.

"Living under military occupation means you don't have political rights,” Gilut explained. “You can't participate in elections or in any meaningful influence about your own space and life."

Martial law gives the occupying power the right to use force – even lethal force – without the same standard of justification provided by civil law. It also grants the army the right to come into a private space without warning. “Soldiers often come in the middle of the night, and this happens also in areas A and B, which are supposedly under Palestinian control,” Gilut explains. Plus, if you are caught violating the law, your case is processed by a military tribunal. “The rate of convictions in these courts is almost 100 percent,” Gilut continues.

Water and electricity shortages are common throughout the West Bank. According to a 2011 report conducted by B’tselem, the water allocated to the 11,000 settlers in the Jordan Valley is almost one-third of the total water resources accessible to the 2.5 to 3 million Palestinians living in the whole West Bank. It’s mostly used for year-round intensive farming. Meanwhile, Palestinians rely on private wells or pipelines transporting water from other regions. "The pockets of population in area C have no ability to develop because they are disconnected from each other and from the resources," Gilut explains.

Rashid Khudairy, 39, is a farmer from the village of Bardala in the northern Jordan Valley, and the coordinator of a grassroots organisation called the Jordan Valley Solidarity Movement (JVS). He says the Israeli national water company Mekorot dug more than 50 water wells in the region that reach 400 metres in depth. “If we dig, we can’t find water,” he says. “This system dries out our old water wells, but we are also not allowed to renovate our water systems or build new ones.”

That’s because, in the occupied territories, Israel retains the ability to grant or deny building permits. Anything built without a permit is considered illegal and can be demolished by the army at any point – and permits are almost always denied. "If you lay a pipe from your spring to your field or your community, Israel will come and cut that,” says Gilut. “If you get solar panels donated to you by a humanitarian organisation so you have a bit of electricity, the military can come and confiscate them.”

According to B’tselem, 30 homes in different parts of the West Bank were demolished in June alone, despite the pandemic. Water tanks on top of roofs have also been shot at and destroyed.

One of the main activities coordinated by JVS is re-building homes demolished by the Israeli army, using the traditional mud-brick method. Mud bricks are made of soil, straw and a bit of water. “We use them because they are easy to recycle,” Khudairy says. “If the army comes to destroy a house, we can use the same material to build it back up.”

The organisation, composed exclusively of volunteers, has built homes, schools and health clinics in communities without access to education or healthcare services. “We own the land, but we're not allowed to build a house or a hospital or a school,” Khudairy says. “When we do, Israeli soldiers come with a bulldozer and destroy it. So we build it again and again and again. This is our main fight.”

Another major problem facing people living in the West Bank – as well as the Jordan Valley – is a heavy restriction on movement. In the 1990s, Israel introduced a permit system, only allowing Palestinians to cross into Israeli-administered territory with prior approval. "You don’t know if you'll be able to get to the doctor, or to see your family or to get merchandise to your store," Khudairy says. Many roads are only accessible by Israeli cars, and laden with checkpoints. If you want to go abroad, you can’t use Israeli airports. Obtaining a visa with a Palestinian passport is hard enough, but on top of that you also need to get a permit to cross into Jordan via the Allenby Bridge and catch a flight from there.

Residents of the Jordan Valley also face restrictions linked to military exercises. Some parts of the valley are delimited as firing zones and cannot be accessed by Palestinians. Plus, the Israeli army often issues warrants evicting people in specific areas from their homes for a few hours so they can conduct military training.

“They bring tanks and thousands of soldiers to our villages, and they start shooting between our houses,”  Khudairy says. When they come back, people often find their homes and crops damaged. Soldiers also leave behind mines and ammunitions that injure or kill three to six civilians every year. According to Amit Gilut, “These trainings exist to destabilise the relationship between the people and their land.”

Ultimately, Israel’s goal is putting pressure on local communities “so that they give up and leave as if by their own choice”, Gilut continues. B’tselem argues that Israel creating an environment so hostile that people feel forced to move falls under forcible transfer, a crime against humanity under international law. "You don't have to load people up on trucks and dump them somewhere,” Gilut says. “That wouldn’t be great PR for Israel.”

What Happens If Annexation Goes Through?

According to Bishara, the first thing that would change after annexation, from a legal standpoint, is that, from Israel’s perspective, the framework would shift from international to national law. “As we’ve seen in East Jerusalem after the annexation,” she says, “massive amounts of land were confiscated permanently and with no limitations for alleged public purposes.”

In an interview with the Israel Hayron Daily, Netanyahu stated Palestinian residents would not be granted citizenship, but live in enclaves remotely administered by the PA. “It will be much easier to displace people,” Bishara continues. “It will give Israel more tools to restrict Palestinian use of land and to strengthen and build new settlements.”

Rashid Khudairy is concerned people will not only lose their homes, but also their way of making a living. Many farming families displaced in the 1948 conflict have been living in refugee camps for generations, or have had to reinvent their lives in big cities, starting from a much lower economic position. "This is why we say ‘to exist is to resist’,” he says. “Because the Israeli government doesn't want us on the land."

Amit Gilut from B’tselem doens’t want to speculate on the future. “Annexation has become a hot topic,” he says, “but it deflects from reality itself, which should be the hot topic.”

As an Israeli organisation, B’tselem calls on the international community to stop the human rights violations happening in the occupied territories. “What we fear is the continuation of the current reality,” Gilut says. “What we fear is that annexation is the latest ‘red line’ drawn by the international community, and if Israel does not cross it, it will be business as usual.”